Home laundering is a frequent necessity that consumes large amounts of water and energy. Eighty percent of the total energy expended on clothing in the US is attributed to laundering, rather than production or distribution. The national laundry load amounts to 35 billion home laundering cycles per year, costing the average household about $150 annually.
Nationally, home laundering accounts for 2.6 percent of total residential energy use. Ninety percent of the energy used in the washing of clothes is attributed to the heating of washing machine water. Washing laundry in cold water can save the average household $64 per year.
Where drying clothes is concerned, home dryers consume nearly 800 kilowatt-hours annually per household, costing almost $70 per year to operate. In fact, if every American air-dried their laundry for three months each year, the electricity saved could power 1.5 million US households for a year. Most dryer models on the market today consume similar amounts of energy—so similar, in fact, that ENERGY STAR does not even rate dryers. However, gas dryers and those with a moisture sensor generally consume less energy than other models, as does a well-maintained machine.
Standard washing machines use an average of 40 gallons of water per load, but more efficient varieties do exist: ENERGY STAR-approved washers use just 18 to 25 gallons of water per load. Front-loading machines, also known as horizontal axis washers, use 40 percent less water than top-loading machines, which can save nearly 7,000 gallons of water per year.
Both washers and dryers emit climate-changing greenhouse gases. Since so much energy is required to heat washing machine water, you can cut your washing machine's CO2 emissions by 100 pounds simply by washing in cold water. Dryers, for their part, emit an average of 1,442 pounds of carbon dioxide annually: if each American home air-dried one load of laundry each year, the US would cut its CO2 emissions by 250,000 tons.
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. One detergent surfactant, nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), is toxic to aquatic plants and animals. Though this chemical is banned in certain parts of Europe, it can still be found in detergents made in the US because of cost.
Related health issues
Laundry detergents may contain various ingredients and fragrances that can irritate the skin or respiratory system and exacerbate allergies. Certain fragrances are a health risk because they contain phthalates, which have been linked to cancer and reproductive system risks.
Some detergents may also include chlorine bleach. Bleach can form health-threatening toxic gases when combined with other household chemicals and is a highly caustic skin irritant.
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.
- surfactants: Detergent ingredients, also called wetting agents, that decrease surface tension of a liquid and help to penetrate soils.
- Fiber Source - Resource and Environmental Profile Analysis
- Rocky Mountain Institute - Home Energy Briefs #6 - Cleaning Appliances
- US Department of Energy - Technology Fact Sheet: Energy Efficient Appliances
- US Department of Energy - Energy Savers: Laundry
- US Department of Energy - Energy Savers: Appliances
- Energy Information Administration - US Household Electricity Report
- ENERGY STAR - Clothes Washers
- California Energy Commission - Consumer Energy Center: Clothes Washers
- The Green Guide - Cleaner and Greener Laundry
- The Hinkle Charitable Foundation - Excerpts from: "You can Prevent Global Warming (And Save Money!): 51 Easy Ways"
- Consumer Reports - Laundry detergents: Clean and Green Options