10 Green Laundry Tips

By: the Editors of Publications International, Ltd.  | 
Freshen your clothes naturally.

Key Takeaways

  • Use environmentally friendly cleaning agents like vinegar, baking soda, salt and lemon juice, which are effective in removing stains and odors while being less harmful to the environment.
  • Optimize your water and energy use by washing full loads, selecting cold water settings for rinsing, and adhering to efficient drying techniques like air-drying when possible.
  • Consider switching to high-efficiency washing machines and using greener alternatives to conventional laundry detergents to reduce your environmental impact and enhance the sustainability of your daily chores.

Laundry can seem like an endless task. We go through plenty of clothing, bedding, and towels, and it all needs to be cleaned. But even as we finish up this week's load, there's already more accumulating. It's no surprise, then, that after the refrigerator, the washing machine and dryer are typically the leading culprits in terms of high resource usage in the home -- especially if they're older models. Add to that the varied laundry products going down the drain, and you're looking at a couple of not-so-green cleaning machines. But there are ways you can continue to use these convenient appliances while still taking care of the earth. This chapter offers a few practical laundry rules for you to follow, including energy-, labor-, and product-saving tips. We'll concentrate on our list of the Fantastic Four cleaning products (vinegar, salt, baking soda, and lemon juice), which do a remarkably good job of getting your clothes clean and keeping them that way.­


10. Laundry Rules: Saving Water and Energy

­A washing machine uses a large amount of water. And since the water temperature must be at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit to get your laundry good and clean (colder temperatures have a harder time activating the chemicals in the detergents), it also takes quite a bit of energy to heat the water. Standard-size top-loading washers set on a regular cycle and using the highest water-level setting use approximately 40 to 57 gallons of water per load. Using all of that water and energy rather negates the idea of living a green life!

With that in mind, here's a list of ways to minimize the amount of resources used with each load of laundry, without having to resort to taking clothes to the stream and beating them on the rocks (but, but all means, feel free to do that if you like):


Green laundry habits

  • Wash one full load instead of two small ones. If you don't have a full load, wait until you do.
  • If you must run a small load, set your water level accordingly.
  • Don't overload your washer. Clothes must be able to move freely in the washer in order to get clean.
  • When you can, choose a cold-water rinse for your clothes, even if you washed them in warm or hot water. Cold water rinses out the soap just as well as warm or hot water.
  • Never keep your dryer in a cold place, like a garage or damp basement. It will work much less efficiently if it has to work in the cold.
  • Check your dryer exhaust vent periodically to make sure it closes tightly. If it's letting in outside air, the dryer is being forced to work too hard. Plus, you might be allowing your household heat to escape.
  • Clean the lint filter in your dryer after every load of laundry for maximum air circulation and efficiency.
  • Try to do several loads of laundry at once. When you pop a pile of wet clothes in the dryer right after you've finished a previous load, it takes advantage of the leftover heat.


9. The Nitty Gritty

­Before moving on, let's go look at our list of the Terrible Ten Household Cleaning Products

  • Drain cleaners
  • Oven cleaners
  • Toilet cleaners
  • Spot removers
  • Silver and other metal polishes
  • Furniture polishes
  • Cleansers and powdered cleaners
  • Window cleaners
  • Bleach
  • Liquid cleaners

Note that detergents are not on our list. That's because the debate about detergents and the various ingredients they contain continues in the public arena. In the mid-1960s, folks noticed that lakes and river­s were getting choked up with too much aquatic plant growth brought on by the various phosphates added to detergents. Phosphates basically help eliminate some of the problems that come along with using soap, including breaking down soapy buildup (think of the ring that can form on a shirt or in a tub).


Phosphates are strong cleaners, but their useful pros have been overshadowed by their ecological cons. Since the early '60s, community organizers have attempted to ban phosphates outright, to limit their use, or to set acceptable standards for their use. These efforts have been met with varying levels of success. Phosphates are banned in some areas of the country and are somewhat regulated in others. Still, there is no universal standard for phosphate use in detergents.

What you can do

Generally speaking, detergents are better than they once were, but most are still made from synthetic petrochemicals that come from oil. Some detergents may also have brighteners, dyes, or artificial fragrances that are bad for you, the environment, or both. Many consumers are finding an increasing number of greener laundering alternatives available on the market. But remember, no law requires companies, even "good" companies, to disclose all of the ingredients in products -- even green ones. Furthermore, no law defines what "natural" or "earth-friendly" means. The best green detergents should be made without nonrenewable, petroleum-based chemicals, and they should be biodegradable, plant-derived, and contain no optical brighteners, dyes, or artificial fragrances.

Some companies voluntarily tell you everything that's in their products, helping consumers to make an informed decision. Some also participate in voluntary programs that show they meet certain environmental criteria. Being a responsible consumer means doing a bit of homework, but it's well worth the effort.


8. Soap or Detergent?

­Many people are now opting for soap instead of detergent when laundering their clothes. But what's the difference?

­Actually, using soap goes as far back as the ancient Babylonians, around 2800 B.C. Mixing water, alkali, and cassia oil -- voila -- they created soap, and the world has been cleaner for it ever since.


Soaps and detergents are both surfactants. This means that through a process scientific types call "breaking the surface," surfactants lower the surface tension of water, which helps water soak in and spread around. Soaps are made of materials found in nature, like ash and alkali, while detergents are usually made of synthetic materials, including the phosphates and petroleum-based ingredients we've already mentioned. While soaps go way back to the Babylonians, detergents more or less came into vogue during the post-World War II economic boom.

If soap can clean your clothes and is made of "natural" ingredients, is there any green reason not to use it to wash your clothes? Perhaps. Soaps are more difficult to rinse out of fabric, especially in homes that have hard water, whereas clothes washed with detergents are less prone to this problem. Some people also point out that soap in its standard form deteriorates on the closet shelf, while today's detergents are packaged differently and will not deteriorate. Think hard about your laundry needs -- can soap do the trick for you?


7. Drying the Old-fashioned Way

­Taking the dryer out of the laundry equation is a great way to incorporate a green process into your household. Hanging your laundry out to dry, or drying it using a collapsible rack, not only makes the fabrics last longer, but it also requires no additional energy use whatsoever -- except your own, that is. Drying whites and linens in the sun also helps make them brighter, without having to resort to chlorine bleach or alternative whitening agents.

If you find the prospect of hanging laundry out to dry a little daunting, or feel as if you're too busy to try it, try starting small. Perhaps begin with air drying fabrics that don't wrinkle very much, such as synthetics and synthetic blends. More delicate items like wools, silks, and silk blends should always be air dried. Another trick to cut down on dryer time is to put things like towels in the dryer just long enough to fluff them up a bit, then hang them up to continue drying. Using indoor racks or clotheslines also humidifies your indoor air, which may come in handy in the winter. Bonus!


Washers and dryers have a lot of effect on the environment since both machines use energy, and, of course, the washer uses quite a bit of water. In fact, household appliance usage accounts for 20 percent of our overall energy use at home, with washers, dryers, and refrigerators at the top of that list. On average, a typical load of laundry in the washing machine costs about 12 cents in energy (at the current, wildly fluctuating oil prices), and drying that same load will cost nearly three times as much.

Hanging your clothes out to dry is far more economical and energy efficient, but the reality is that it's not practical in many parts of the country during the winter months. Air drying indoors is possible, of course -- but again, sometimes it's not practical. On the other hand, you might opt for line drying outdoors and not be allowed to do so. Around the country, housing covenants, zoning laws, and landlords sometimes won't allow people to put up a clothesline -- usually for aesthetic reasons. But many green-minded residents are fighting back. Read more about it at Project Laundry List, www.laundrylist.org. ­


6. Getting the Greenest Machines

Front-loading washing machines are the most eco-friendly, and thankfully, they're becoming easier to find in the average appliance store. They may cost more than top-loading washing machines, but in the long run they will be less expensive in terms of energy use costs and water savings: Front-loading machines may use as much as 38 percent less water and 58 percent less energy.

Still, don't go trading in your perfectly good top-loader just to get a front-loader -- that would be wasteful. When you are in the market for a new washer, you want to be sure to look for the most energy-efficient washing machine to meet your needs. Another priority is that your new washer should carry the Energy Star certification, which means it has been held up to an international standard of energy efficiency. Do research on your upcoming purchase through Consumer Reports magazine or other consumer-based organizations. There are many online resources that can help you determine what size and type of washer is best for you, including the Energy Star database at www.energystar.gov.


5. The Deal with Dryers

While you should choose your washing machine very carefully when energy and water use are your prime considerations, the story is different for dryers. Despite the many brands and sizes on the market, they differ very little in terms of energy use. This is why you'll find that dryers do not carry the Energy Star label. A dryer typically ranks second, after refrigerators, in terms of the amount of energy you use in your home. As it stands, electric dryers are responsible for 5 to 10 percent of a home's electricity usage.

But there are still things you can do! For one, look for dryers with a moisture sensor setting, which can reduce the drying time. The sensor detects how much moisture is actually left in the clothes and will turn off the machine when moisture is gone, rather than waiting for a predetermined amount of time to pass. Most new models come with this feature, making your shopping job easier.


Developers are working on new machine-drying technologies, but not much has hit the market. Until a greener machine option is available, it's best if you use your dryer as little as possible, though when you do use it, do so efficiently.


4. The Fantastic Four in the Laundry Room

­Now let's tackle green ways to clean those mucky clothes! Luckily, baking soda works as well in the laundry room as it does in the kitchen. Not only is it harmless to the environment, but it also has mild alkali qualities that help it dissolve grease and dirt. Baking soda can be especially helpful in areas served by hard water: Adding baking soda to a washing machine's rinse cycle will result in clothes that are better rinsed, and they will resist the stain buildup that can sometimes come with hard water. They'll also feel softer -- another bonus!

When you use laundry detergent, add 1/2 cup baking soda to top-loading machines or 1/4 cup for front-loading machines along with the usual amount of detergent to give the detergent a boost. The baking soda actually helps the detergent work better and acts as a deodorizer for some of those rougher-smelling clothes -- like a teenager's sports gear and socks.


If you want to use bleach on some of your clothing, baking soda will help boost the bleach's whitening power so much that you'll be able to use less bleach -- a good and green thing, indeed.

Salt, vinegar, and lemon juice also have roles to play in the laundry room. For starters, a basic mixture of half water and half vinegar makes a good pretreatment for just about any common stain. We suggest that you keep a spray bottle of this mixture in your laundry room. Just spray it onto the stain a few minutes before washing and then wash as usual.

Salt can also be a good stain remover in clothing, especially when the stain is still fresh. Salt's magic qualities also help maintain and restore bright colors, reduce yellowing, and eliminate mildew in fabrics. We'll get into the detailed instructions for these tricks a little bit later.

Like baking soda, vinegar can serve a lot of different purposes in the laundry room. When using vinegar in the laundry, use distilled white vinegar, which generally can be found in gallon jugs near the baking or laundry aisles in the grocery store. Apple cider vinegar will also work, but it usually comes in smaller containers and costs a little more.

Vinegar makes a great pretreatment for many stains, and it softens the water, helping to prevent soapy residue in homes that are served by hard water. It can also add a kick to both regular laundry detergents and some of the green commercial cleaners. To soften a standard load of wash, add 1/2 cup vinegar during your machine's last rinse cycle. In addition to softening, vinegar added at this time will help reduce lint buildup, and it tends to keep pesky pet hair from sticking to fabrics.

But among the Fantastic Four, lemon juice really takes the leading role for some laundry tasks. Add 1/2 cup of it to a regular load of laundry during the wash cycle, and it will make the whole load smell fresher. Add it to a load of whites, and the whites become whiter. Combine lemon juice with cream of tartar and you have a very powerful stain remover. We'll get into all that in more detail in a minute.


3. The Case Against Dry Cleaning

Frankly, dry cleaning isn't very eco-friendly, so why do we have to dry clean certain items in the first place? Generally, dry cleaning is required when there's a chance that water, soap, or detergent could damage the clothing's fabric. The key ingredient used in commercial dry cleaning is a chemical called tetrachloroethylene or perchloroethylene (PCE), which is generally referred to as dry cleaning fluid. This chemical is classified as a hazardous air contaminant by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and is handled as a hazardous waste.

Unfortunately, it hasn't always been handled well in the United States; untold gallons have leached or have been dumped into supplies of drinking water. In fact, accidental or intentional dumping of PCEs into groundwater reservoirs happens so often that many commercial landlords will no longer lease space to dry cleaning operations.


Some new, greener dry cleaning methods are currently being developed, but at the time of publication, they are not widely used and are difficult to come by.

Dry cleaning solutions

So how do we get around the dry cleaning problem? Well, the first suggestion is an easy and obvious one: When shopping, don't buy items that require dry cleaning. Avoiding high-maintenance clothing has the added benefit of saving you money on dry cleaning bills.

However, perhaps there's a must-have item that's labeled as "dry clean only." Keep in mind that not all clothing tagged as such needs to be dry cleaned. In some cases, you may be able to clean the item at home. Some fabrics can be cleaned using a solution of 4 tablespoons baking soda in cold water. First, test a small, hidden area of the fabric to make sure it can handle the water and to see how colorfast it is. Also consider the importance of the item: You might not wish to try the baking soda method on your great-grandmother's brittle wedding dress. Sure, it might work, but just in case, it's best if you seek a professional opinion on how to clean a family heirloom.


2. Are Softeners Right for You?

You probably won't find any warning labels on a bottle of liquid fabric softener or a box of dryer sheets, yet these products may contain ingredients that can irritate skin and cause other health problems. While fabric softeners often contain fragrances and dyes that irritate the skin after getting into fabric, generally their ingredients are not hazardous to the environment. There's really no need to use a commercial softener, however. Its purpose is to bust stati­c cling, and it does this by coating your clothing with a sort of waxy film.

If eliminating static cling is your aim, you can accomplish this on your own by using 1/4 to 1/2 cup vinegar in your wash water. You can add the vinegar directly into the liquid softener cup, if your machine has one, or add it on top of the clothing during the rinse cycle. Our green goal, however, is to use less -- ask yourself how many of your laundered items really need to have a softener added at all. For many items, adding softener is just an unnecessary luxury; you could eliminate a product or two, including vinegar, by washing those clothes or fabrics without softeners.


Fabric softener can build up on clothes over time, which ultimately reduces clothes' longevity. Parents should be aware that the accumulation can reduce the inflammability protectants in children's clothing. Just to be on the safe side, you should read the labels on your children's clothing and heed the manufacturer's advice on whether or not to use fabric softener. It should also be noted that flame-retardant clothing for children does contain harmful PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), which are known to cause thyroid problems in lab rats and are also linked to neurological damage.


1. Green Bleaching Solutions

You'll note that bleach is one of the items on our Terrible Ten list. Of course, bleach and bleachlike ingredients show up quite often in commercially available laundry detergents. It's also still quite common for people to use pure bleach when washing articles of clothing that need to get that elusive "whiter than white."

However, returning to our Fantastic Four list, there's an obvious bleach alternative: lemon juice. Straight lemon juice -- either squeezed directly from the lemon or poure­d from a bottle -- works very well for bleaching. Just about any fabric (except silk) can be bleached a whiter and brighter color by soaking it in a mixture of lemon juice and very hot water. First, mix 1/2 cup lemon juice with 1 gallon very hot water. Soak the clothing in it for at least one hour, though it can soak as long as overnight. Afterward, pour the lemon juice mixture into the washing machine, then wash the garment as usual.


Frequently Asked Questions

How effective are homemade laundry detergents compared to commercial ones?
Homemade laundry detergents, especially those using baking soda, vinegar and lemon juice, can be very effective and are environmentally friendly alternatives to commercial detergents.
Can green laundry habits extend the life of clothing?
Yes, using gentle, eco-friendly cleaning agents and cooler water can reduce wear and tear on fabrics, extending the life of your clothing.