Cleaning up your laundry

Last week we examined where we get our clothes, now let’s look at how to take care of them. Chances are we can all make our dirty laundry a little easier on the planet. According to 2010 numbers in the Guardian, washing and drying a load of laundry every two days creates 440 kg of CO2 emissions each year, which they compare to “flying from London to Glasgow and back with 15-mile taxi rides to and from the airports.” Laundry won’t be the biggest stain on our daily green efforts, but it’s a place where a few easy changes can make a difference.

Wash less often

Doing the eco thing isn’t always more work! I’m not saying you need to embrace a full-on “Black Socks” philosophy, but often clothes need less washing than we think. I wear all my clothes except underwear and the sweatiest gym clothes multiple times between washings. Spot treat a stain or the armpit area, and get that dress back on duty. It’ll last longer, you’ll save money, and you’ll have more time to do things that aren’t laundry.

Get at those stains

I swear my grandmother had a sixth sense when a stain was going down. Just as liquid splashed, she’d appear holding a can of club soda. Truly, if I ever try a seance to reach her, I’ll start by pouring one out . . . onto the rug. But she was on to something. I won’t outline all the stain removal tricks out there, but a little googling can save a shirt, often using materials at hand. I’ve even saved clothes from the dreaded oil stains. With any stain, channel Trudy Knoch and act fast. Soaking in cold water usually helps. After initial treatment, I rub on some of this Buncha Farmers stain stick, which is cheap, plastic-free, and lasts forever. (You can even get it all over, including eco boutiques, Home Hardware and, I believe, Bulk Barn.)

When you do wash . . .

If you’re using an eco detergent, great work! Many regular detergents are actually petroleum based (oil — the secret sauce of modern life) and mean pouring chemicals that have been linked to cancer (trisodium nitrilotriactetate) and asthma (monoethanolamine) down the drain. (If you really want to get into the nitty gritty of the potential health and environmental impacts, look up your green detergent of choice in the Environmental Working Group’s database, but honestly, it’s a lot to take in.) If you want to improve the carbon footprint of your green detergent, consider:

  • refilling from bulk if your have a zero waste store nearby

  • TruEarth Laundry Strips, which are not only plastic-free, but have a smaller shipping footprint. (My friend R says they work, even using only half a strip.)

  • soap nuts, which are available in bulk and can be composted when they’re spent, but don’t work that well in a cold water wash. You can make a liquid detergent out of them in advance and use that, though.

  • the DIY option. Some people combine 1/2 cup washing soda, 1/2 cup borax, and 1 cup of grated soap or castille soap, then use 1 to 2 tablespoons per load. (Borax, beloved greenie cleaner, may not be as green as we think is, though. Up to you.) Throw 1/2 cup vinegar in your rinse cycle for bonus fabric softening.

  • the foraged option. English Ivy leaves can apparently work as detergent. I haven’t tried it, proving I’m not as hippy dippy as everyone thinks I am.

Lower your footprint by washing full loads, choosing the shortest cycle, and using cold water, since 90% of the energy in washing goes to heating the water. It’s also worth an extra long spin cycle if your clothes are dryer-bound after.

And if you absolutely need a new laundry machine, look for that Energy Star logo, and be sure to check if your government has any rebates at the moment.

. . . and dry

A dryer uses roughly as much energy as a refrigerator, dishwasher, and clothes washer combined. It’s also much harder on your clothes, meaning they’ll look shabby faster. If you are using the dryer, clean out that lint trap with each use, and you can try woollen dryer balls to fight static cling and help things dry faster. Not overdrying also reduces static. Then you can skip the dryer sheets, which go straight in the trash (no matter what the box says) and can void dryer warranties and wreck any clothes that are supposed to sweat-wicking. I haven’t bought dryer sheets in years, and life goes on.

To level up, skip the dryer altogether. When weather permits, I hang things outside on the line, which saves money and energy, plus I find it peaceful. You might also offer to share your line with your neighbours. If you don’t have an outdoor space (or it’s winter) collapsible drying racks work too, though alas things won’t look as Instagrammable.

A moment for microplastics

You’ve probably heard about microplastics, those tiny piece of plastic that now make up 31% of plastic pollution in our ocean. Microplastics are like trash glitter — once they’re out there, it’s almost impossible to get rid of them. And while there haven’t yet been any conclusive studies about the health risks of microplastics, they’re probably not health-enhancing. What we do know is that they’re everywhere — inside wildlife from plankton to eagles to whales, in the deepest reaches of Mariana’s Trench and in the air around us.

And one big factor in the release of microplastics is washing our plastic-based clothes. According to the UN Environment Programme, we’re washing half a million tonnes of micofibres into the ocean annually. Since around 60% of our clothes are now synthetic, when they’re washed they release those tiny plastic bits, which get flushed back into the water system with our rinse water. You’d basically have to be a monk not to have synthetics in your wardrobe at this point, so what to do? There are a few options:

  • the Guppy Friend (CDN$40, at MEC in Canada, at US$30 at Patagonia in the U.S.), a laundry bag sold at cost that is supposed to capture over 90% of these fibres, according to research at the University of California Santa Barbara. This is what I use to wash my sheddables (namely fleece and any kind of polyester or performance wear). I don’t find a ton of lint-like detritus inside but some, which seems fine? The bag does reduce friction, meaning fewer fibres. It’s also important to only fill the bag halfway. U.S. eco yoga wear brand Girlfriend Collective also sells one for $18 U.S.

  • the Coraball (US$38 online, available in some Canadian stores), which you place in with your laundry load. A recent study from the University of Toronto and the Ocean Conservancy found that it captured 26% of fibres. Not bad, though my colleague notes hers also collected a lot of hair.

  • the Lint LUV-R (CDN$160, including shipping), a Canadian-made filter that must be installed on the outside of your laundry machine (which, for most people, would mean an installation cost). The U of T study found this captured 87% of microplastics.

What about dry cleaning?

All over Toronto there are dry cleaners claiming to be eco-friendly, and it always sets off my greenwashing alarm: could dousing something in chemical solvents actually be sustainable? Turns out, usually not. Eighty percent of dry cleaners still use perchloroethylene (or “perc”), an environmental pollutant that’s unsafe for all those who are exposed to it, including those who live near dry cleaners. California plans to phase out perc by 2023. Dry cleaning with liquid CO2 is more eco-friendly, though Environmental Defence maintains the only green clean is through wet washing, in which computer-controlled machines wash delicate garments with a tiny amount of soap and water. Environmental Defence has a map of professional wet cleaners in Canada, but if you’re not in the GTA, you might be out of luck.


For the busiest people, TL;DR

  • Get on those stains ASAP, or the ghost of my grandmother may haunt you.

  • Wash your clothes less — no one will even notice.

  • Get thee an eco detergent and wash your clothes in cold water. Bonus points if it doesn’t come in a plastic jug.

  • The dryer’s an energy hog — using it less means significant savings.

  • To cut down on microplastic pollution when you wash, buy a filter like the Guppy Friend, Coraball, or Lint LUV-R.

  • Dry cleaning is rarely green: ask if they clean with CO2, or look for somewhere that does wet washing.


Thanks, as always, for reading and for pressuring people you know to join our green team. This newsletter grows steadily each week, and with it, so does our positive impact! (Or at least I like to think so.) I also always love hearing about your own green efforts, tips, and tricks. Until next week!