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Environmental footprint of clothes washing and drying

Environmental footprint of clothes washing and drying

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This page provides a summary of an investigation into the environmental impact of washing clothes and suggests steps that you could take to reduce your environmental footprint when washing clothes. We have tried to keep it as simple as possible while extracting what we think are the key points.

The study investigates the environmental impact of domestic washing and drying of clothes. It includes the environmental impact from manufacturing of the washing machine and detergent production to the impact from washing (such as the water and energy use and from the effluent created) and eventually disposal of the washing machine after a number of years of usage.

The environmental impact categories considered by this study include water use; energy consumption; global warming potential; eutrophication; non-renewable resource depletion including fossil fuel and mineral use; and land use.

The study suggests that the biggest environmental impact is associated with the washing process itself. I.e. the manufacturing of the washing machine and of the detergents, as well as the disposal of the washing machine at the end of its life, have a smaller overall effect on the environment.

The study suggests that, compared to the base case:

  • washing at lower temperatures has a lower impact on the environment
  • using less detergent has a lower impact on the environment
  • using detergent concentrate, as opposed to ‘standard’ detergent, has a lower impact on the environment
  • using fabric softener has a higher impact on the environment than not using any
  • not fully loading a washing machine has a higher impact on the environment than operating a fully loaded washing machine (per kg of garment washed)

The study also confirms the lower environmental impact of a front loader compared to a top loader, due to the lower amount of water required.

Link to full report

While we make every effort to be accurate, we do not claim that this summary is representative. Please refer to our Legal Disclaimer for details.

what can I do to reduce my environmental footprint?

While the study is based on Australian data, the results are probably universally applicable: To minimise the impact of washing clothes on the environment (and on your wallet):

  • wash only when you really have to
  • use a cold wash cycle if this is sufficient to clean your clothes (according to the study, even a 10ºC increase in temperature has a significantly higher impact on the environment)
  • use concentrated detergent rather than a ‘standard’ detergent
  • only wash when you have enough clothes to fill your washing machine
  • use as little detergent as possible and don’t use fabric softener
  • dry your clothes on a line rather than using a dryer

And if you are thinking of buying a new washing machine, consider buying a front loader. Finally, make sure you don’t buy a machine that’s bigger than you really need. It will likely mean that you operate the machine without fully loading it; its manufacturing had a greater impact on the environment than a smaller machine would have had; and it will cost you more to buy.

Report Rating: 3 out of 3

Report Published: May 2010

Country: Australia

Author(s): Melanie Koerner, Arup

Publisher: Environment Protection Authority Victoria

Funder: not indicated, assumed to be Environment Protection Authority Victoria

Keywords: life cycle analysis, LCA, cradle to grave analysis, environmental footprint, washing, detergent, dryer, clothes, garments, washing machine

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