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Tips for making laundry day more gentle on the environment

Laundry day isn’t exactly fun for most people, but it can be downright unpleasant for the Earth.

Washers guzzle gallons of water and dryers use up energy. Detergents and dryer sheets can release chemicals into water that has to be treated, and washing clothes can release microplastics that are accumulating in the world's waterways at alarming rates.

But it’s getting easier to clean your clothes while staying green. “You do have to wash your clothes, but you can do a very good job of minimizing the impact,” said Jonathan Gilligan, an associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at Vanderbilt University who has studied the effects of individual actions on greenhouse gas emissions. Although one consumer’s decision to switch to a more efficient washer isn’t going to counter the cumulative effects of major industries on its own, he said “it can have an effect.” Individual actions add up.

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Here are expert-backed strategies to tweak laundry day to be greener — and less of a chore.

Choose efficient machines

The machines you use have a significant effect on the amount of energy and water you save — or waste — on laundry day, experts said. Older appliances can rack up high utility bills, while newer, high-efficiency washers use less water and energy with lower temperatures and higher spin speeds.

In most cases, front-loading washers will be more efficient than top-loading ones, because the drum’s position can create a faster spin cycle. “If the washer is able to wring out most of the water from the clothes, then the dryer is going to have significantly less work to do,” which saves energy, said Jessica Petrino, editorial director of AJ Madison, a home and kitchen appliances store based in New York City.

Clothes should come out of the washer damp, not soaked. According to Petrino, front-loaders with about 1,200 revolutions per minute (RPM) or more are considered to be high-efficiency.

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Many dryers now have moisture sensors that help detect water on clothes. Heat pump dryers, which are popular in Europe, are another option; they use less energy than standard models by recirculating air within the drum, which conserves energy. Petrino said they aren’t popular in the United States, because US appliances generally are much larger than European ones, but she predicts that the technology will be adapted in the next decade.

In many cases, it makes more sense economically and environmentally to upgrade machines that are more than 10 years old, experts said. They recommend machines certified by the US government’s Energy Star program. Energy Star-certified washers use about 25 percent less energy and about 33 percent less water than standard models, the program’s website said, and Americans could save more than $3.3 billion per year in bills and cut more than 19 billion pounds of annual greenhouse gas emissions if every washer bought in the United States carried the rating.

The Energy Star program maintains an extensive database of home appliances with detailed product specifications online (energystar.gov), plus a tool to search for rebates and claim tax credits for energy-efficient appliances. Most appliances also carry an EnergyGuide label, which says how much energy the product takes to run and gives an estimated operating cost.

And remember: A clean machine is an efficient machine. Run white vinegar through a cleaning cycle to clear out product residue and bacteria when it gets stinky. (Melissa Maker, founder of Toronto cleaning service Clean My Space, said to do this two to four times a year to be safe.) Once or twice a year, clean the dryer duct and the washer’s drain pump. And empty the dryer’s lint trap before every load.

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Rethink your laundry habits

Even the most efficient machine will still waste water and electricity if you don’t know how to operate it properly, Maker said. Auto cycles can add too much water or heat. Read the instruction manual; unless something is really soiled, a basic cold- or warm-water cycle is sufficient to clean in combination with a high-efficiency machine and detergent.

Avoiding the dryer altogether is one of the biggest energy-saving switches you could make, and it could help clothes last longer. The dryer “adds abrasion, and there’s no real way to avoid that, even if you turn down the heat,” said Patric Richardson, author of “Laundry Love: Finding Joy in a Common Chore.” Air-drying outside on a dry, sunny day using a rack or clothesline is ideal; don’t set up the rack in an area with debris, dust, or excessive humidity. If wrinkles are an issue, Richardson recommends line-drying, then putting clothes in the dryer for a quick air cycle.

Stretch the time between washes by rewearing clothes and reusing towels, which is gentler on fabrics and can help clothes last longer. Avoid small loads, but don’t crowd a machine, which can make it work harder. And take a look at the amount of detergent you’re using. “Americans are obsessed with washing things, and using a lot of soap is how we’re trained,” said Petrino, who suggests two to three tablespoons for detergents intended for high-efficiency machines. Excess detergent will be harder to rinse out, leaving clothes with a crunchy feeling and extending washing and drying times.

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Last, think about your clothes themselves. Julie Masura, who teaches environmental science at the University of Washington at Tacoma and studies marine microplastics in Puget Sound, suggested wearing natural materials to prevent microplastics from being carried out through wastewater; loose-weave clothing, cut edges with frays, and fabrics that ball up are most likely to shed, she wrote in an e-mail. She uses the Guppyfriend washing bag ($34.95, guppyfriend.us) to catch errant fibers.

Read up on green products

Companies large and small have met consumer demand for products formulated without harsh chemicals — some of which studies have linked to adverse health outcomes—and synthetics that can be harmful to waterways. And many of them do well in rigorous performance and cleaning tests, said Carolyn Forte, who has tested many cleaning products as director of the Good Housekeeping Institute’s home appliances and cleaning products lab.

“Overall, they’re getting better as more of the big brands who have research dollars behind them do ingredient investigations and make better formulations,” she said.

But not all products are what they claim to be. Look for specific, verifiable claims, not nebulous terms such as “natural” or “eco-friendly.” Besides Good Housekeeping’s Green seal, which evaluates product performance and brands’ environmental effect, Forte advised looking for products with the USDA Certified BioBased label, a voluntary labeling program that denotes products made or partly made from renewable agricultural products; the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Choice label highlights ingredients that are deemed safer for humans and the environment than traditional chemical ingredients.

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Richardson also has an easy fix: Don’t buy products with lots of ingredients you can’t identify or pronounce. For example, instead of fabric softeners with irritating fragrances, he suggested adding white vinegar in the machine’s fabric softener cap to relax fibers without the lasting film. Wool or plastic dryer balls can be reused in place of dryer sheets to cut static. Baking soda can help with stains.

And don’t forget the packaging. Powdered or solid products are easier to package and ship than liquids.