a comprehensive guide to low waste laundry

Laundry is the chore than never ends, isn’t it? I am pretty good about washing and drying, but folding and putting away is where I typically abandon the process. Laundry takes a lot of energy (literally and figuratively), but adapting your routine for low waste living is more sustainable for both your lifestyle and the planet. Included in this guide are all options that I have tried and/or currently do. What your routine looks like will depend on your access to machines (and how energy-efficient they are), space to dry, water hardness, what clothing your lifestyle demands, your budget, and access to products that meet your ethical criteria.

Do Laundry Less Often

The easiest way to make laundry more sustainable it to do it less often. Going longer between washes will save time, energy, water, money, and extend the life of your clothes. A few tips:

  • Opt for natural fibres, which are more breathable and don’t hold on to smells or stains as easily as synthetic clothing.
  • Choose items that don’t require ironing or dry cleaning.
  • Wash clothes less frequently. Aim for at least more than one wear per item, with things like jeans going for 5 or more wears.
  • Hang clothes back up to “air out” between wearings.
  • Wear undergarments, like camisoles or undershirts to give outer layers more time between washing.
  • Worried about smelly armpits? Use a linen spray to freshen up clothes between wearing. A small spray bottle with some cheap vodka and water will do, but there are lots of other recipes on Pinterest.
  • Wash like items together (i.e. household linens, jeans, lighter items and undergarments).
Wash like materials together and hang to dry to extend the life of your clothing.

What To Wash With

The best thing for cleaning dirt and oils is soap, but not all soap is created equal. From sourcing practices to additives to packaging, choosing a low impact option that works best with your machine and water is important. We have a high- efficiency (HE) top loading machine that senses how much water to use, but does not rinse powder well due to our hard water. Be sure to consider how each option will work with cold water as well.

DIY Detergent

Recipes abound for DIY laundry detergent, so do a little research into which ingredients you prefer, can easily source, and work well with your machine and water.

  • We use this liquid recipe from Allison (@nonlocal.joy on Instagram) with a few minor tweaks. I typically double it and keep it in a big jug we still have from several years ago.
  • This powder recipe from Zero Waste Nerd looks fairly simple and great for top loaders.
Soap Nuts
  • Also called soapberries, they are the fruit of the S. mukorossi tree grown in India and Nepal. I have seen other varieties growing in Arizona as well.
  • Natural saponin is released when the soap nuts are in hot water. Simply place 4-6 in a small cotton bag, tie it shut, and place in a glass of hot water while you load the machine. Toss in the bag and wash on cold. Can be used 3-5 times and then composted.
  • Keep in mind that a surge in demand for this product influences how ethically it is harvested. Also consider how far an option like this must travel to your door. I was gifted a big box of these from a friend and will therefore use them up, but will likely not purchase again for these reasons.
  • A similar and more widely available (and often free) option is horse chestnuts. Check out Wasteland Rebel’s recipe here.
Refills and Other Options

You do not have make everything to live a low waste lifestyle! Liquid refills are a great way to reduce waste as they eliminate the need to acquire any more plastic jugs. Bulk powder is offered at lots of bulk stores too. If you don’t have access to refills, purchase the largest container you can afford (and store!) or opt for laundry powder in a cardboard box. Laundry strips or pods are a good option for small space living.

Stain remover sticks are a must have if you have kids or spill a lot. Ours has not let me down yet! Finally, avoid chlorine bleach and skip commercial fabric softener all together. Vinegar can work wonders, depending on your issue.

Soap nuts, a cotton bag, and stain remover block.

How to Wash

I was taught to sort clothes by colour but this has changed since I started looking at the bigger picture. I now sort by weight, meaning that lighter and heavier fabrics get washed separately. This is another way to extend the life of your clothes – your jeans are beating the hell out of your tees in there! Some other tips:

  • Pre-treat stains right away. Different stain types require different action, so download a stain removal guide and make note of your frequent offenders.
  • Wash in cold. Always. This uses significantly less energy, keeps colours from bleeding, and is less harsh on fabrics.
  • Capture plastic microfibres! Synthetic clothing washes thousands of plastic microfibres out with the wastewater into our waterways with every load. Use a wash bag (i.e. GuppyFriend) or laundry egg (i.e. EcoEgg) to capture these in your machine.
  • Only wash full loads.

Drying

  • Hang to dry whenever and wherever possible. This saves energy and extends the life of your clothes.
  • Sunlight is a fabulous “bleaching” agent, great for making stains disappear on lighter fabric. Turn darker clothes inside out if you are worried about fading.
  • If using a dryer, turn down the heat and use wool dryer balls! These reduce static and overall drying time. You can add a few drops of essential oils to replace dryer sheets if having a scent is important to you.
  • Wooden drying racks can become mildewy in humid environments, so keep an eye on that. Lots of great suggestions for mitigating it after the fact on this post.

Folding/Hanging Up/Putting Away

This is where the system kind of breaks down in our house. We begin the process with the best of intentions and then the clean laundry piles up on the other end. I have zero advice to offer you here! Suggestions welcome in the comments.

What does your low waste laundry routine look like? What has worked for you and what has not?

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4 thoughts on “a comprehensive guide to low waste laundry

  1. I hang shirts upside down so there is no dreaded clip mark. I hang small time such as socks/undies on the inner part of my rack. These take less time to dry. Heavy Items such as towels, pants get hung on the outside because the sun will be hotter on them. I sometimes leave a load of clothes on the line overnight and take it down in the morning. Ooooh don’t forget to snap the clothes when you take them off the line. This helps get rid of the crunchy feel and knocks off any bugs if there are any. I’ve yet to find any bugs. Then put clothes away immediately because if I don’t I won’t ever put them away.

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  2. We separate our laundry in 3: lights, darks and towels + bed linens. Depending on the machine and how dirty/smelly the clothes are we adjust the temperature, usually we use 20°C, but for towels/linens/cloth pads & toilet towels we use 40-60°C . We hang to dry and in average we do 1 load every week and a half. We use a guppy friend bag for sport clothes and some clothes we bought years ago still made of synthetic fibers to catch any microfibers and our underpants we wash them by hand everyday (as well as the cloth pads during periods for a rinse before putting them on the machine)

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  3. Growing up in the 50’s we did not have a “dryer” everything was hung up to dry. Common practice was to fold as you picked. And many clothes were ironed before putting away. Monday was wash day, Tuesday was ironing. I still hang most of my clothes to dry. But don’t do too much ironing. Towels & sheets I use dryer. I did use clothes line when available I would again if I had opportunity.

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