Washing and Drying Clothes
There are a few ways to reduce the impact on the environment when doing the laundry. Washing clothes in cold water saves energy and reduces fading. Using the smallest amount of soap or detergent will save money and natural resources.
Soap or Detergent
First things first, it's important to know how soap and detergent work. How do they get the gardening stain off the knees of your britches, or the soy milkshake from your shirt? Surfactants are the key. They are organic molecules that help get in between the grime and fabric, separating the two.
On a small scale, surfactant molecules have two parts: the hydrophilic part loves water, and the hydrophobic part hates it. The two parts work together because the hydrophilic part attaches itself to the water while the hydrophobic part attaches itself to the fabric, helping to reduce surface tension in the water and loosening stain particles.
So what's the difference between soap and detergent? Both soap and detergent use surfactants, which is why they both get stains out. The difference is the source of the surfactants. Soaps tend to be organically based, derived from plant or nut oils and are generally referred to as oleochemicals. Detergents are synthetic and are usually made from petrochemicals.
One reason detergents were developed in the first place was that the surfactants in soaps tended to react with hard water, causing a film or residue. Hard water contains more minerals such as calcium and magnesium that can potentially build up on surfaces and laundry.
Until recently, fossil fuel was relatively inexpensive and easily available, making the synthetics popular ingredients in detergents. However, with fluctuations in the market and concerns about the environmental aspects of obtaining and processing fossil fuels, manufacturers are looking to other surfactant ingredients.
How do I get out really tough stains?
Stains can be categorized by their base component. Organic or protein stains include blood, sweat, and coffee and can be removed using hydrogen peroxide. Fat or oil stains like salad dressing may come out by dousing and rubbing them with cornstarch. Fruit stains like juice or wine are apt to disappear when drenched in boiling water. Make sure to treat the stain as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, not all vegetable-based or oleochemical surfactants are created equal. Some are obtained from palm and palm kernel oil from Malaysia and others from coconut oil primarily from the Philippines. Care must be taken to conserve the natural resources used to produce these oils. The American Cleaning Institute has information on sustainable laundry products, including oleochemicals.
In the end, using the minimal amount of soap or detergent to get the job done and looking for more environmentally sensitive ingredients is the best approach. Detergents that contain the word ultra are concentrated, so you can use less of them to get the same results.
Sun or Electricity
There's no denying that using the sun to dry clothes saves energy, but clotheslines are rare these days. So if you aren't ready to quit using your dryer cold turkey, you may just want to cut back a little. When you do use your dryer, you can take steps to make it more efficient. Don't overdry clothes. Take the clothes out when they are dry. Don't overload the dryer, and do dry similar items together.
Dryer sheets release chemicals as they bounce around in the dryer, making clothes soft and reducing static electricity. They routinely contain chemicals such as chloroform and benzyl acetate that can be harmful to the environment and irritate people's skin.
There are also chemical-free products available that treat static electricity and soften clothes and can be used over and over again. National Allergy carries a variety of products for people with sensitivities and allergies, including Static Eliminator Re-usable Dryer Sheets.