How to do laundry the sustainable way

A new University of Leeds study sought to step out of Procter & Gamble’s developer labs and examine how daily consumer use affects clothing conditions.

A woman loads laundry into the washing machine at a laundromat in Cambridge, Massachusetts July 8, 2009. (photo credit: REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER)
A woman loads laundry into the washing machine at a laundromat in Cambridge, Massachusetts July 8, 2009.
(photo credit: REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER)

A quick and cold laundry cycle results in less power consumption and less emission of plastic microfibers, while extending the lifespan of your clothes.

Even if you’ve only just recently started doing your own laundry – or if you’re a laundry expert by now – you’ve probably heard an infinite amount of tips and instructions as to how to do the ultimate wash, either from online sources or as part of a friendly (or less friendly) conversation.

Here you will not find answers to eternal questions such as whether colorful laundry should be separated from whites, how to wash linens or which is best: a liquid or a powder detergent. But if you’d like to know how your washing habits affect the environment, and how to make your clothes last longer, you’ve come to the right place. 

A recent study conducted at the University of Leeds in the UK, in collaboration with one of the world’s largest laundry detergent manufacturers, Procter & Gamble, sought to step out of the company’s developer labs and examine how daily consumer use affects clothing conditions, in terms of fabric fraying and color fading. Their conclusion was clear: we can all easily keep our clothes in better condition if we use shorter cycles and colder water.

In addition, the researchers tried to evaluate the effect of changes in washing habits on our energy consumption and on the amount of microfibers and microplastics emitted by our clothes, which eventually and consistently make their way to the oceans.

Their conclusion was similar: in order to reduce energy consumption and to minimize microfiber pollution of the environment, the same shorter and colder cycles that keep our clothes in a better condition are recommended. In short, it’s a win-win situation – for our clothes and for the environment.

Laundry Duty

In order for the experiment to simulate household use as closely as possible, the researchers prepared no less than 32 “homemade” laundry bags, composed of dark-colored and light-colored clothing plus some white fabrics. Half of the bags were washed at 40 degrees for 85 minutes, and the other 16 were washed at 25 degrees for 30 minutes.

At the end of each wash, the garments were examined to evaluate their level of wear and tear as well as the loss of color or color transfer from one fabric to another. At the same time, researchers also analyzed the chemical composition of the laundry water to identify the colors washed out of the clothes. Finally, all the microfibers were collected and weighed after each wash.

Laundry 370 (credit: thinkstock)Laundry 370 (credit: thinkstock)

Analysis of the results revealed that the rate of color loss from the clothes was significantly greater for the longer and warmer washing cycle, compared to the short and cold wash. More precisely, the short cycle reduced color loss by about 74%. Accordingly, there was less color transfer from garment to garment in the shorter cycle. The clothes didn’t wear out as much, and the fabric could be preserved longer.

Analysis of the fiber emission yielded similar results: if the short cycle is used, the amount of microfibers emitted in each wash is reduced by a little more than half. 

In addition to all the positives in favor of cold laundry washes, transitioning to colder washing programs (20-30 degrees) also reduces the power consumption required for each load by 40-60%.

Green and Clean

Admittedly, some would argue that there is no escape from using long laundry cycles and high temperatures if you want your clothes to be clean enough after washing. However, according to Neil Lant, one of the researchers from Procter & Gamble, the technological advancements in the field of laundry detergents, especially the use of sustainable ingredients such as enzymes, allow for excellent cleaning even on shorter and colder cycles. 

This study demonstrates the great impact that the specific conduct of each household and each person can have on the environment. In this case, we can care for the environment without forgoing anything that is important to us, and even receive added benefits: if we simply transition to colder and faster laundry cycles, we will save time, money, water and energy, while caring both for the environment as well as for our favorite T-shirt.