How often do you do your laundry? Americans launder clothes way too often. And we use too much detergent, according to the Wall Street Journal. We’ve started re-thinking our laundry scene here at home. After spending much time living in villages in the dustiest parts of the Himalaya, one looks at laundry a little differently.
First, water has to be collected and carried to your fire to be heated, if you’re going to be a purist. Otherwise, a nearby stream will suffice. Secondly, you have to hang it up to dry and inevitably those clothes get full of wind-blown dirt and dust as they drip dry. Then, I learned an amazing lesson about laundry while living 6 weeks in Kathmandu. I noticed people don’t waste energy wringing out the wet clothes and linens to hasten drying. The water must be put to use! Laundry is often hung right over the vegetable garden to drip-irrigate precious veggies. So, come summer, our family hangs our dripping-wet laundry (no spin cycle used) over our tomato plants and we never need to water them.
Meanwhile, back in the village once your laundry is dry and you finally put on your so-called clean togs, within seconds those clothes can get pretty “dirty.” But dirt ain’t dirty! We’ve all learned to bring brown clothes to wear in Nepal so dirt can be hidden. The dirt isn’t the problem that ultimately makes you want to launder your clothes. It’s the bodily stuff humans produce on clothes (smells notwithstanding) that become one’s standard for washing. And if your animals somehow get their stuff on your clothes, (cows, yaks, horses, chickens) then it’s time to wash. Otherwise, a little dirt isn’t worth the effort to wash and one learns to wear clothes for many days, if not weeks, when you’re on expedition before having the time and commitment for washing.
Even here in the States, we’re becoming more water-conscious. Levi-Strauss Co. gets it: In a recent article in the New York Times, Levi-Strauss is admitting to the amount of water they’ve used in the past to stonewash their jeans. And now they’re sewing tags in clothes to tell consumers to not wash their jeans so often (by the end of their life, your jeans will have consumed 919 gallons of water.) In fact, if you want to kill those yucky microbes, Levi-Strauss recommends you throw ’em in the freezer for 24 hours. One jeans-wearing guy is reportedly swearing off washing his denim-trous…ever. He’s already a year down that road.
But for us, the issue has become more about plastic. Yes, plastic is in your laundry and one of my favorite scientists today, Mark Browne, has determined that on average a single garment will shed 1900 fibers of microplastic per wash into your gray water. The problem is woven in our favorite polypropylene pants or tights, or poly-wool blend sweaters. If it’s made of plastic, it’s shedding plastic, and those microfibers are showing up on every shoreline on our planet. This is a very real concern to marine biologists and toxicologists who are finding that microfibers are ingested by many marine species and are likely making their way into our own food stream.
So take a close look at your dryer lint. It’s those fibers that are making their way out of your washing machine and into our waters. If you’re a died-in-the-wool purist about your clothes and only wear organic cottons and fibers, you’re doing wonders for the planet. The Fibershed Project is a fine example of lessons learned when you truly look at clothes, how they’re manufactured, where they come from, and the amount of energy, water, and toxins used to make them. The Fibershed folks promote looking at which fibers can be sourced in your own bioregion.
Whether your concern is toxics, water conservation, social justice, or buying and/or sourcing local there are also those who are committed to zero waste laundry practices. Our friend Rebecca, at Rockfarmer has a great DIY laundry detergent recipe we’ve used for several years. And Biokleen’s 10 pound powder detergent in a box (buy it bulk through Azure Standard, along with all your other bulk needs) is also great on the environment. But it’s not going to be fully zero waste until we can sort out the problem of plastic micro-filament shedding into the environment.
We’re working on getting funding to develop a filter to stop the plastics from leaving your washer and entering our waters. Our hope is that the clothing manufacturers who produce the poly-blends might be the ones interested in contributing to this effort. Lint in your dryer is a resource for some (I know one explorer who saved his for months before heading out into the hinterland and he used it as firestarter for a journey across the Tibetan Plateau,) but lint in your washer is a potential endocrine disruptor for marine species and ultimately ourselves.
So, the next time you see me or members of our family and we’re looking a little “dirty,” you’ll know we’re stretching our standards a little, wearing those clothes just a little longer before contributing further to a growing problem in our oceans.