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How to give your laundry routine an eco-friendly makeover

Make sure your appliances and cleaning products are tough on stains, but easy on the planet.

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Last updated: 08 June 2022
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Checked for accuracy by our qualified fact-checkers and verifiers. Find out more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

With laundry a certainty of life, along with death and taxes, you may as well make it as considerate as possible for our earth and the future generations that will inhabit it.

While we can’t promise these tips will make laundry day any more exciting (for that all we can prescribe is a good podcast), they are sure to make it greener.

1. Buy energy- and water-efficient appliances

Water-guzzling washers and energy-depleting dryers can chew up your budget and a serious amount of the planet's valuable resources. 

So how do you choose an efficient machine? When shopping you'll see that each machine has an Energy Star Rating designed to help you choose an efficient model. The more stars, the more energy-efficient the machine. 

However, CHOICE whitegoods expert Ashley Iredale explains that these labels are only useful if you compare machines with a similar capacity using the exact same settings the manufacturer used when registering the machine. For example, a bigger washing machine may have more stars than a smaller one because there are inherent energy savings in a larger load, but it will probably use more power and water overall in a year.

On the other hand, choosing a 6-star machine that uses 80L of water per load over a 3-star machine of the same capacity will save you 18,000L of water and about $54 a year.

If you're in the market for a new washing machine, we recommend opting for a front loader as they can use up to a whopping 70% less water than top loaders of the same size. In one of our recent reviews, a top loader scored 0% for water efficiency, guzzling a shocking 214 litres per cycle. In contrast, the most efficient front loader of an equivalent capacity uses only 46 litres per cycle. Interestingly, the two machines are made by the same brand.

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Eco programs generally use lower temperatures and less water, but can take longer.

2. Do full loads and consider cold, quick or eco wash

Not only does a full load maximise a washing machine's water and energy consumption, your family and housemates may thank you. Do the rounds for dirty clothes or have a communal laundry basket so you can make the most of a single cycle and do fewer washes.

Bear in mind that not all of a machine's programs will be capable of washing effectively when the machine is at full capacity – you'll typically need to use the cotton program for big loads, says Ashley. However, for lightly soiled clothes a cold, quick or eco wash often gives you completely acceptable results.

As most of a washing machine's energy is used on heating water, washing on cold is the more sustainable choice, saving you up to 80% of energy use. Using hot water can also set in stains more than washing on cold.

"Washing in warm water is slightly better than washing in cold, but it's so close these days that it's not worth the extra energy and cost of a warm cycle, particularly with modern enzyme-based detergents that are designed for cold-water washing," says Ashley. 

Cold washes can also help keep your clothes out of landfill longer. How? Hot water may damage dyes and cause shrinkage, ending the life of your garment well before its time.

3. Use the sun and ditch plastic pegs

While La Niña has kept a lot of Australia in a soggy state for much of this year, you can take advantage of the sunshine when you have it. Line drying is almost free (bar the cost of a washing line and pegs) and the most eco-friendly way to dry your clothes, not emitting a single gram of carbon into the atmosphere. 

If you use your dryer a few times a week you are producing about the same carbon dioxide in one month as a mature tree can absorb from the atmosphere in a full year.

It gets better though. UV rays act as a natural stain remover.

Using your dryer a few times a week produces more carbon dioxide in a month than a mature tree can absorb in a full year

You can ditch more plastic from your laundry routine by switching to marine-grade stainless steel pegs that can be recycled at end of life, or biodegradable wooden pegs from sustainable sources. This will eliminate the cost and waste of plastic pegs that will end up in landfill when they inevitably break. 

4. Swap laundry detergent and powders for greener alternatives

Laundry detergents that are filled with chemicals and come with lots of plastic packaging can be terrible for the environment, so you may be considering ditching them in favour of greener options. Be wary of 'greenwashing' however by following our expert's advice on what to look for in so called 'eco-friendly' laundry detergents:

  • Locally sourced plant-based ingredients
  • Minimal, refillable or recyclable packaging
  • Low travel miles (While convenient, refillable products from online retailers might use considerable travel miles to get to your door. You could look for refillable products from your local wholefoods or green products store.)
  • Manufacturers that use renewable energy

And how do you know if it actually works? In our efficacy test of eco-friendly household products, laundry detergents and powders tested, well, decently, with the highest-performing eco detergent Cove coming in at 68% effectiveness.

Depending on your washing needs, many eco-friendly detergents will do a good enough job at freshening up lightly soiled clothes, says Ashley. With new eco-friendly products coming on to the market daily, soon we may not have to settle for good enough.

Shop by ethical rating

When looking at products in our reviews, you will now see an ethical rating for some products we test, including laundry detergents. While not included in our scoring, the Shop Ethical score rates the environmental and social impact of the company (not the product) using independent sources. This will help you choose to buy products made by companies that have a better eco track record.

5. Ditch unnecessary, and sometimes harmful, laundry products 

Products that don't work are a waste of time, money and the materials used to make them. They may also waste water and energy by causing you to run your load again. Ditch these culprits from your routine. 

  • Laundry beads and scented laundry add-ons. They may smell nice (to some) but they're expensive, unnecessary chemicals and add extra plastic to your laundry cupboard. Read our laundry beads review to find out more.
  • Dryer balls. Dryer balls are glorified tennis balls that are intended to go in your dryer and speed up the drying process. "Quite simply, they don't work," says Ashley. Read more about dryer balls here.
  • Soap nuts and laundry balls. In our front loader test, these two detergent alternatives performed either worse than water alone or a few percentage points better, depending on brand. 
  • Fabric softeners. Fluffy clouds and happy babies on the bottles of fabric softeners can make even the stiffest of hearts melt, but don't be fooled. Fabric softeners pollute our waterways, coat our clothes in chemicals, reduce the fire retardancy of clothing, and reduce the moisture absorbency of fabrics. They can also reduce the lifespan of your washing machine, as they contribute massively to scrud buildup in the drum. Instead, look into how to use ingredients such as vinegar, bi-carb soda and Epsom salt for a DIY fabric softener.

6. Use stain remover bars to spot clean otherwise clean clothes

A small stain shouldn't be cause for chucking something in the wash. If a garment is otherwise clean, save a cycle and try a stain remover bar.

These solid soap bars are a usually plant-based and minimally packaged or package-free alternative to traditional bottled stain removers. While we haven't tested any stain remover bars, Ashley says most of their ingredients are similar to that of soap, making them a viable option for stain removal that could save a load, and minimise plastic in your laundry. 

7. Filter out microplastics – seriously!

One of the main causes of microplastic pollution in our oceans is from washing synthetic clothes. Microplastic pollution occurs when synthetic clothes undergo mechanical and chemical stresses during the washing process causing tiny microfibres to detach from the clothes (think a dryer's lint trap) and eventually enter our waterways.

"You need a very fine filter of around 160 microns to filter out microplastics," says Ashley. Filters come in the form of filter bags that you wash your clothes in, a filter installed on your washer's drain hose or a microfibre laundry ball.

8. Use greywater on your garden

Now that you've filtered out microplastics, let's talk greywater. Greywater is the wastewater of your washing machine that can be used on your garden (if you are using greywater-safe laundry products). With washing machines producing between 40 to 224 litres of wastewater each wash that's a whole lot of water your garden and house plants could be drinking, and a massive water saving if you have a large garden that you water regularly.

You're probably wondering if greywater is safe? Unfortunately it's not black or white (no pun intended), but read our guide to using greywater.

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty unless otherwise stated.