The True Cost of Doing Laundry: A Global Perspective | Rockay
The True Cost of Doing Laundry: A Global Perspective

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This is a Problem

Here’s Why

Approximately 50 to 100 years.

That’s all it’ll take, according to some calculations, before the earth’s fossil fuel reserves will be depleted. That means no cars, no planes, no T.V., no cell phones, no internet.

50 to 100 years.

Of course, these calculations are based on the reserves in use now. More reserves will undoubtedly be found. But the fact remains that there may come a time when our way of life is no longer possible and that time may not be as far away as you think. Take a quick look at the video below to get an idea of what we, as a species, are dealing with.

So why look specifically at laundry? Well, washing your clothes may seem like a harmless activity, but it actually has a significant global impact. Did you know it can pollute our water systems, is a cause of excessive water and energy wastage, and leaves a pretty big carbon footprint? And that’s just whenever you wash your clothes. Imagine if millions of people were doing it at once and over and over again. It doesn’t seem so harmless now, does it?

It’s not. So if you’re one of those few that actually appreciates the urgency of the problem of climate change, check below for the good-deed-laundry-doing tips we’ve compiled to help reduce your impact on the environment. If you’re not one of those, keep on reading below–we’ve put together a pretty neat educational package for you to go through. If nothing else, it makes for a great starting point.

10 Things You Can Do Right Now to Reduce the Global Impact of Washing Clothes

  1. Wash Less Frequently
    The first and obvious alternative to washing frequently is, well, washing less frequently. The truth is, your clothes don’t need to be washed so often.
  2. Wash Your Clothes Only When Stained or Smelly
    Tullia Jack conducted an experiment she called the “Extreme Clean” Challenge, where participants were instructed to wear the same pair of jeans, five days a week for three whole months–without washing them. The results were pretty amazing.
  3. Only Buy Clothes That Have Been Treated With Anti-Odor Technology So You Can Wash Less
    If you still feel uncomfortable and uncouth, you can always take measures to make sure you don’t get your clothes dirty or smelly. Watch how you eat, how you drink and don’t roll around in mud if you don’t have to. You can also treat your clothing with antimicrobial technology–like Polygiene–to keep them smelling fresh.
  4. Hand Wash Your Clothes
    But maybe that’s not enough for you. You’re still uncomfortable; you still feel uncouth. Well, another alternative is to forgo washing machines altogether. Use your hands instead.
  5. Use Eco-friendly Washing Machines
    If you don’t want to do give up all the comforts of modern machines, at least opt for washing machines that were specifically designed to consume less energy and waste less water.
  6. Use Eco-friendly Detergents & Fabric Softeners
    Yeah, these exist. All you have to do is look for them. Or make them yourself–don’t be intimidated though. It’s so much easier than it seems.
  7. Wash Your Clothes Without Detergent or Fabric Softeners
    Try it: it’s purely a matter of preferences, but you may find that you don’t really need fabric softeners and that washing your clothes without a detergent actually prolongs the life of your clothing. At the same time, you’re keeping yourself and your loved ones from coming into contact with unnecessary, toxic chemicals and helping to keep the world’s waters clean and safe to consume. It’s a win-win.
  8. Use Gas Dryers
    Remember, electricity generation is among the prime contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. And electric dryers need a hell of a lot of electricity to even function–eliminate this problem by opting for gas dryers instead.
  9. Switch to Clothes Rack or Washing Line
    Or don’t use a dryer at all. Let the air do the work.
  10. Don’t Iron Your Clothes
    Usually, you don’t even have to. And remember how we said that a lot of energy is required to generate heat in washers and dryers? Well, the same thing applies to clothes irons.

An In-Depth Look at the Global Impact of Laundry

You’ve heard it before: take all things in moderation. If you eat too much food, you swell. If you drink too much water, you drown. And if too many people drink too much water, the effects on the environment can be severe. That much is obvious. But what’s not obvious is whether or not this is true for washing your clothes too frequently. In fact, it seems like the opposite would be the case. After all, cleanliness is a virtue, isn’t it? It’s why most of us shower daily—some of us even twice a day!

Maybe you’re the type of person for whom ethics is a big concern. You don’t eat fast foods because the cruelty animals suffer in slaughterhouses is jarring to your sensibilities. You recycle religiously, even if it means you save just one marine life. And you choose your clothing carefully because you in no way want to contribute to the perpetuation of sweatshops in which underaged children are often forced to work long hours for pennies.

But did you know that even a seemingly harmless activity like washing your clothes has a significant global impact? Did you know it can pollute our water systems, is a cause of excessive water and energy wastage and leaves a pretty big carbon footprint? And that’s just whenever you wash your clothes. Imagine if millions of people were doing it at once and over and over again. It doesn’t seem so harmless now, does it?

It isn’t. In 2005, in the United States alone, it was estimated that the laundry process accounts for:

  • 847 billion gallons of water
  • 191 thousand GWh of electricity consumption
  • Over 225 million metric tons of CO2-e emissions (Source)

Again, that’s just the United States. In this article, we’re going to take a more detailed look into how washing your clothes actually affects the environment on a global scale. More importantly, we’re going to look at a number of things that you as an individual can do to counteract and fight back against these effects.

The Clean Convention

Sometimes when we look back at history–even if we look back at the previous decade–we may find ourselves bewildered by the things people thought were normal, or even cool. When was the last time you say anyone rocking a mullet, for example? A mullet, you ask, rolling your eyes. Really? That’s just ludicrous.  

And if that seems ludicrous to you, you might actually physically convulse in revulsion when you realize that people just a couple hundred years ago only bathed once a week, or month, or even once a year. You may fight the urge to hurl at the idea that clothes weren’t even removed very often, not even to sleep. Sometimes they weren’t removed for years!

Of course, as it is with all things in the progression of humanity, our knowledge base expanded; we learned about germ theory and how germs can thrive in unclean environments, spreading illness and diseases. We learned that we can effectively evade such nuisances and tragedies simply by staying clean. And we developed contraptions that allowed for easy laundering of clothes. This ease makes it a no-brainer to wash your clothes as frequently as you wear them. It’s fast and simple, and in the end, you smell like fabric softener. It’s a win-win, right? Think about it. What would you do without a washing machine and dryer? You’d probably exert yourself more and spend more time just trying to stay clean and germ-free, wouldn’t you?

And that is the most important point. It’s not technology that fuels our drive to be clean. It’s not science either. These are contributing factors, but the main culprit is actually social convention. Just as mullets were once a popular hairstyle for men, an obsession with cleanliness is all the rage in modern society. But the truth is that we only need to clean just enough to stay healthy. In other words, there’s such a thing as needless cleaning. After a certain point, germ growth is mitigated and so is the risk of contamination and dissemination. How much is too much though? In 2003, the average American household–that’s one family–was reported to have done 392 loads of washing. That is staggering and seems, on its face, certainly to be too much.

Of course, no one wants to walk around looking and smelling dirty. Not in this day and age anyway. You’ll get scowls if you try, disapproving glances, grimaces and covered noses. You may lose friends. Or so you’d think. And you’d also think that it’s worth the extra expenditure of water, energy, and chemicals if it means you stay clean and presentable–but you’d be wrong, as you’ll soon see.

Global Warming Basics

Carbon footprints–you hear this term bandied about all the time. You hear about how your car has a carbon footprint, how your microwave has a carbon footprint, how even your television has a carbon footprint. You’ve also been warned in this very article about the significant carbon footprint left by simply washing your clothes. You may not know what a carbon footprint is exactly, but you do know it’s something bad. Otherwise, no one would warn you about it in such ominous tones. And you also know it has something to do with global warming, or man-made climate change. What you may not know is that what we call “global warming” is actually caused by the proliferation of certain kinds of gases into the atmosphere, which in turn is caused by us, the human species.

A. Carbon Dioxide

The most important and dominant of these greenhouse gases is carbon dioxide, or CO2. Just to be clear, CO2 isn’t all bad. Quite the contrary, actually. It’s an integral component of that process known as photosynthesis by which plants produce food and energy. The problem is that too much of it in the atmosphere creates what is known as the “Greenhouse Effect.” And that is exactly what has happened in droves since the Industrial Revolution. Deforestation is one major contributor; the burning of fossil fuels, like coal, is another. Too much CO2 in the atmosphere creates ground-level ozone by trapping radiation at ground-level. This ground-level ozone actually prevents the earth from cooling itself at night. With the increase of industrial activities, and thus of CO2 emissions, global temperatures have increased also, by 1 degrees Celsius. Continuation of the same would, by deduction, lead to even higher temperature differentials.

Further, when emissions are released from energy plants that burn fossil fuels, those emissions merge with the moisture in the atmosphere; this results in precipitation which has a high acid content. This acidic precipitation is what’s known as “acid rain,” which can wreak havoc on water supplies, plants, and trees. To make matters worse, acid rain is not only a problem for those in the vicinity of the offending energy plants. Emissions can actually be carried by the wind over long distances, and the debilitating effects of acid rain can be felt even in regions and by people nowhere near the plant.

CO2 is also extremely harmful to human health. Once in the atmosphere, it acts by displacing oxygen–which is what we breathe. That is, the higher the CO2 levels in the air, the harder it becomes for us to breathe. In closed areas, higher CO2 levels are associated with health complaints such as headaches.

You may believe that this isn’t cause for concern; that the earth’s temperature has always been in flux and it would be changing anyway, with or without you. You may be right. But statistics show that CO2 levels are at their highest point in 400,000 years. As recently as 2013, CO2 levels were shown to have risen to above 400 parts per million, which is a threshold that has never been breached in recorded history. A trend like this can only result in disaster not just for the environment but for the human race as well, and it would behoove each and every one of us to pay attention to and reduce the negative impact we as individuals have on our planet–if not for us, for our children and their children.

B. Carbon Footprints

There’s that term again.

We’ve covered CO2, and you’ve no doubt gotten a clearer understanding of why and how CO2 is dangerous and that it should be controlled, but there’s more to carbon footprints than just that. It’s true that CO2 is the most dominant of greenhouse gases, but there are others too, others like methane and nitrous oxide, both of which are considerably more potent than CO2. The term “carbon footprints” encompasses all such gases. And more importantly, it represents the aggregate release of all greenhouse gases of not just the object being observed, but also the aggregate effect the object and all processes involved in the making and maintenance of that object has on the environment. To make this a little clearer, let’s say the object being observed is a plastic cup. To gauge its true carbon footprint, we’d not only have to focus on its production and distribution processes, but also on the process of making that plastic in the first place. And also on those processes that made the processes of making that plastic possible in the first place; and also on the processes that made those processes possible; and so on till the beginning of time.

Even you have a carbon footprint, believe it or not. The sum of all your actions is, in layman’s terms, your carbon footprint. So if you turn on the TV, you’re contributing to your carbon footprint; if you turn on the washing machine, you’re contributing to your carbon footprint. Hell, even when you exhale, you release CO2!

As you can see, calculating carbon footprints is not easy to do accurately. But gauging them is incredibly important, not just for our own health, but for the health and wellbeing of future generations too. For example, Levis Strauss calculated the carbon footprint of their jeans. And what they found was surprising: 37% of their jeans’ carbon footprint (as well as 23% of the overall water use attributed to those jeans) was a result of the process by which consumers wash them.

Do you remember that, at the beginning of this article, we stated that laundry processes in the United States alone are responsible for the emission of 179 million metric tons of CO2-e? Well, that “CO2-e” stands for carbon footprints, and 179 million metric tons of it is a significant amount.

And according to The Guardian, these are the statistics for just a single load of laundry:

  • 0.6 kg CO2e washed at 30°C, dried on the line
    0.7 kg CO2e washed at 40°C, dried on the line
    2.4 kg CO2e washed at 40°C, tumble-dried in a vented dryer
    3.3 kg CO2e washed at 60°C, dried in a combined washer-dryer

Energy

It’s probably fair to say that the average person doesn’t question how a lightbulb actually lights up with just a flick or a turn of a switch. And it just seems like something that’ll always be. Indeed, energy is what is known as a “conserved quantity.” That means that it can be neither created or destroyed. Sounds great, right? Nothing to worry about here! Well, not quite. Energy has to be converted, and while there are green methods of conversion, a significant portion of the world’s energy is converted using finite resources–namely, using fossil fuels. And remember how we said that within 100 years, all of the world’s fossil fuels may be gone, totally and completely gone? That is cause for alarm. It’s also the reason why it’s important to understand that washing your clothes more frequently than needed is not only a waste of time but a waste of finite energy sources too–and that has grave implications for all infrastructures that rely on converted energy to function. Once they’re all gone, whether that be in a hundred years or a thousand years, the human race will likely face a literal dark age.

A. Electricity

The chances are, when you’re washing your clothes, you’re using a host of appliances to complete the process. That is, you’re not only using a washing machine: you’re using a dryer too, afterward. A clothes iron too, perhaps. All of these things use energy to function. In particular, they require electricity to drive their motors, and electricity to heat the water. But you can take steps to mitigate this problem. In fact, 90% of the energy that washers use is actually just to heat the water; that means that if you wash your clothes in cold water, you actually save a significant amount of resources.

Electricity generation is one of the largest contributing factors of the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It makes sense if you think about it. Can you go even a day without using electricity? You probably can’t go an hour–even the fact that you’re reading this right now means you’re using electricity. Again, the problem is that electricity is generally generated using fossil fuels, like coal, petroleum, and natural gas, which, as we saw earlier, are leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions and rapidly being depleted. It can also be generated using renewable energy sources–like hydropower or wind–but these are generally more costly than their fossil fuel counterparts and thus not viable options for profit-driven organizations. That’s why in Australia, for example, only 14% of electricity is generated using renewable energy sources. And why in the United States, a whopping 67% of electricity generation was produced using biomass, fossil fuels, and industrial and municipal waste. This, of course, doesn’t bode well for the environment or our health or the health and well-being of our future generations.

B. Washing Away the World’s Finite Energy

You know by now that washing your clothes expends energy. The reasons are obvious and we’ve gone over them a thousand times already: machines need to convert energy in order to run; and washing machines and dryers require a boatload of converted energy just to keep running. But the question is what can you do to offset this or mitigate your energy wastage? Well, there’s a ton of stuff you can do and we’ll go over them at the bottom of this article. For now, one very simple, though not so effective, thing you can do–if you want to do nothing else–is switch to machines that have Energy Star labels. Though it’s not the best solution–because regardless of whether or not a machine has this label, it still utilizes a ridiculous amount of energy–Energy Star labels are backed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, so you know that they’re legit. These labels ensure that the machine you’re using will use 20% less energy than standard machines and 35% less water too.

Water

A. Water Waste

You probably already know how vital water is for life. No living thing can survive without it–from amoebas to plants to trees to chimpanzees to humans, all living things need water. And since there are so many living things roaming this earth, it makes sense that a lot of water is needed to sustain them all.

But did you know that only a mere 1% of the earth’s water is consumable by us? This consumable water is called “freshwater” and the amount of freshwater that nations have access to varies. That means there is an actual limitation to how large the human race can grow–if it grows too much, there just wouldn’t be enough water to sustain that many people. Similarly, if the earth’s freshwater is depleted, even our current population may be impossible to maintain. Did you know that right now there are 844 million people who do not have access to water that is safe and uncontaminated? And did you know that a whopping 2.3 billion people don’t even have access to modern sanitation mechanisms which rely heavily, among other things, on water usage?

Even with all of this being true, we’re still in danger of depleting our water resources. Wastefully keeping the tap running every morning while you brush your teeth, for example, or taking an unnecessarily long shower, or washing your clothes way more frequently than necessary–all these things have impacts beyond just lightening your wallet. Remember, water is necessary for agricultural use; and if there’s not enough water to sustain agricultural practices, not only will there not be enough to drink but there won’t be enough to eat, either! It’s also needed to sustain livestock, which is another source of food for us.

And remember, too, that we don’t drink water as we find it on the ground. Most of us drink filtered water. To get filtered water to you, freshwater undergoes myriad processes to ensure its extraction, its transportation, its filtration, etc. Perhaps you’ve heard a little something about carbon footprints? Well, these processes alone leave a significant one. So to get clean, safe drinking water into your household actually uses energy, which, as we’ve seen in the previous section, is a finite resource and must be preserved if we wish to increase the longevity of the earth and its inhabitants.

Wasting water is easy and–like wasting energy–you probably do it all the time without realizing it. If you recall, at the beginning of this article we cited a U.S.-based statistic for just how much water is wasted due to the laundry process in the U.S. alone. 847 billion gallons. Again, that’s the just the U.S. alone. And it’s projected that by 2025, close to two-thirds of the population of the entire world will face the hardships of water scarcity.

B. Wastewater

Wastewater is, in short, any sort of water that has been in some way used and disposed of by humans. When you’re done washing your clothes, for example, the water that used to wash your clothes doesn’t just magically disappear. And when you bathe, or flush the toilet, or wash the dishes–all that water has to go somewhere. The problem is that the processes by which humans affect water actually contaminates this same water and makes it extremely harmful not just to humans but to other living things as well. That’s because once humans are done using it, it’s no longer just water; it’s only 99.9% water. The other .01% is comprised of pathogens, like deadly bacteria and viruses; fats, grease, oils, like those from cooking ingredients or body lotion; all sorts of solids, like dirt and grime; and nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, both of which are found in laundry detergents.

All of these things make it necessary for wastewater to be treated before it is disposed of. You can’t just dump all of these things on land or on natural bodies of water without expecting to destroy whole ecosystems and landscapes. Besides, you wouldn’t want to drink raw sewage, would you? Or bathe in chemical-laden water? Of course not: you expect your water to be filtered, clean, safe, and probably crispy and refreshing too. In a perfect world, all of our wastewater would be treated and disposed of properly.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a perfect world. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that close to 1.2 trillion gallons of sewage are dumped into U.S. freshwater and saltwater every year. That amounts to about 3.28 gallons a day. That’s no small amount–and those are just statistics for the U.S. alone! Remember, too, that only 1% of the world’s water is what we call “freshwater.” And we’re dumping billions of gallons of sewage into this precious resource, even as billions of people worldwide are already facing or are at risk of facing the threat of serious water scarcity.

To make matters worse, when wastewater is dumped improperly, it can make its way to the earth’s groundwater. This is a huge deal–2 billion people worldwide depend on groundwater to provide them with drinking water. It’s also used in irrigation systems for a huge chunk of our crops. In the U.S. alone, over 50% of people rely exclusively on groundwater to quench their thirst. It is, in short, the most vital source of freshwater on this earth. And it can be contaminated from all sorts of sources, from storage tanks to hazardous waste exposure to faulty landfill designs to road salts and of course to septic systems, where water used in homes and offices–including water used during the laundry process–is stored and treated. Drinking contaminated groundwater unwittingly makes you vulnerable to a wide range of health problems. These include dysentery and hepatitis and cancer, for example. Wildlife too can be affected and whole ecosystems disrupted.

Do you want more troubling news? According to data gleaned from NASA’s Grace satellites,  out of 37 of the world’s largest aquifers–which are basically layers beneath the surface of the earth made up of permeable rock where freshwater is naturally stored–13 are dangerously depleted.

You can probably see why this is something to be concerned about. When it comes to laundry, there are two major contributors to this issue: detergents and fabric softeners.

Detergents & Fabric Softeners

Can you imagine doing your laundry without detergents? It’s probably never even crossed your mind. After all, how else would you get all the stains and the dirt and the grime out of your clothes?

A detergent’s effectiveness, however, comes at a price. The chemicals that make detergents effective in the first place actually wreak havoc on the environment. For example, phosphorus and nitrogen compounds found in detergents often end up in the world’s natural bodies of water–these nutrients enable excessive growth of algae and plants. This is known as eutrophication. When this new plantlife dies, the oxygen that the marine life in the affected bodies of water depends on to live is depleted, thus causing death by asphyxiation. In the U.S. alone, eutrophication causes damage that’s estimated to cost about $2.2 billion annually to control.  

In addition, detergents contain mineral salts like ammonium, nitrates, phosphates, boron, and more–all of these contribute to the contamination of the world’s groundwater, which, as we saw earlier, is rapidly becoming depleted.

Fabric softeners, too, are modern-day concoctions most people can’t imagine living life without. These make your clothes smell good and feel just right–but the effectiveness of these, too, comes at a price. Dryer sheets and liquid fabric softeners are both comprised of toxic chemicals, such as benzyl acetate (which can cause pancreatic cancer), ethanol (central nervous system disorders), chloroform (a carcinogen and neurotoxin), benzyl alcohol (an irritant), limonene (a carcinogen), and more. All of these chemicals come in direct contact with your skin if you use them in your laundry process; that means that they are directly affecting your person. And when you consider that all these chemicals end up in our wastewater, some of which ends up in our freshwater–well, let’s just say that it’s not a comforting thing to think about.

But don’t despair! All of this might sound depressing–and in some ways it is–but there are steps you, as an individual, can take to reduce at least your own carbon footprint. And maybe you can convince your friends and family to do the same, and then they can do the same to their friends and family, and so on and so forth to a purer, cleaner world. We can only hope, right?

Well, we can hope and do a few other things too.

Sources

  1. Ecotricity, When Will Fossil Fuels Run Out?
  2. Journal of Integrative Environmental Sciences
  3. The Conversation, The Dirt on Clothes: Why Washing Less is More Sustainable
  4. Princeton University, Why Does CO2 Affect Climate
  5. NASA, Graphic: The Relentless Rise of Carbon Dioxide
  6. Levi Strauss, Climate Change
  7.  The Guardian, What’s the Carbon Footprint of….a Load of Laundry?
  8. Origin, What is Electricity?
  9. U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electricity Explained
  10. Energy.gov, Laundry
  11. Slate, How is Wasting Water Bad for the Environment
  12. Water.org, Water Crisis
  13. Global Risk Insights, The Economic Implications of Global Water Scarcity
  14. University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Wastewater-What Is It?
  15. Organica, What Are the Effects of Wastewater on the Environment
  16. Groundwater Foundation, What is Groundwater?
  17. Vox, Map: Here’s Where the World is Running Out of Groundwater
  18. The Nature Education Knowledge Project, Eutrophication
  19. Scientific American, “Greener” Laundry by the Load: Fabric Softener versus Dryer Sheets
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