Dear EarthTalk: How can I have a greener, healthier laundry room? -- Billie Alexander, Topeka, Kan.
While there are many ways to green one's laundry room, one place to start is with detergent. Luckily, in 2009 the federal government phased out phosphates, harsh chemicals that help break down minerals and loose food bits during the wash cycle, because their presence in waste water causes algae blooms in downstream waterways.
But mainstream detergents still often contain the surfactant nonylphenol ethoxylate, which researchers have identified as an endocrine-disrupting estrogen mimic, meaning exposure to it can cause reproductive and other human health problems. Bleach, a corrosive chemical known to burn skin and eyes on contact and damage lungs when inhaled -- and which can react with ammonia to produce toxic gases -- is also a common ingredient in detergents.
To qualify for consideration, each needed to be "free and clear" of dyes and perfumes and also "concentrated" in order to save water, packaging and extra carbon emissions from transport. The contestants included detergents from Earth Friendly Products, Biokleen, Mountain Green, Planet, Seventh Generation, and All. Each did a respectable job getting clothes clean and smelling fresh, with most performing just as well as mainstream brands. Seventh Generation Free & Clear was the overall winner for its combination of eco-friendly ingredients, good stain fighting, pleasant but not "perfumey" scent and low price.
Another way to green the laundry room is to lose the fabric softener. Mainstream varieties, whether dryer sheets or liquid, contain harmful chemicals like benzyl acetate (linked to pancreatic cancer), benzyl alcohol (an upper respiratory tract irritant), ethanol (linked to central nervous system disorders), limonene (a known carcinogen) and chloroform (a neurotoxin and carcinogen). Many dryer sheets also contain tallow, a processed form of beef or mutton fat.
"You can avoid these health risks, the animal fat and the waste simply by using vinegar to soften your clothing," reported Josh Peterson of The Discovery Network's Planet Green. "Add 3/4 cups of vinegar to your final rinse cycle and your clothes will come out soft." And since vinegar "is ludicrously inexpensive when compared to fabric softener," consumers can save money and the planet at the same time.
Of course, swapping out that old water-hogging, energy-gulping washing machine for a new model that meets federal EnergySTAR standards will save lots of electricity and water.
EnergySTAR certified washing machines use about 20 percent less energy and 35 percent less water than regular washers, and also have greater capacity so it takes fewer loads to clean the same amount of laundry. Their sophisticated wash systems flip or spin clothes through a stream of water and rinse them with repeated high pressure spraying instead of soaking them in a full tub of water.
Likewise, replacing an older clothes dryer with a newer EnergySTAR model will help reduce your household's electricity consumption. And if you live in a place with a mild and often sunny climate, ditch the dryer altogether and hang your clothes to dry outside.
Contacts: Biokleen, www.biokleenhome.com; Earth Friendly Products ECOS, www.ecos.com; Mountain Green, www.mountaingreen.biz; Planet Inc., www.planetinc.com; Seventh Generation, www.seventhgeneration.com; All Laundry, www.all-laundry.com; Grist Magazine, www.grist.org; Planet Green, planetgreen.discovery.com; EnergySTAR, www.energystar.gov.