Sustainable laundry – options to care for the environment while you wash the clothes!

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Freshly folded clothes straight off the clothesline with that sunny sweet smell. No electricity required, just the free sunshine and wind. My favorite Go Bamboo and Munch brand pegs. In the pink box is my Ethique laundry and stain remover bar.

Washing clothes is an endless task for many Mums and and it is never ever finished. No sooner have you dealt with one lot and there is another lot of dirty clothes building up in the dirty washing bin. The way we wash our clothes is also an area where we have made a few changes in the last year or so since we embarked on the journey to become more sustainable. The laundry is a place where we can all make small changes that will mount up and make a difference to the environment around us and contribute to the future we leave for our kids and grandkids.

Here are some ideas to inspire you to make some small but meaningful changes to your laundry in order to make it more sustainable and environmentally friendly. Most of them have an impact on our water, and so the laundry is an important place to start.

Soap nuts: I was very skeptical about these things, thinking that they were probably not very good. Then I got a bag of soap nuts given to me (for my birthday) and I was immediately fascinated and curious, after all I am slightly plant centric (being an avid gardener) and I am always interested in interesting plants. These things grow on trees and they wash your clothes, two of my boxes ticked straight away. My cousin told me she used them and was hooked. I tried washing our clothes with them and aside from some extremely filthy socks they did just as well as the conventional washing powders for almost every situation. I still use them when I can get them. You can use them multiple times and then you just throw the used shells into your compost! No plastic involved (just a cellophane bag).

Ecostore laundry liquids and powder: I find these products far better than those with artificial fragrance and enzymes. I have used Ecostore laundry products for years because I found them better for my sensitive skin and I prefer the scent of the natural fragrances to the artificial ones in other laundry products. They are safe for septic tanks and that means they are better for our environment. Additionally they are a NZ owned and operated business and they manufacture their products right here in NZ. This is really important for me when I choose products in the supermarket. I try to avoid imports to lessen the carbon footprint. There are now other eco-brands out there but Ecostore was one of the first and is an established quality brand

Ethique laundry bar: This little gem is a great little bar for taking tramping or travelling. It works very well as a spot stain remover and I use it all the time. I have taken it tramping and I would also take it traveling to use for hand washing items where there isn’t access to a washing machine.

Ethique Household concentrates: Spray cleaners often live in the laundry cupboard, and they usually come in plastic bottles. These are new products that I haven’t yet had the opportunity to trial, but a friend of mine has been using them and says they are brilliant. Spray cleaners are something that we all take for granted these days, but spray bottles are something that people usually dispose of and rebuy with the next shop each time they run out. It appears you simply break off a square, dissolve in water and pour into an old reused spray bottle. Spray bottles are a brilliant invention and they can last (if looked after) for many years. Why do we get a new one every time we replace the contents? Even the refills come in a plastic bottle. It seems like a terrible and un-necessary waste of plastic. The idea of a solid concentrate bars sounds brilliant. Until now, our solution had been to buy 4 litre bulk refills and reuse an old spray bottle. We might switch to these concentrates if they turn out to be as good as they sound.

Ecostore whitener: This stuff works just as well or better than the Napisan that is usually used to soak baby and toddler clothes. In fact years ago I switched to Ecostore whitener and never noticed any difference. I felt better about the ingredients in it and was happier to use the product for things that were in contact with the sensitive skin of my precious babies.

Wash cycle options: cold water over hot, eco-cycles to use less water, thus saving electricity to heat water. These options can appear as a bit of an obvious choice but many people overlook the value of something as simple as selecting a different wash cycle option.

Full loads only: In order to maximise the efficiency of your loads of washing, try (where possible) to do full loads of washing. The fewer loads of washing you do the better.

Avoid ironing if you can: Ironing uses electricity, it causes fabrics to deteriorate, and it shortens the life of your clothing. I very rarely use an iron because ironing is not a chore I have much time for in my busy family – although it is strangely satisfying to smooth creases out of clothes. Instead I chose clothing that is unlikely to require ironing. If you are a person who regularly uses an iron, here are a few tips to make ironing less necessary. Hang clothing on clothes hangers while still wet and let gravity and the weight of the water in the clothing pull the wrinkles out. Fold clothing (or sheets etc) straight off the line where you want the creases to be. Then put folded clothes in your drawers underneath other clothing which will help to further press them.

Wear it more than once: If you can reduce the amount you have to wash then you can reduce the number of washes that you do. Simple really!

Air dry your washing: Use a clothes line, or an airing rack on the veranda. This might appear obvious, but really it is an important action you can take to reduce your impact on the environment. The clothes drier uses a lot of electricity which costs you money. The sun and wind outside in the fresh air is absolutely free and uses no electricity. As an added bonus your washing gets that lovely fresh sunny smell. Line dried clothes last longer because there is less wear and tear which is an added bonus. In our house the cloths drier is always a last resort. We have a rotary clothesline, we have put a line up under our veranda and also have a hanging homemade clothes airer in our back porch. In some parts of the world there are restrictions placed on people to prevent them from using outdoor clothes lines. Here in New Zealand, caveats on some new developments are beginning to infringe on the rights of people to have a visible outdoor clothes line. If you are buying into a new development request a copy of the covenants from the real-estate agent. Take time to check that the caveats will not prevent you from line drying your clothes and instead lock you into an energy and carbon intensive requirement to use a clothes drier.

Sustainable clothes pegs: When replacing your plastic clothes pegs try stainless steel, bamboo or wooden pegs. I wrote a blog about this last year and after another year of use my old plastic pegs have almost completely disintegrated (after years of prolonged exposure to sunlight), but my eco pegs are still going strong. I am a convert to bamboo and stainless steel pegs, but if you really want plastic pegs then hunt out a brand of NZ made recycled plastic peg. Stainless steel and bamboo pegs work brilliantly though so don’t be afraid to try something more expensive. They really are worth it.

Choose natural fibres/fabrics: Consider the fabrics your clothes are made from and avoid synthetics that can break down to micro plastic particles and end up in streams and rivers. Microplastic contamination of the oceans is one of the world’s most pressing environmental concerns.  Microplastics are defined as small particles of plastic that are 100nm to 5mm in size.  Fibres from synthetic fabrics can get into the water from our washing machines.  These microplastic particles are small enough to be ingested by many organisms and as a result there are concerns about bioaccumulation. This is not just an environmental problem but also a health problem for us because these microplastics make their way into soils and waterways and from there into the ocean and ultimately into the food chain. In most parts of New Zealand, the councils will allow you to reuse your greywater for irrigation purposes, but it is likely that you will have to install a greywater filtration system. If you reuse your greywater in this way it is all the more reason to consider very carefully what you put down the drain!

Although not directly related to your laundry, do remember to think mindfully about the type of clothing you buy and how much clothing you really need. We are constantly having seasonal fashion pushed at us and the pressure of “fast fashion” is everywhere. This marketing is a dangerous myth. Buy quality natural clothing that is made to last, and then when you wash it you won’t be contributing to the micro-plastic particles in our waterways. Additionally, you will be slowing the consumerist fast fashion machine that hurts the environment and the garment factory workers who manufacture your clothes in substandard conditions.

Choose lifetime guarantees: When buying or replacing a washing machine consider paying for the model with the longest guarantee and reputation for reliability. The longer the machine lasts the better it is for the environment. Planned obsolescence has a huge (and unnecessary) environmental impact. Consider the availability of spare parts for the machine, repairing is better than replacing.

Cane or wicker clothes baskets: Replace plastic clothes baskets that crack or break and contribute to the plastic disposal problem, with wicker ones. In the past this is something we have done, but currently I am guilty of owning three plastic washing baskets. I was given two of them and purchased the other one when we were away camping and a cane washing basket couldn’t be located. I take care of them and I am determined to make them last as long as possible before they reach the end of their lives. It was easier with the cane washing basket when it bit the dust. We composted parts of it and used the rest for kindling.

So there you have it, lots of ideas to help you to make your laundry more sustainable and environmentally friendly. There are so many things you can do, I am sure there are other ideas I have missed. Don’t be afraid to make some changes and try some new products. The impact of our choices mounts up in a way that is largely invisible to us, but every little change we make has a positive impact downstream. I know it can often seem hopeless when we are faced with the magnitude of the problems facing our environment. Despite this we have to start making changes somewhere, and looking after our fresh water is a very powerful, yet meaningful change to make. The laundry is a great place to start!

Sustainable Clothes Pegs – SUST

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A few of my sustainable pegs.  Bamboo spring pegs from Go Bamboo, a single “dolly peg” left over from a craft activity, and my brand new Munch brand stainless steel pegs.

Have you ever considered clothes pegs? They are clever little things, so simple and so useful.  But how sustainable are they?  Clothes pegs are almost entirely made from plastic and are practically all manufactured in China.  I have picked up pegs in some pretty strange places; footpaths, roads, car parks, playgrounds.  But the most disturbing places I have picked them up is on beaches half buried in the sand. And I am talking about relatively isolated beaches.  We even found them on Mana Island during a beach clean-up.  This prompted me to start thinking about sustainable alternatives, and trying to find locally made pegs if I could.

I remember the day it occurred to me to wonder if my old broken plastic pegs could actually be recycled.   I looked at the gravel under my clothesline and noticed the fragments of ancient looking plastic pegs.  Some had simply been dropped and then stepped on.  Some had suffered plastic fatigue and had broken mid-use leaving my clothes hanging oddly, or in a sad heap on the ground below the line.  Others had served me well and probably date back to around 15 years ago, but had become pitted with age, faded, and brittle with extended exposure to the sun.  As I gathered the remnants of my expired pegs I found myself wondering if they should go in the rubbish or the recycling.  I turned to trusty Google and began researching, and then started firing off emails.

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Some of the broken remains of pegs that have reached the end of their lives…..all headed for landfill.

It turns out that while some plastic clothes pegs start out as technically recyclable plastic, extended exposure to UV damages them so that they are no longer recyclable.  I discovered this interesting fact when I tracked down the manufacturer of Sunshine Pegs.  I fired off my questions about how recyclable they are and they responded promptly to explain the effects of UV.

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Bright, colourful and practical. A few of my plastic pegs. On the far left are five NZ made Sunshine pegs.

Clothes pegs are a surprisingly recent invention.  The earliest references to clothes pegs date from around the early 19th century.  Prior to that date washing was apparently draped over a line or hung out over bushes to dry.  This might have been OK in England, but it wouldn’t work at all here in Wellington (the windiest city in the world) on what we would class as a slightly breezy day!  In my grandma’s day back in the 1940’s with a young family, pegs were wooden (and no doubt made right here in New Zealand too).  In fact my grandma managed to make do without plastic at all with three children during WW2 rationing.  Although times have changed and life is different today, I find her example inspirational.  The up-shot is that although plastic pegs are ubiquitous and convenient they are not sustainable and there are alternatives.   Here are just a few that I have found.

Sunshine pegs – NZ made, but not recyclable at end of life.

These bright, colourful, plastic spring pegs are made in New Zealand, so don’t require shipping to our shores with all the associated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  Although technically recyclable when the product is new, this isn’t the case after prolonged exposure to UV.  Since pegs do most of their work outside on sunny hot days, they aren’t really a recyclable product. They are going to end up in landfill or washed down stormwater drains at the end of their lives.    I have a supply of them, and they are great, but only while they are not UV damaged and consequently brittle.  If you want to continue with plastic pegs, at least make sure that they are made locally. 

Go Bamboo pegs – Made in China, biodegradable

These bamboo pegs were my first exploration into the world of sustainable alternatives to plastic pegs.  Priced reasonably at $7 for 20 pegs and packaged in compostable boxes,  these pegs were made for Wellingtons famous winds!  They have an incredibly strong grip. I like them, and would happily have more of them.  They don’t stain or mark clothing.  However on the downside, their grip is so strong that they can be a bit fiddly to get on and off in a hurry (such as a sudden rain shower) and my Mum who has a bit of arthritis finds them nearly impossible to operate.

Go Bamboo make a lot of claims to be sustainable and to have good conditions for their factory workers, but they don’t back any of this up with accreditations such as fairtrade.  This bothers me, but so far I haven’t found an alternative brand with accreditations and so until I do I will continue to use them.  Basically they are asking me to trust that they are being 100% honest about what they are claiming, but an accreditation would make this a much easier decision.

Munch stainless steel pegs = Made in China

These are my newest acquisition.  My darling husband spotted them and got some for me to try.  Not a cheap option at $27 for a bag of 20 pegs, but I have to say so far they are worth it.  They are strong, easy to operate and don’t mark clothing.  They have handled some pretty mean winds and my washing has stayed firmly on the line.  I have no issues with these pegs.  I love them.

Although I haven’t tried them yet, I did stumble across some New Zealand made pegs made from recycled plastic.  They look good, and I am keen to sample them.  A google search turns up several pegs that are made in New Zealand from recycled plastic.  I think this would be a good option if you remain keen on plastic pegs.  Although exposure to UV means they will not be recyclable at the end of their “working life”.

I am unsure which is best actually, sustainable pegs that have to be shipped here contributing to GHG emissions, or plastic pegs made here in New Zealand but that can’t be recycled, thus contributing to landfill and the rising problem of micro-plastics and plastic pollution.  It is a tough one.  In the end I have opted for imported sustainable pegs so that I am no longer contributing old pegs to the plastic problem in our landfills and on our beaches.  I am hopeful that they will prove durable and will outlast the plastic pegs.  But as soon as someone starts making sustainable plastic free pegs right here in New Zealand, I will ditch the imports and buy New Zealand made again.

It may seem like an insignificant step to make towards a more sustainable future, but I think it is worth while.  Plastic pegs are not designed to last for long.  They are designed to be expendable and easily replaceable.  They must contribute a fair bit of plastic over the full life of an average family.  I don’t ever want one of my old pegs to end up inside an albatross chick instead of fish, and I don’t ever want my old pegs washing out to sea to end up polluting a beautiful beach somewhere.  New Zealand has so many native seabirds that this is a real concern for me.  If my pegs are made from wood or metal, that will never be a problem.  I challenge you to make a sustainable change in your laundry to remove another source of plastic, and wherever possible choose to buy local over imports if you can.  Together our consumer choices can make a difference, even if it seems insignificant.  Those discarded bits of plastic don’t seem very important to us, but it matters a huge amount to the albatross chick that gets a peg instead of fish.