Although not the most significant source of waste, laundry is something we do so frequently that it contributes a great deal to our total ecological footprint. Not only is there plastic waste from jugs of laundry detergent and dryer sheets, but thousands of microfibers get released into the air and oceans from clothing, plus a great deal of energy is consumed.
Lowering your laundry footprint is also a bit more complicated than other zero waste swaps since it's not just a matter of replacing your laundry sheets and your detergent. Everything you do with your laundry has an impact. Here are several things you can do to create a zero waste laundry routine.
1. Do You Need to Wash It?
Your first step should be to decide whether something needs to be washed at all. Jeans, for example, aren't meant to be washed after every use or even every other use. In general, as long as it doesn't have an odor or a stain, it doesn't need to be washed.
Jean fibers have been found up in Antarctica, and although they are made from natural fibers, it still shows how far our microfibers are traveling when so many people are washing so often.
Towels are another item that doesn't necessarily have to be washed after each use. Rehang them and change them out every week.
If you're a parent, working with your kids on their clothing can also make a significant impact. Every parent knows the familiar cycle of walking into their kid's room to get their dirty laundry and finding still-folded pairs of pants in the dirty laundry.
Teaching your kids to respect clean laundry will help you now and help the planet later when those kids become adults with their own laundry to manage.
By simply being a bit choosier about what we wash and don't wash, we can cut down how much laundry we do and save on electricity, water, and how many microfibers are shed.
2. Swap Hot Water for Cold Water Washes
Unless your laundry is really stained or specifically requires hot water, cold water is the best choice for the environment. This simple change costs nothing except the time to change your washer settings, and it can actually save you money.
When you shift to cold water, you're saving all the energy that was needed to heat your water in the first place. Your clothing will get just as clean, and your energy bill will be that much lower. It's a win-win for you and the planet.
If you're not willing to do a cold wash, even switching from hot washes to warm washes can make a big difference.
3. Get a Microfiber Filter
We've already mentioned microfibers. That's because of all the parts of washing laundry, this is the most damaging for the planet. While it's impossible to remove all the fibers escaping, you can limit how much ends up in the environment by using a microfiber filter.
There are two basic kinds out there: a ball that can be tossed into the loads with each wash and a filter that attaches to the washing machine's water pipes. In a study that looked at their effectiveness, a water pipe attachment style called the Lint Luv-r trapped 87% of microfibers, while the ball style captured 26%.
Although that might not seem like a lot, cutting your microfiber emissions by a quarter is a significant amount and can greatly reduce the overall pollution coming from your laundry.
When you clean out the filter, it's important to dispose of the microfibers in a bag so that it doesn't end up polluting the air.
No matter which one you choose, by using a lint filter, you'll be helping to cut a significant amount of plastic pollution out of wild areas.
4. Choose a Zero Waste Laundry Detergent
Your detergent is probably the first thing you thought of when it comes down to zero waste laundry routine swaps. Those big jugs of detergent are seldom recycled, and even then, we all know recycling is not a sustainable route to go.
If you have a refillery in the area, getting some zero waste laundry detergent is as simple as filling your own container with a safe and natural soap. If you don't, you may be able to make your liquid laundry detergent or use a program that can send you plastic-free detergent through the mail.
There are also zero waste laundry strips, laundry powder, pods, soap nuts, and other alternatives.
Also, reevaluate how much detergent you are using with each wash. You may not need as much as you think to get your laundry clean.
5. Swap Your Fabric Softener for Vinegar
Another frequently used product in the laundry room is fabric softener. Fabric softener helps keep towels feeling soft and avoiding that stiff, uncomfortable feeling that often comes from the washing process.
Unfortunately, fabric softener usually comes with the usual big jugs of plastic. They are also usually not natural, which means chemicals are getting into waterways and eventually out into the ocean. Luckily, there's a great zero waste fabric softener that will leave your laundry feeling wonderful without any need for added chemicals.
Vinegar is a great replacement for fabric softener and can be found in a glass bottle at your local grocery store. Cleaning strength vinegar is also available at your local refillery.
6. Swap Your Stain Removers
Preserving our clothes and keeping them nice for as long as possible is the most sustainable way to handle clothing. Still, stain removers and other helpful products often come in unsustainable plastic. Fortunately, more and more plastic-free stain sticks are becoming available.
Try this stain-removing laundry bar that can help you keep your laundry spotless without the need for single-use packaging clogging up landfills.
7. Line Dry When Possible
Line drying is the most environmentally friendly way to dry your laundry. It requires no energy, no dryer sheets, and produces no additional lint to hang dry your clothing. Unfortunately, it's also illegal in many areas.
Check your local laws to see if line drying is legal in your area, and if it isn't, consider sending a letter to your local policymakers to change that. If you can bring back line drying in your area, you'll not only save the planet from your own laundry but enable others to do so as well.
If line drying isn't possible in your area due to laws or poor weather, you can still reduce your dryer's impact. Dry your laundry on low and check it frequently to be sure that it isn't drying longer than it needs to.
A good swap for a dryer sheet is a wool dryer ball. These balls are usually made out of Morano or other sheep wool felted into a ball, and they work by pounding your laundry as it tumbles to help soften it and reduce static.
Soaking a rag in vinegar and tumbling it with your laundry can help reduce static even more, as the dryer balls can still leave some static, especially if the laundry is over-dried.
8. Aftercare for Your Laundry
Most of us think of "doing laundry" as the washing, drying, and folding part. Yet there's also quite a bit of care we take for our laundry after the clothing is done being washed and dried. If you pet a cat right before you go to an important meeting, what do you do for all the white hair shed on your dark jacket?
A lint roller is a wasteful but useful product, but if you replace it with a lint brush, you can get all the benefits with none of the waste.
Ironing spray is another frequent source of waste, but you can make your own using the following:
- ⅓ cup vodka
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- ⅔ cup water
Mix these together in a glass spray bottle, and you'll have a sustainable ironing spray that will help you get your wrinkles out without a struggle.
Every Bit Helps
It's important to remember that going zero waste is a journey. Many of us go through our lives blind to the trash we are leaving behind until some specific moment shocks us out of it. When you realize just how much waste you have built up, scrambling to cut it all out at once is a common reaction.
Unfortunately, the world is built on a throw-away lifestyle. It's challenging to cut all waste out completely.
Don't give up. Even if you make one small change, you're making a difference that wouldn't otherwise have happened. If every single person tried just a little bit every day, the impact would be enormous.