I loathe doing laundry. I hate sorting it, I hate loading it, and most of all I hate folding it and putting it away. I know, I know. I’m an entitled little whiner. I have an electric washer and dryer - it’s not like I’m standing at the river thrashing my clothes on the rocks. I’m also not boiling water and scrubbing garments on a washboard. But laundry is a chore we all have to do, we do it every week or so whether we want to or not, and when it’s done, well, we will just have to do it again. I try hard not to give it much thought.
But we should give it a little thought. Like most things we do habitually in our modern world, it turns out doing laundry is one of the worst things we do in terms of environmental impact. Let’s start with the obvious - the plastic packaging. Up to one billion plastic jugs of detergent are purchased in the US annually, and only 10% of those may be recycled. The rest end up in landfills where they live eternally leeching the dregs of their soapiness into the groundwater. Laundry detergent is more than just soap. They are largely composed of surfactants (15%), builders (50%), bleach (7%) and enzymes (2%.) This is where getting into our water becomes … very not good.
Surfactants reduce the surface tension of oil and water; basically the stuff that gets the dirt on your clothes to become the dirt in the wash water. This is bad news bears for fish, because it also reduces the quality of the protective mucus on our fish friends; the layer that protects them from parasites and bacteria. Damaged mucus also leaves fish more vulnerable to pesticides and other pollutants. Even small concentrations (2 ppm) can cause fish to absorb twice the amount of chemicals then they would naturally. Poor babies.
Phosphorus in detergent is a builder that softens the water to help the surfactants do their work. 5% of the world’s mined phosphorus ends up in laundry detergents, and high concentrations of phosphorus interfere with the natural balance of aquatic environments causing algal blooms that steal the oxygen from other water creatures. Phosphates are also linked to human cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. Yay? Other fun stuff in ordinary detergents are formaldehyde (carcinogenic,) and dioxane (not only carcinogenic but linked to kidney, lung, nerve, eye, and skin disorders.)
This is just gross and I haven’t even mentioned synthetic fabrics shedding micro plastics with every wash. We need to think about this and mitigate it ASAP.
First of all, we the people of the US are entirely too obsessed with washing our clothes. Unless you’re a toddler who wears everything they come in contact with it is entirely unnecessary to wash your garments every single time you wear them, so stop.
Next consider that there are options to the detergents you find at the grocery store. If you’re a lover of DIY, there is this great concentrate bar that you can dissolve in your own container, free of plastic packaging and ugly ingredients (hey, repurpose that last jug you’re ever going to buy.)
Or why not try a laundry strip that's sustainably packaged, biodegradable, free of all the bad stuff, and AND you can subscribe to have it sent on the regular? Gee, it’s almost like you don’t have to think at all.
Bonus points for washing your clothes with cold water and line drying as much as possible to conserve energy. Mother Earth will thank you for your efforts with this regular humdrum of a chore.