Washing clothes is a mundane task we all have to do regularly. Although you may not give it much thought, garment washing has a bigger impact on the environment, than you probably realise. Did you know that a single synthetic garment washed in a domestic washing machine gives off around 1900 individual fibres, which can end up in our oceans? These pollutants can then make their way into the food chain and even enter our systems.
This is just one of the consequences of garment washing. Apart from polluting our water systems, garment washing also contributes to a significant carbon footprint, causes excessive water and energy wastage. Let’s take a look at each of these factors in greater detail, to get a better picture of what this means.
Microfibres In The Sea
Ecologist Mark Browne, in his research on microplastics, found that the shorelines around the world were contaminated with synthetic fibres, such as nylon and acrylic. This cannot be easily dismissed, as these synthetic fibres form up to 85% of the man-made materials on the shorelines.
Several toxic chemicals are used in the construction of synthetic fibres. When such fabrics break down and their fibres make their way to domestic sewage systems, hazardous chemicals are introduced into our water systems.
Although environmental groups like Greenpeace put pressure on clothing makers to eliminate toxic chemicals from their production system, research on how to tackle synthetic microfibre migration to water systems is lacking. Mark Browne proposed the Benign by Design program, to research more on this subject. However, he has been unable to obtain support from garment and appliance manufacturers to take it forward, and the danger remains unchecked.
When you think about it, it’s kind of a no brainer that common laundry soaps and fabric softeners aren’t environmentally friendly, as they wash chemicals into the water supply. This article on Treehugger also draws our attention to the fact that laundry detergents contain APEs that damage the immune system and act as hormone disruptors. Enzymes, bleaches, perfumes and colourants used in chemical detergents are absorbed into our bodies when they come into contact with our skin. Some of these toxic chemicals have even been linked to cancer, allergies and birth defects.
Similarly, chlorine bleach contaminates drinking water, is caustic and can react with other cleaners to release toxic fumes. Phosphates in laundry detergents that enter aquatic systems, promote algal blooms, causing imbalances in the ecosystem.
The Green Choices website sheds light on the dangers of using non-biodegradable laundry detergents. Those that do not break down, persist in the system, polluting our water bodies and finding their way into our drinking water supply.
Human activities introduce certain gases like methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. These greenhouse gases contribute to climatic changes like global warming, and have a long-term impact. What we mean by carbon footprint, is the extent of impact that an activity we do, causes the environment.
Washing clothes contributes to our total carbon footprint, and it is quite significant. This article on the Guardian mentions that washing and drying a 5 kg load of laundry every two days creates nearly 440 kg of carbon dioxide emissions in a year. For a typical wash at 40°C, 75% of the carbon footprint is attributed to the drying phase using a tumble drier. So, you can reduce your carbon footprint significantly by skipping the drying phase, and choosing to line dry our clothes instead.
Water & Energy Wastage
Energy Star puts the average household’s water consumption for garment washing using a top loading machine, at 13500 gallons of water per year. These older machines use nearly 40 gallons of water per wash. This is twice as much water as a front loading machine needs.
By simply switching to a front loading machine, you can save up to 7000 gallons of water in a year. Considering that the average life of such a machine is 11 years, that’s enough water supply for the lifetime of six people – shocking, isn’t it!?
Where energy is concerned, both washing machines and dryers use electricity to generate heat and drive the motors. 90% of the energy consumed is used to heat up the water. When we do our laundry in cold water with a suitable detergent, there is a significant reduction in the amount of energy required for each wash.
We should also consider the extent to which dryers use up energy. A single tumble dryer cycle uses up to four kWh of energy, which creates more than a tonne of carbon dioxide per year.
Most dryers use a vented model, where the heat that is generated in it is simply pumped out and wasted. The green solution is to completely skip the dryer, and use a clothes line to dry clothes instead. Switch off your dryer and you not only increase the lifespan of your clothes, but also help the environment.
I hope that this article has enlightened you on the overall effect that the simple act of garment washing, has on the environment. However, our discussion is incomplete, until we explore how we can minimise these adverse effects through making the right choices, and how designers can alleviate the issue by designing for minimum environmental impact. More on this in my next article!
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