I try very hard to do my part, environmentally speaking. When going green, some steps are more important and have bigger impact than others. I say this in just about every book (The Complete Organic Pregnancy, The Conscious Kitchen) and article I write. That said, some green changes are more practical than others. Changing how we all launder our clothes can have a monumental impact. Cold water washing with a “green” detergent and line drying your clothing is the ideal.
For years now, I’ve had the green detergent part down. I do this to avoid non-renewable petrochemicals as well as skin and lung irritating not to mention hormone disrupting synthetic fragrances. Its residue is also far better for our waterways. And I (mainly – more on this in a minute) wash in cold water. The amount of energy it takes to heat water is unfathomable. And it mostly comes from coal-fired power plants, which I like to rely on as little as possible. Warm or hot water washing will also up your electricity bill. Trust me – and many studies – when I say that clothes get perfectly clean in cold water so I’m happy to avoid the coal (for me and my neighbors) and the bills.
When it comes to line drying, I have much room for improvement. In any green life, there are steps that have not been sufficiently taken. It’s on the top of my To Green list. To be perfectly honest, it has been there for a while, not budging. I happen to live in New York City. Some things here are beyond easy. Rely entirely on public transportation? No problem! Eat locally and shop exclusively at farmers’ markets and/or join a CSA? Check! Others eco-steps take a little more finagling, like composting in an apartment. That also sat on my To Green list for too long. But we tackled it and are now a composting-obsessed family. The line-drying (or non-dryer drying) challenge lingers. I’m not sure why. I know all too well why it’s a great idea to line dry. I like that – beyond energy conservation – it preserves your clothing. What do you think lint is? That’s your favorite outfit disintegrating. Durability is a key tenet of living green: I want my clothes to last as long as possible.
Thankfully an unexpected intervention arrived not too long ago via email. Seventh Generation invited me to take part in a line-drying challenge/experiment. I jumped at the chance. Full disclosure: I’m writing a book with their co-founder now, Planet Home: Conscious Choices for Cleaning and Greening the World You Care About Most. It comes out in December of this year. And it even contains a laundry chapter where we detail the pros of line drying.
They sent me detergent, a laundry basket, and a drying stand to make it all possible, plus a Flip camera to document the experiment. In return, I pledged to cold water wash in their detergent and line-dry for a month, and capture the process via words, photos, and film.
Before I even launch into the unexpected tragicomedy that ensued, a few words on my own personal laundry situation:
- As mentioned, I live in New York City, in an apartment building.
- My apartment is small.
- I do not have a washer or a dryer, but my building maintains two of each on every floor. We share these with many apartments.
- Yes, I am well aware that although I carefully measure out my eco-detergent for every load, my clothing is therefore tumbling around with the residues of the conventional products (including bleach) my neighbors unfortunately favor. I have even put loads of baby clothes up shortly after the rags that mop the hallways completed their spin. This is far from ideal. It makes me cringe.
- There is one front loader washer (these are more efficient), which I am glad for. The other is a top loader.
- On the washers, I can choose the temperature and I always choose cold. Except for when I do sheets. I use warm to kill dust mites. These trigger allergies and asthma. Thankfully my daughter has neither. But I do have allergies. And air pollution induced allergies are a common concern here in New York, especially with young and growing lungs. But I’m this close to switching this every-other-week load to cold.
- The dryers are industrial. I can only buy an hour at a time. This is a problem. I wish I could buy 10 minutes or so (enough to de-wrinkle things before I hang them to dry in my not-well-ventilated apartment). When you let your clothing go for a full hour – which tends to happen; life is busy – they’re desiccated dry. Beyond the energy this uses, it’s really harsh on clothing.
- Traditionally, I’m a semi-line-dryer. I grew up drying clothes briefly, then pulling them out of the dryer to finish drying on hangers or towel racks. This was not an environmental nod; my mom has always been interested in fashion and taught me that this was best for the fabrics. Sheets and towels, however, I always dried.
- Let me reiterate that my place is cramped and not very well ventilated. It takes a while for towels to dry post shower. We have no access to outdoor space. And though I do know that the EPA estimates indoor air is actually 2 to 5 times more polluted than outdoor air – even urban outdoor air — I cannot help but think that I’m not sure I want to dry my pillowcases outside in New York City, then breathe in car exhaust residue nightly. But this is unscientific paranoia.
- I do a fair amount of laundry at my parents’ house on weekends. I’m probably too old to do this, and a sucker to admit it in print, but I take my laundry with me when I go see my family. Don’t get me wrong. No one is doing my clothes for me. And I usually do theirs (I’m known family-wide for my excellent folding). But as long as I have someone playing with the kid, I like to multitask.
All of this said, we don’t do much laundry. Despite the fact that I have a child. I have been told – over the course of this experiment – that most Americans do many loads per week, sometimes daily. Our average is two loads a week. Our washers are pretty big. I stuff them fuller than full. In the winter, when our clothes are more voluminous (long sleeve shirts and pants take up more room than tank tops, t-shirts, shorts and dresses) we sometimes have three. When my daughter was an infant, and when she started solids, we probably did more.
Stay tuned for how my experiment all went down – both in my city apartment, and upstate on my parents’ lawn (during a monsoon). Who knew I could ever write this much on clean clothes?