The Dirt on Laundry

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environment laundry

If you want to remove a stain from your clothes or sheets and still be kind to the environment, you’re in a bit of a spot.

Most popular commercial stain-remover products contain at least one of eight ingredients that have been identified as polluting, including Shout (sodium borate). And although Clorox will tell you that its signature laundry product “provides the consumer with the most cost-effective cleaning and disinfectant product on the market while doing so safely and without damaging the environment,” it doesn’t take too discerning of a mind (or too probing of a web search) to understand that bleach’s role in defending the natural world is not squeaky clean.

The mere act of doing laundry is ecologically problematic. According to the National Park Service, whose best interests are served by our not messing with Mother Nature, the annual household washing machine uses 41 gallons of water per load, the average dryer accounts for 6 percent of a household’s energy use, and scented detergents and softener sheets release volatile organic compounds, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identifies as carcinogens.

It’s bad enough that regular laundry detergents befoul our waterways with toxic heavy metals that include cadmium and arsenic. And that their phosphates can lead to the starvation and death of marine species and plants.

What might be just as alarming, although less known, is that even when no detergents or stain removers are used to wash synthetic fabrics (nylon, polyester, etc.), extremely small pieces of plastic are flushed out of washing machines (whose filters are not up to that task) into sewer pipes and beyond. So-called microplastics have been detected on shorelines throughout the planet. Their impact, not yet firmly established, cannot be good.

So what’s an environmentally sensitive person to do, aside from wearing dirty clothes and repulsing all those who come near? Every “green” move will cost you, at least initially. The Park Service says that Energy Star-rated washing machines are certified as requiring 40 percent less water and 25 percent less electricity than regular washers, and Energy Star-rated dryers are 20 percent less power-hungry than regular ones. So you could upgrade to those.

The EPA offers an easy-to-search database (epa.gov/saferchoice) of detergents and other cleaning products that can help you quickly identify a product that will lighten the load of guilt that you feel on laundry day. But they’re all likely to be more expensive than Tide or generic detergents.

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As for those notorious “tough-to-remove” stains, the Environmental Working Group details how you can make your own removers using such ingredients as lemon juice and hydrogen peroxide. For example, if you mix equal parts of white vinegar and water and apply the mixture to grease stains, the stains might disappear. Such do-it-yourself remedies can cut into your free time.

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Finally, because we are fortunate to live in a region that for much of the year is warm and doused in sunshine, clotheslines can dry clothes efficiently and quickly. Subject, of course, to personal preferences, air-dried towels might feel as though they dry you off better, and air-dried sheets might feel crisper to crawl into. You would have to find a place for a clothesline, though, and let go of aesthetic prejudices.

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Environmentally Friendly Detergents

Find the region’s largest selection of environmentally sensitive laundry products at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, 2820 R St. Whole Foods Market, Sprouts, Trader Joe’s and Costco stores also have several “green” options.

 

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