What's the Carbon Footprint of my Laundry?
Updated: Aug 4, 2020
In this series of articles, we will be exploring the carbon footprints (and environmental impact) of a handful of everyday actions, helping you learn about some of the small changes we can make and the positive effect we can have if we commit to making these together. After kicking off this series by looking into the carbon footprint of your online deliveries, and we move on to the environmental footprint of… your laundry!
Depending on how you do it, and how many loads you get through each week, the amount of greenhouse gases emitted from doing laundry can be significant. According to the Guardian, if you were to wash and dry a load (based on a full 5kg load) every two days, this would produce a total of 440kg of CO2 each year, which is about the same as a return flight from London to Glasgow (with a 15-mile taxi ride to and from both airports). Yikes.
But it’s not the washing aspect of laundry that uses the most energy… It's the drying part that really makes a difference. According to the Guardian’s numbers, nearly 3/4 of energy usage from a standard 40°C wash comes from the drying, rather than the washing. The general rule of thumb is that the more heat an appliance generates, the more energy it takes to run. Generating power from electricity is typically over twice as carbon-intensive as creating heat from gas.
But it’s not all about the CO2 emissions... Another aspect of laundry you can consider is the type of detergent you use. But what really is detergent? Without turning our article into a chemistry lesson, detergent is a cleaning agent made up of water softeners, surfactants (which help lift dirt off clothes), bleaches (that magically don't actually bleach clothes) and enzymes. You’ll usually see a large toxic warning sign on the bottle, and it’s not surprising that your choice of detergent can have an impact on the environment. The EPA shared concerns that the chemical ingredients used in typical laundry detergents include harmful toxicity to aquatic organisms and algae, eutrophication of freshwater, and persistence in the environment.
You can take a look at this great article by the Evening Standard for a selection of eco-friendly products for all your detergent wishes! And by the way - saying goodbye to environmentally toxic ingredients can do wonders for sensitive skin (probably not too surprising!)
So, we’ve looked at emissions from using your washing machine & dryer, we’ve looked at the effects of chemicals in your detergent - but there’s also the emissions associated with the production of the detergent itself… According to the Wall Street Journal, the carbon footprint of using a popular UK detergent brand varies from 1.3 pounds (0.6 kg) to 1.9 pounds (0.9kg) per load, depending on the form of the detergent that's used. Let’s say a family did 300 loads of laundry with a detergent with a carbon footprint of 0.8 kg per year, we’d be looking at 240 kg per year for just the detergent.
One more thing we need to cover... microplastics! It’s a big problem - in fact, a study carried out by the International Union for Conservation of Nature found that in high-income countries (with good waste management systems), microplastics are a more environmentally harmful problem than discarded plastic. The issues start with clothes that are made of synthetic fibres - one load of laundry including these garments can release around 700,000 microplastic fibers into the environment.
Of course, some fabrics are more harmful than others, with acrylic being the worst, releasing five times more particles than polyester-cotton blends. Microfibers travel through sewage treatment facilities, ending up in rivers and oceans. One study noted that microfibers make up 85% of shoreline debris! If you own and use a machine dryer for clothing, you’ll have noticed the lint ('dust') collected… well, unfortunately there’s not a built-in filter in our washing machines.
But seeing as this is such a huge problem with what seems like a fairly simple solution, shouldn't all washing machines be required to include a microplastic filter? There was a petition launched a few years ago in the UK, but no action was taken. Check out the full response from the government for more information on that... In the meantime, you can get your hands on a recent invention that provides an add-on solution to your existing washing machine - check out PlanetCare for more. There's also a washing machine launching this year by Arcelik with a built-in microplastic filter.
Let’s summarise what you can do!
Use cold water and wash at 30 degrees celsius (you’ll save on your electricity bill too!)
Try to wear clothes more than once (your clothes will last longer too!)
Avoid using heavily scented detergents (your skin might thank you too!)
Line dry your clothes (you’ll save on your energy bill again)
If you do need to replace your washing machine in the future, look out for eco-friendly options. We’ve got an excellent guide and ranking of machines right here for you.
Use eco-friendly detergents & fabric softeners. Another handy guide right here.
As always, we love to feature new and exciting innovations in the sustainability field. We’ve come across Oxwash, an amazing UK-based laundry startup that is aiming to reduce the environmental cost of washing and dry-cleaning processes by using ozone to sterilize fabrics at lower temperatures, (they also have electric cargo bikes for hyper local pick-ups and deliveries!)
Oxwash Co-founder & CEO, Kyle Grant (former NASA engineer!), said, “Washing still has crazy carbon emissions, pollution and collection/delivery services cause large amounts of congestion. We saw a way to re-engineer the laundry process from the ground up and to be the first truly sustainable, space-age laundry company in the world.” He continues,
“We’re developing processes to have zero net carbon emissions - from collection to washing and back to delivery.”
Interested in learning more about your carbon footprint? Check out our app Capture - we can help you calculate your monthly guideline allowance, based on recommendations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, then balance emissions at the end of each month through verified nature-based offsets. Simply search 'carbon footprint and CO2 tracker' to find us in your app store.
Questions? Suggestions on the next ‘What’s the carbon footprint of’ article? Let us know! Follow us via Instagram @thecaptureapp or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!