Greening Your Laundry Habits

Freshly Washed Towels with Bottles of White Distilled Vinegar

Greening your laundry habits may be easier than you think. Laziness and using fewer products are the keys to success.

Doing laundry is a habit, something you do routinely without giving much thought to it. Over the course of your lifetime, you will either do or contribute to thousands of loads of laundry. When you consider that everyone else around the country is also doing thousands of loads of laundry, you realize it all adds up.

Laundry Habits and the Environment

Each load of laundry uses water, electricity, and possibly natural gas. So does making washers, dryers, and laundry products and their containers. If you use liquid laundry products, which consist mostly of water you are paying for diesel-powered semi trucks to transport extra water and then flushing it down the drain. Recycling plastic and cardboard containers are better than tossing them in the trash, but recycling also uses energy and creates waste.

All the substances that you flush down your washing machine, toilet, sink, shower, and bathtub end up in at a sewer treatment plant, unless you have a septic tank in which case your wastewater percolates into the ground. Sewer treatment plants primarily attempt to remove solids and kill pathogens before pumping the remaining effluent into an ocean, lake, river, stream, or aquifer. Although many natural and synthetic compounds are broken down in water, not all are. The more substances wastewater treatment plants have to deal with the more energy and chemicals they use to clean the water.

Here are some easy actions you can take to green your laundry habits.

Laundry Laziness Policy

My sons introduced me to the concept of laundry laziness.

Upon arriving at their college dorm rooms, the quickly abandoned most of the laundry habits I had taught them and laundry piled up until they would run out of clean clothes. When I asked them why they did not do their laundry every week, they responded with something like, “I have better things to do or I’m lazy.”

That got me to thinking about my own laundry routine. One thing led to the next, I began questioning everything about laundry habits and wrote about it in the post Laundry – Laziness is Good.

The drought in California forced my hand. At one point, our small town’s water supply was running dangerously low so conserving water was critical. My sons’ laundry laziness strategy seemed like a good water saving measure so I began doing only full loads of laundry and only when it became absolutely necessary.

I discovered that I could actually survive without doing small loads of laundry to wash my favorite jeans.

Laundry laziness is easy to implement because all you need is a slight change in mindset. Doing fewer loads of laundry might even save you money.

Using fewer laundry products will also help you green your laundry routine.

Use Fewer Laundry Products

Depending on how many different products you currently use to wash and dry your laundry, using fewer or in some cases, different products can substantially reduce your laundry environmental footprint.

One of the unexpected results of the drought was that I was laser focused on what we were putting down our drains. That is why I ended up standing in front of my laundry cupboard one day surveying its contents and sighing.

My collection included several different laundry detergents (you know for different fabrics), bleach, color safe bleach, an oxy additive, both a stick and a spray for pre-treating stains, liquid fabric softener, and washing machine cleaner (for the high-efficiency washer).

As I stood there, I asked myself “Do I actually need all these products to get our laundry clean?”

The answer was “I doubt it.” My next thought was “Why did I buy all this stuff in the first place?” followed by “Aha, advertising got me.” I see myself as an intelligent woman capable of making informed choices, but apparently, I had been easy prey for shrewd laundry product advertisers. Thank goodness, I came to my senses before laundry scent booster found its way into my shopping cart.

I decided to try using fewer products, which would mean fewer chemicals and other substances going down our drains or being in contact with our skin 24/7.

The first challenge was using up the products I had on hand. I did not want to dump the products I no longer wanted down the drain or toss them in the trash because that would not be environmentally sound and would waste money. Since I had bought some products in bulk, and am I now using them sparingly, I probably have enough bleach and pre-treating spray on hand to last for at least a decade.

Ditching fabric softer for distilled white vinegar was a major change for me. I buy vinegar by the gallon and transfer some into a smaller bottle which makes it easier to pour into the fabric softener dispenser of my washing machine.

Vinegar effectively removes odors and acts as a softener. The towels and clothes might not be quite as soft and fluffy, but they are soft and thankfully, they do not have that cloying “fresh laundry” smell. When static cling occurs, I just shake it out. Vinegar also keeps the washing machine clean.

I wish I had changed to vinegar years ago, but oh well.

Go look at your own laundry shelf or cupboard and then decide what products you can do without and which ones you want to change to a more environmentally and people friendly version.

Consider adopting a laundry laziness policy and then enjoy having extra time to do fun things instead of laundry.

Reader Note: If your washer is over ten years old, you could be using twice the amount of water of newer more efficient washers that also use less electricity. Old electric or natural gas dryers are also less efficient than newer models. However, I am not advocating replacing appliances that are currently in good working order. When it is time to replace your washer and dryer, consider buying water and energy saving models. Look for the ENERGY STAR label.

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Drought in a Small Town – Saving Water during the Drought

I live in one of those drought-stricken California towns in danger of running out of water. Our quest to save water changed our daily habits—in a good way.

California is known for its sunny weather and mild temperatures, not its rainfall. Yet, we keep our yards green year-round and have a huge agricultural industry. Somehow living in Southern California, where I lived most of my life insulated me from thinking or worrying about water.

Three Bucks Nap in Our Yard
Three Deer Bucks Nap in Our Yard

That changed when we moved to a small town on the California Central Coast seven years ago. Now we live in a forest. Deer trails crisscross our yard and it is home to a pair of gray squirrels, numerous birds, and an entire community of voles.

Living this close to nature changed our perspective and inspired us to find ways to save water. I recounted our initial efforts in Drought in a Small Town – Saving Water before the Drought.

The current drought challenged us to save even more water.

Raising the Bar on Water Saving Efforts

Raising the bar on our water saving efforts required us to assess our daily water habits, those things we did on a regular basis without thinking.

In some cases, we adopted water saving techniques that were relatively easy and are now part of our normal routine. Others were more drastic and difficult to get used to doing.

The Birds and the Trees

Last fall, our water utility banned outdoor watering. You can imagine the public outcry from residents with water-hungry landscaping.

The water utility set up a couple of sites around town with gigantic multi-thousand-gallon tanks where residents could obtain free non-potable water (partially treated but not drinking quality). Hardware stores stocked up on portable and long-term water storage tanks and enterprising individuals with pickup trucks began offering water delivery and watering services.

We had previously made our yard drought resistant so the ban had little impact on us, but we began worrying about our Monterey pine trees. The forest is already stressed and the drought has made it worse. We don’t normally water our trees, but we decided to try to save them by periodically having a local watering service bring water and water them.

Neighbor's Cat Getting a Drink in Our Birdbath
Neighbor’s Cat Getting a Drink in Our Birdbath

Several years ago, I found a suitable birdbath for our yard, meaning it is of sufficient size, weathered and beat up looking. We hauled it up the hill and placed it in the yard where we can see it from our home office window. The birdbath is popular with many species of birds, an occasional thirsty deer, and once a neighbor’s cat.

The outdoor watering ban does not stipulate birdbaths, but even if it did, I would continue to fill the birdbath with potable water; the birds are worth a little civil disobedience.

Shower Savings

We equipped our showers with low flow showerheads but daily showers still use a lot of water, especially if hair washing is involved. I don’t like being dirty but I decided to try a few water saving bathing practices.

Instead of washing my long hair every day, I switched to every other day and then every two days. Less washing actually improved the condition of my hair. Next, I tried taking a basin bath by filling the bathroom sink with water, putting a bathmat on the floor in front of the sink, and washing with soap and a washcloth. I’d rather take a shower, but basin baths work okay too.

Bucket Brigade

We used to wash fruits and vegetables in the kitchen sink using a rectangular plastic dishpan and then pouring the rinse water down the drain. With the banning of outdoor watering, we began using the produce rinse water on our few outdoor plants.

Sage and Lion's Tail Bushes with Blue Bucket
Sage and Lion’s Tail Bushes with Blue Bucket

We also started leaving the dishpan in the sink to catch water during meal prep for watering the plants. Carrying a shallow basin filled with water is heavy and unwieldy. After a lot of sloshed water on the floor, we upgraded to a bucket with a handle and a spout.

Now our outdoor plants survive either with no extra water or water used for another purpose first.

If it’s Yellow…

Our 25-year old house is equipped with older model toilets that probably use 3 to 5 gallons of water per flush. That’s potentially a lot of water, in fact, toilet flushing can account for as much as 26% of indoor water use. 1

Several months ago, we implemented the “If it’s yellow let it mellow if it’s brown flush it down.” toilet flushing methodology. Pee doesn’t have much smell anyway, but keeping the lid down eliminates any stray odors. Currently, we’re flexible on guest toilet flushing preferences.

The next step is to replace our old water intensive toilets with dual flush or high-pressure water efficient fixtures. I’m not brave enough to try a composting toilet…yet.

Load up on Laundry

Several years ago, we replaced our old washing machine with a high-efficiency machine that uses less than half the amount of water per load as the old machine. The next challenge was to do fewer laundry loads.

One way to do less laundry is to create less. For instance, instead of tossing a pair of pants in the laundry basket because I wanted to wear a different pair the next day, I started hanging them up and wearing them again later. I began washing towels and sheets every two weeks instead of once a week.

I’m from the sort by color, type, and fabric weight school of laundry, but today’s colorfast and blended fabrics don’t require all that sorting. I decided to reduce loads by tossing in jeans, t-shirts, underwear, and towels in the same load. Sometimes, I separate them at the dryer stage. It works.

The Bottom Line

The average American uses 80 to 100 gallons of water a day. 1, 2

Currently, in our town, each resident is allotted 49 gallons of water per day so our 2-person household allocation is 98 gallons. Anyone who uses more water than their allotment faces graduating fines, the higher the overage the higher the fine.

Majestic Monterey Pine Tree in Our Yard
Majestic Monterey Pine Tree in Our Yard

In our household, we’ve managed to reduce our average water use to 50 gallons a day, but that still seems like a lot to me.

We were already a fairly water thrifty community and collectively reduced our water usage by 28% from January through May 2014. In May, water use was down 44% over last year. Overall, the community seems to be taking the water shortage seriously.

One of our sons is home from college for the summer so our water usage has gone up. The tourist season in our town is in full swing and the hottest driest months are still ahead. Clearly, we need to ramp up our water saving efforts even more.

We are truly all in this together. Share what you’re doing to save water.

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  1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – Indoor Water Use in the United States
  2. U.S. Geological Survey – How much water does the average person use at home per day?