Using your washing machine more efficiently can significantly reduce your household's energy and water usage. Whether you upgrade to a more efficient model or just change the way you use your existing washer, making a few simple improvements can clean up your environmental footprint on laundry day.
Washing machines are responsible for an average 21.7 percent of total household water usage, second only to the toilet, which consumes 28.7 percent. Using a water-efficient washer can help conserve precious water resources, while saving money and reducing the amount of pollutants released into waterways.
While clothes washers and other water-using appliances have to meet energy standards (tougher federal standards took effect January 2007), they are not currently subject to national water-efficiency standards in the US. Many manufacturers are, however, making water-efficient machines on their own. In particular, horizontal axis or front-loading washing machines are very water efficient. They use nearly 40 percent less water than top-loading washers and therefore can save the average home as much as 7,000 gallons of water per year.
Seventy-five percent of the energy consumption associated with fabric products comes not from their manufacture or distribution, but rather from laundering them after they are sold. The standard washing machine uses nearly 7 percent of the total energy consumed by a household, not including the energy required to heat the water. And heating the water is actually the most energy-intensive part of the laundering process: between 85 and 90 percent of the energy used by washing machines is used for heating the water.
Switching to an energy-efficient washing machine can reduce overall energy usage and total annual carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, if 20 percent of American households upgraded their washers to high-efficiency machines, total carbon dioxide emissions would be reduced by 3.5 million tons each year. Front-loading washing machines are among the most efficient washing machines, using nearly 50 percent less energy than top-loading washers.
Detergents and fabric softeners
Fabric softeners and laundry detergents contain synthetic chemicals derived from petroleum, a non-sustainable resource whose extraction and production has caused major environmental damage to soil, surface and ground waters, and local ecosystems, and contributes to global warming. The ingredients in detergents and softeners vary in their toxicity levels and subsequent environmental impacts, but all are disposed of through normal home waste water channels. The US Geological Survey (USGS) found that 3,500 kilograms of one of these ingredients, linear alkylate sulfonate, enter the Mississippi River every day. As a result,the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established the Industrial and Institutional Laundry Partnership to work with detergent manufacturers to create more health and environmentally conscious products.
Silver ion washing machines
There are new washing machines on the market today that use silver ions as a way to disinfect clothing and kill odor-causing bacteria. However, the environmental record of this new technology, which claims to require less energy and detergent to clean clothes, has been called into question. Since the silver ore needed for this technology has to be mined and then melted down in an energy-intensive process, these machines may not be more energy efficient overall. What's more, these washers use nano-sized particles, whose effects on the environment have not yet been fully investigated.
Several consumer watchdogs have put forth a petition to the the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban the use of nanosilver in consumer goods, including washing machines, citing that it can harm aquatic life and prevent the growth of beneficial bacteria in water treatment plants.
Related health issues
The synthetic fragrances contained in some detergents may provoke irritation of skin, asthma, and allergic reactions. These fragrances can continue to cling to fabric for weeks after washing, causing sneezing, headaches, stuffy nose, and other related symptoms. Many detergents also contain phthalates, which have been linked to cancer and reproductive system dysfunction.
Another possible irritant in common laundry cleaners is chlorine bleach (known as sodium hypochlorite). When mixed with other cleaners containing ammonia, chloramine gases will form, which can damage lungs. When mixed with acids (such as those found in toilet cleaners), they form toxic chlorine gas which can be very damaging to airways. Bleach can be fatal if swallowed and can cause skin irritation and redness when it comes in contact with skin. Fumes from bleach can irritate eyes, nose, and airways.
Common fabric softeners contain the neurotoxins toluene and trimethylbenzene, styrene (a possible carcinogen), the respiratory irritants phenol and xylene, and thymol, which can cause abdominal problems and therefore it may be desirous to avoid using them in your wash.
Subsidies and tax credits
Some states offer tax incentives and rebates to consumers to encourage them to purchase efficient appliances. To check which states have such a program, go to the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.
- phthalates: Widely used additives used to make plastics and other materials soft and flexible.
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Water Conservation
- California Energy Commission - Consumer Energy Center: Clothes Washers
- Energy Information Administration - US Household Electricity Data: A/C, Heatings, Appliances
- Hinkle Charitable Foundation - Excerpts from: "You can Prevent Global Warming (And Save Money!): 51 Easy Ways"
- The Green Guide - Cleaner and Greener Laundry