Zero Waste Laundry Detergent (and Calculator to Find Your Household Laundry Emissions!)

By Jazmin Murphy | Updated on September 16, 2021

 

Washing your clothes now and then is a fundamental part of everyday life. Though the task is a drag for many people, they do it so often that it’s almost subconscious, especially when the washing and drying machines are right at home.

Laundry tends to fade into the background of people’s lives, so they don’t often think about how washing their clothes plays into their overall lifestyle. Beyond that, most people don’t consider how it affects the environment.

Yet, each year, studies show that laundry is one of the most resource-intensive human activities, with a high demand for water and energy, primarily. If you don’t already use zero waste laundry detergent, your detergent might be one of the most destructive facets of your routine… seeping into local water bodies, damaging fish gills, and harming beneficial bacteria.

It’s easy to get discouraged about your environmental impacts once you learn the real cost of having clean clothes. Fortunately, you only need to make a few minor adjustments to your wash routine to minimize your impact and reduce your carbon footprint.

An image of a white-walled laundry room with a washing machine and other laundry essentials on shelves.

 

Why Your Laundry Should be “Zero Waste”

Whether you use an automatic washing machine or scrub your clothes by hand, keeping your wardrobe clean impacts the environment in one way or another. This comes as a surprise to many people. Doing the laundry regularly is so second nature, that it’s easy to overlook it when calculating your household carbon footprint.

Plus, thanks to modern conveniences like washing and drying home appliances, it’s become easier than ever to detach yourself from how resource-intensive washing clothes is. Think about it, you need:

  • Detergent: Those tide pods might be small, but they have a big environmental impact. Laundry detergents’ safety hazards for humans and wildlife extend beyond your home. When these chemicals leak into surrounding natural habitats, they kill beneficial bacterial populations, damage fish gills (and sometimes kill their eggs), among other effects.1
  • Heat: How your washer and dryer generate heat depends on the model. For instance, an electric dryer might be a better choice than a gas alternative for reducing your laundry footprint. Though both washers and dryers both require heat, the latter has seen far fewer improvements. On the contrary, washers have progressed dramatically. Even one decade ago, they were operating at 70% less energy than past models.2
  • Water: The average home washing machine uses roughly 41 gallons of water per load. Think about how many times you wash your laundry per week or month! According to the National Park Service, the average American family washes around 300 loads of laundry every year.3 This amounts to 12,300 gallons of water annually, just for washing your clothes!3
  • Energy: Thinking about cutting back on your laundry footprint by eliminating water use? Unfortunately, this won’t cut it. The dryer alone is responsible for an average 6 percent of residential energy use in the US.3 A past study showed that the typical home clothes dryer consumes at least 2.5 kWh daily, with Sunday being the most energy-intensive at 5 kWh.4

All these come from finite sources, some of which are contributing to climate change directly. Although each of these is almost equally devastating, laundry detergents arguably deal the most wide-reaching environmental damage.

You can’t exactly choose the energy sources fueling your local power grid. Neither can you change the amount of water your washer is configured to use per load. Because of this, switching to a greener cleaning solution should be one of the first steps you take toward zero-waste laundry.

However, the type of cleaning solution you use and how often you wash your clothes are under your direct control. So, it’s best to get started with these two components when working toward zero-waste laundry.

What Makes a Laundry Detergent Eco-Friendly?

Since laundry detergent can be so damaging to natural ecosystems, a brand that makes a conscious effort to reduce that impact can be considered “eco-friendly.” However, not all companies will do so to the same extent, or in the same manner.

A view of a row of various types of of trees in a forest with autumn colored leaves, with an 8 Billion Trees watermark.

How eco-friendly your laundry detergent depends on your values. Consider what your goal is by switching to a more sustainable brand:

  • Ingredients: Imagine that your biggest concern with your current laundry detergent is the ingredient, palm oil. Switching to a new brand that uses only sustainable, organic, or locally sourced ingredients would mean the new product is an excellent, eco-friendly choice for you.
  • Amount of product needed per load: You don’t want to have to dump a bunch of laundry detergent in a single load. Since most cleaners are so dangerous for human and wildlife health, you’ll want a little bit of cleaning product to go far. As a general rule of thumb: It’s best to use 2 tablespoons of detergent per 12-lb load, but 1 tablespoon is best for 8 lbs.5 This baseline will help you pick a relatively eco-friendly cleaner.
  • Dry or wet detergent: Dry detergents may be worse for the environment than many liquid alternatives. One primary reason is these still contain what most detergents have abandoned: phosphate. Phosphate was found to cause excessive plant and algal growth in lakes and rivers, leading to eutrophication (meaning harmful algal blooms) and killing fish and other aquatic life.6,7

These are only a few of the most significant features to consider when calculating the laundry portion of your carbon footprint. Now that you have some general guidelines to live by for improving your footprint, you can build on that understanding with a more refined knowledge of how to minimize your laundry’s impact.

How to Calculate Your Laundry’s Impact and Shrink Your Footprint

Your detergent is only one part of your laundry’s environmental impact. Yet, phosphates and portion sizes are far from the only issues with these products.

For example, now that you know some cleaning products contain palm oil, you’re more likely to remember to look at the ingredients list before you buy.

This factor should be at the forefront of your mind when shopping for new detergents, especially since palm oil is a key ingredient in the US market’s leading product, Tide. Five of its 26 materials are “primarily from palm oil,” mainly from Indonesia and Malaysia.8

At this point, you must consider the broader implications of your laundry habits. Some ingredients, like phosphate, may have more localized damages, such as harming the fish that live in local water bodies. These emissions and impacts are easier to calculate than something like deforestation, having broader, global implications and contributing factors.

Of course, this means that investing in carbon offset programs as a means of reforestation is actually a great way to mitigate the effects of your laundry habits. By utilizing these offsets, you can help restore balance to Earth’s ecosystems.

Additionally, think about day-to-day factors you can also adjust. Changing just a few elements of your wash routine could dramatically reduce the environmental risks associated with cleaning your clothes, shrinking your footprint on both local and global scales.

Consider Your Detergent’s Ingredients

It’s essential to study and compare ingredients before settling on a detergent selection. While many of the market’s leading products are each environmentally harmful in their own right, some are worse than others.

On the one hand, ingredients like phosphate and silicate can trigger algal blooms after being released into nearby water bodies through sewage systems.9 This leads to cascading ecological destruction, even apart from damaging fish gills.

An underwater shot of a school of fish feeding in the seabed at the Galapagos Island, with an 8 Billion Trees watermark.

Researchers report that eutrophication is quite possibly the “most immediate environmental consequence of extensive phosphorus usage in contemporary societies.” They estimate that about 90% of the phosphorus consumed by humans directly (via food, product use, etc.) ends up lost to water bodies via sewage. Agricultural runoff is the only other human use of phosphorus that’s attributed to such widespread harm.10

These effects will likely be restricted to a single geographic region since phosphates and silicates mostly leak into surrounding water bodies via sewage systems.

On the other hand, palm oil production has much broader risks because of how it’s produced. This substance is a massive contributor to deforestation in some of the world’s most critical ecosystems.

For example, Indonesia is the world’s largest palm oil supplier – a title that has brought great devastation to its forests. Because of their production practices, the industry is responsible for almost one-quarter of the country’s total deforestation, and contributes to the continued destruction of endangered species’ habitats.8

This means that purchasing brands with palm oil or palm oil derivatives contributes to the peril faced by species like tigers and elephants. Plus, the deforestation caused by palm oil production requires clearing palm trees rooted in carbon-rich soil, releasing unspeakable amounts of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) into the atmosphere.8

Develop a Better Laundry Routine

Americans consumed 10 billion kWh of energy in 2020 washing their laundry and another 60 billion kWh drying it, making it a massive contributor to American energy consumption.11 The power demand of merely washing your clothes equals the same amount of energy you’d need to take one million Americans off the grid for an entire year.12

Of course, the most straightforward answer to this is: Wash your clothes less often. Right? For the most part, yes. Minimizing the environmental impact of doing your laundry depends not only on the washing frequency but also on the types of loads you’re cleaning and the machine settings.

Here are some tips you can use to make your laundry routine more sustainable:3

  • Use cold water and cold-water detergents. The Cleaning Institute reports that washing machines use about 90 percent of their energy to heat the water.13 Washing your clothes with cold water will help save energy.1
  • Wash full loads only. Waiting until you have a large load of clothes to wash is much better than washing smaller loads throughout the week. You’ll use less energy and water, and you only have to fold your clothes once. If you need to wash multiple small loads, remember to change your settings to the most efficient option.
  • Clean your dryer’s lint screen. Admittedly, the lint screen is probably the most forgettable part of the dryer. Still, it’s crucial to your laundry routine’s sustainability. Cleaning the screen improves air circulation, minimizes fire hazards, and prevents your dryer from overworking itself and consuming excess energy.3
  • Use wool or rubber dryer balls. According to the US Department of Energy, dryer balls contribute to a more environmentally friendly laundry routine. They’ll help your dryer work more efficiently, improving drying time due to better airflow between clothes.14

Of course, another excellent option for reducing your laundry’s impact is swapping out your washing and drying machines entirely. In this case, you’d want to switch to ENERGY STAR appliances. These reportedly use 25 percent less energy and 40 percent less water than standard washers, and 20 percent less energy than conventional dryers.1

Keep Your Clothes Clean, Waste-Free

You can’t escape having to do your laundry, but you can reduce the amount of damage you do with every load. By watching the size of your load, clearing out the lint screen, and switching to cold water and dryer balls, you can begin to mitigate your carbon footprint without ever having to get a new washing and drying machine.

Still, it’s futile to make all these changes with no baseline footprint to work from. So, before you get started, calculate your carbon footprint to learn just how much work you need to do to achieve a laundry routine with zero waste laundry detergent.


References

1Effendi, I., Nedi, S., Ellizal, Nursyirwani, Feliatra, Fikar, Tanjung, Pakpahan, R., & Pratama. (2017). Detergent disposal into our Environmentand its impact on marine microbes. IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science, 97, 012030. https://doi.org/10.1088/1755-1315/97/1/012030

2Denkenberger, D., Mau, S., Calwell, C., & Wanless, E. (2011). Residential clothes dryers: A closer look at energy efficiency test procedures and savings opportunities. Natural Resources Defense Council. https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/ene_14060901a.pdf

3National Park Service. (2021, August 11). Laundry practices and water conservation (U.S. National Park Service). Retrieved August 17, 2021, from https://www.nps.gov/articles/laundry.htm

4McCowen, B. (2015). Residential electric clothes dryer baseline study. Energy & Resource Solutions and Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships. https://neep.org/sites/default/files/resources/NEEP_EMV_Summary Report_Dryer Baseline Finale 4-01-15.pdf

5Sanci, E. (2021, July 22). Stop using so much laundry detergent. New York Times | Wirecutter. Retrieved August 17, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/blog/stop-using-so-much-laundry-detergent/

6McCoy, M. (2019, January 27). Almost extinct in the US, powdered laundry detergents thrive elsewhere in the world. Chemical & Engineering News. https://cen.acs.org/business/consumer-products/Almost-extinct-US-powdered-laundry/97/i4

7National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (21, February 26). What is eutrophication? https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/eutrophication.html

8Tufts University. (n.d.). Tide laundry detergent: The indirect implications of what we buy. https://sites.tufts.edu/sarinatscott/report/

9Open University. (n.d.). Eutrophication: 3.2.2 Domestic detergents. Open Learn. https://www.open.edu/openlearn/nature-environment/environmental-studies/eutrophication/content-section-3.2.2

10Kundu, S., Vassanda Coumar, M., Rajendiran, S., Rao, A., & Subba Rao, A. (2015). Phosphates from detergents and eutrophication of surface water ecosystem in India. Current Science, 108(7), 1320-1325. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24905495

11Flamer, K. (2021, May 28). 10 ways to save energy doing laundry. Consumer Reports. Retrieved August 17, 2021, from https://www.consumerreports.org/laundry/energy-saving-laundry-tips/

12HERO Program. (2016, June 29). Californians are saving 10 billion kilowatt-hours through HERO program. PR Newswire. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/californians-are-saving-10-billion-kilowatt-hours-through-hero-program-300292241.html

13American Cleaning Institute. (n.d.). Cold water saves. https://www.cleaninginstitute.org/industry-priorities/outreach/cold-water-saves

14US Department of Energy. (2018, February 14). 16 ways to save money in the laundry room. Energy Saver. Retrieved August 17, 2021, from https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/articles/16-ways-save-money-laundry-room