Environmental impacts of laundry
The environmental impact of one load of laundry can be more than you think. It’s intuitive that laundry uses water and electricity. The average washing machine at home consumes about 41 gallons of water per load. The washing machine and the dryer together contributes to around 10% of a household’s total electricity use. But there are more about the detergent we use, and even our clothes themselves that could harm the environment.
For example, researchers from University of Washington have found that scented laundry detergent and dryer sheets can release over 25 kinds of hazardous air pollutants, more specifically volatile organic compounds (VOCs), through the air vented from dryers. This is particularly concerning because emissions from dryer vents are not regulated, unlike other common air pollution sources. Moreover, if the dryers don’t vent outside, this can be a source of indoor air pollution in households.
Laundry also releases microplastics, a pollutant present in almost every part of the world’s oceans, as well as the bodies of many ocean lifes like fish and sea turtles. There are approximately 24.4 trillion pieces of microplastics in the world’s ocean today, their weight equivalent to 30 billion 500-ml plastic water bottles. Textiles are a surprisingly major source of microplastics, accounting for 35% of microplastics in the ocean. With every load of laundry, tiny pieces from the synthetic fibers that make up our clothes are peeled off and enter the waterways. They are too small for our current drainage systems to capture.
Similarly, although the PVA plastic films around detergent pods are soluble in water, they are still plastics. PVA is claimed to be a “biodegradable” plastic, but unfortunately it is only able to biodegrade at certain conditions, which are yet to be met by the wastewater treatment plants in the US.
What can we do?
To reduce hazardous chemicals and microplastics produced by laundry, we could avoid using scented laundry products and detergent pods. Using laundry bags could help reduce the microfiber from our clothes entering the waters.
Of course, we can always make our laundry more efficient to save water and energy:
- Use less hot water, as heating water is the most energy-intensive part of the laundry process.
- Using low-suds detergents can reduce water use from extra rinsing.
- Pre-treat stains so that you don’t have to rewash your clothes.
- Drying can account for up to 75% of the energy use of a laundry cycle. If at all possible, air-drying on clotheslines or drying racks could save tons of energy.
- Finally, running full loads and just doing less laundry are always the simplest ways to reduce the environmental impacts of laundry!