Believe it or not, the majority of the damage your clothes do the environment is not when they’re being made but when you get hold of them. On average, a typical garment is washed twenty times and this uses six times as much energy as it did to make it in the first place. A T-shirt, for example, if washed at 60°C, tumble dried and ironed, will lead to the release of 4kg of C0² - the equivalent of flying for 17 miles. If you forgo tumble drying and don’t iron, you can cut the carbon emissions and energy consumption of your laundry by half (I hang up my tops and dresses as soon as they come out of the wash to try and minimise ironing). And as we know, washing your clothes in an A rated machine and reducing the temperature helps massively (your energy consumption is reduced by 10% for every 10oC reduction in temperature). So reducing the temperature, reducing the number of times you wash your clothes, forgoing tumble drying and cutting back on ironing will be better for the environment - but what damage is your detergent doing?
It’s really hard to find out exactly what’s in your laundry detergent – manufacturers aren’t obliged to give more than a cursory nod towards the ingredients – nor is it easy to work out how damaging these chemicals are. Basically, your washing powder contains surfactants, bleaches, builders and enzymes. Surfactants are what get your clothes clean; builders are added to make surfactants work better in hard water areas, bleaches release peroxide into your washing machine to remove stains like coffee and enzymes digest stains (and your clothes too, over time). There may also be a whole host of other things as well, such as optical brighteners to make your whites look whiter, dispersing agents to hold removed dye away from the fabric and Ph adjusters that alter the acidity of the water.
Unsurprisingly the detergent industry firmly maintains that there is nothing wrong with the chemicals they use and equally unsurprisingly fervent greenies think there is. Overall, some of what is released from your washing machine into the sewage system is efficiently mopped up by our treatment plants. However, around a quarter of all detergents sold in Europe contain phosphates (they’re a ‘builder’) and about a quarter of all the phosphates in our waterways come from our laundry (the rest is the run-off from farming). The consequence of this is eutrophication, where water weeds and algae thrive on the excess phosphate, grow wildly, suck up all the oxygen and smother aquatic life. Plus some surfactants are broken down to a chemical called nonylphenol, which is toxic to fish and causes ‘oestrogen activity’ in mammals. Oestrogen, as you know, is the hormone that helps women grow boobs. According to The Chemistry of the Environment by Bailey, Clark, Ferris, Krause and Strong (published by Academic Press 2002), it’s not clear whether there’s enough nonylphenol in our water to be fish-killing and breast-forming.
But just in case – you might want to try using an eco-detergent! Unfortunately, not that many are that good – so next week I’ll let you know the results of my eco-laundry trials…and tribulations.
Photos copyright Sanjida O'Connell