A new study shows that our laundry habits might be doing even more harm to the environment than we realized. Researchers at Plymouth University say more than 700,000 microscopic fibers are released into the water every time we do a load of laundry, and many of those particles end up in our environment, where they threaten ecosystems and harm wildlife.
“The quantity of microplastic in the environment is expected to increase over the next few decades, and there are concerns about the potential for it to have harmful effects if ingested," the study authors wrote.
This is a tough problem to solve, because most of us likely won't stop washing our clothes. But there are things we can do to make our laundry routines more eco-friendly.
You can save money, reduce your energy consumption, cut your family's exposure to chemicals and prevent water pollution without spending all day hand-washing your laundry or purchasing an expensive new washing machine. Just a few simple changes in your laundry routine can make a big difference, and you already have many of the best natural laundry products in your pantry. Here are 10 suggestions, from choosing safer soaps to making your dryer more efficient.
1. Use safer detergent
While wildlife-harming phosphates have been banned from laundry detergents in the United States since the 1970s, there are other ingredients that you should avoid. Skip artificial fragrances, which can be among the most toxic components of any home or personal care product. Surfactants like nonylphenol ethoxylate are known to be hormone disrupters, and can end up in our waterways. Brands like Seventh Generation, Ecover, Method, Planet and Biokleen offer laundry detergents that eliminate polluting ingredients and are often biodegradable.
2. Go all-natural with soap nuts
Who knew that getting clean laundry was as simple as tossing a little baggie full of nuts into your washing machine? Soap nuts are among the simplest and most natural options for laundry detergent. They're actually the berries of the Sapindus mukorossi tree of northern India and Nepal. The shell of the fruit contains lots of natural saponins (soap). The cultivation of these trees is an environmental and economic boon to the areas in which they're grown, helping to prevent erosion in the Himalayan foothills.
3. Save up your laundry for full loads
Resist the urge to do several small loads over the course of a week, and wait until you have a full washer's worth of laundry. Even the most high-tech energy-efficient washing machines use 27 gallons water, and older models can consume up to 54 gallons per load, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
4. Wash with cold water
You can get away with using the cold setting on laundry even when it's really dirty. Just pre-soak soiled laundry in cold water for an hour or so, adding a few tablespoons of baking soda to loosen dirt and grime.
5. Sort your laundry
In order to get the most from your washing machine, be sure to thoroughly sort your laundry. Wash towels alone, and separate heavyweight and lightweight items. Loads of similar-weight laundry will dry faster and more evenly.
6. Wash some items less often
Not every item you wear needs to go into the wash after just one day — or worse, just a few hours of use. Outerwear and jeans often can go more than a week between washings without getting noticeably soiled. To quickly freshen clothes in between washings, either spray them with a 50/50 mixture of water and vodka (the vodka smell dissipates quickly, and the alcohol eliminates odors), or simply hang them out in the sun and fresh air for an hour or two.
7. Lighten linens without bleach
The key to brightened laundry without using toxic, headache-inducing bleach is lemon, peroxide, vinegar and the power of the sun. Soak whites in water with one-quarter cup of any of these three ingredients (don't mix them). Then, hang your clothes out to dry in direct sunlight.
8. Remove stains with salt, vinegar and baking soda
A few basic items that you already have in your pantry can remove even tough stains like berries, grass and blood. Saturate stains caused by tomatoes, sugary products, coffee, wine, mustard, grease and even those yellow underarm stains with white vinegar and allow them to sit for at least 10 minutes before washing. For fresh stains, sprinkle on salt or baking soda to absorb as much of the stain as possible before applying the vinegar. A paste made of vinegar and baking soda brushed into fabric with an old toothbrush is another powerful, eco-friendly stain-fighting tool.
9. Cut down on dryer time
You can increase your dryer's efficiency simply by emptying the lint trap before each load. If your dryer has a moisture sensor, use it to be sure clothes don't over-dry. You also can save a lot of energy by sending each load of laundry through an extra spin cycle to squeeze out extra moisture before tossing them in the dryer. And if you would like to line-dry but need your laundry to be done faster, use the dryer just for 10 or 15 minutes before hanging your items.
10. Get soft, line-dried laundry
While many garments come off the clothesline smelling fresh and feeling extra-soft, some — like bath towels — end up stiff and crunchy. If you avoid line-drying your laundry because the dryer makes everything feel softer on your skin, there's an easy trick that will eliminate this problem. Cut down your detergent use, as detergent can build up into a dulling residue over time, and add a cup of white vinegar to the washer during the final rinse cycle.
Got other eco-friendly laundry tips? Leave us a note in the comments below.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in May 2012.