Am I the only one alarmed at how soul-sister Frankie Heck feels when I watch The Middle? She is supposed to be an exaggerated version of a middle class mom, but hell if her laundry mountain doesn't look exactly like mine. Despite some pretty serious efforts to minimize our wardrobes, we are a family of 5 with a variety of activities requiring a variety of clothes. There was a time that I was buying the big huge liquid detergent from Costco and using dryer sheets. We were plowing through these at a hearty rate, and creating a significant amount of plastic trash.
If you are starting out with zero waste and trying to stick to a budget, dryer balls are one of the easiest switches. For the same price as a big box of dryer sheets, you can buy a 6 pack of wool dryer balls, and move away from those chemical laced strips of polyester. When I was just starting out on my green journey, my babies were actual babies wearing sweet little sleepers with tags identifying them as fire resistant. We made our change when we realized that dryer sheets sap the fire resistance right out of the sleepers. We weren't planning on having a fire in our babies' bedrooms, but, as new parents do, we prepared for all of the worst case scenarios Parents Magazine and Facebook articles could throw at us. The decision saved us a chunk of change, and I later learned that most dryer sheets carry chemicals that can be toxic to breathe (and eat, but I am hoping you aren't eating your dryer sheets. Dryer balls aren't edible, either, for the record). Wool dryer balls are available on Amazon, Target, and Walmart, many in compostable or recyclable packaging. Thank goodness, because we don't all live near a cute, earth-toned, natural home goods store. The dryer balls last forever, so it is truly a one time expense.
Now, for my renegade move...I dropped detergent altogether. Yep. I said it. No detergent at all. I broke up with detergent and started a new relationship with Soap Berries. These guys look like something you would find in your back yard, but they are really magical dried berries that contain saponin - a natural cleaning agent. I buy mine on Amazon (of course) - click here to see them. I've linked a small bag, but you can get a huge bag that will last until your elementary school aged kids are out of high school (or close to it). I bought the 1 pound bag 5 months ago, and I still have 1/3 of the bag left. The berries come in a cloth bag and includes a tiny cloth drawstring sack that will hold the berries in the wash. Place 5-6 berries in the tiny bag, tie it shut, and throw it in the machine with your stinky clothes. Those 5-6 berries usually last me three loads of laundry, before I need to toss the shriveled berries and replace them. I sometimes compost them, but sometimes I just throw them with a devil-may-care flourish in my back yard, since my laundry room door opens to my back yard. I'm not 100% sure that's ok to do, so feel free to leave me a comment if I've been inadvertently messing with the Chesapeake Bay watershed by tossing used soap berry remnants in my yard.
Since the switch, our clothes are just as clean as they ever were, and the routine is as easy (and as impossible) as it ever was. I would venture to say, these changes haven't changed my laundry process almost at all, except to make it a little more natural, less hazardous to our health, and way less wasteful and detrimental to the environment.
A few small problems and even fewer solutions:
- Soap berries have no detectible smell. Nor do dryer balls. If you grew up in the heyday of dryer sheets, as I did, you might want your laundry to smell like a spring day or a snuggly little bear. If that is the case, get yourself some essential oils (lavender and orange are my favorites). You can get them at some higher end grocery stores, natural food stores, or from the ladies on your Facebook newsfeed who sell them and can educate you on their healing properties. I put a couple of drops of the oils on my wool dryer balls every few loads, and the clean laundry smells so nice. Just like a summer breeze.
- Stains! I'm no stain guru, and, sometimes, stained kids' clothing just transitions into play and art clothes instead of school and church clothes. I apologize for my homemaking shortcomings. However, there are lots of tutorials on Pinterest using lemon juice and hydrogen peroxide. See next item for more info on stain removal that isn't zero waste:
- The soap berry brand that I use always comes with a tiny plastic bottle of super strong soap berry detergent. It makes my laundry almost-but-not-quite-zero waste. However, I usually use the detergent to spot treat stains. I feel like I'm cheating by admitting this to you, but you seem trustworthy and like you can handle it.
Some final thoughts on reducing your laundry footprint:
Hot Water Wash
I use cold water almost exclusively to wash our clothes. It washes our clothes just as well without using the energy to heat our water.
Dryer Vs. Air Dry
Surprisingly, machine washing clothes really doesn't germs unless you use bleach, but guess what does: drying the clothes with heat or hanging them to dry in the sun*. In the winter, I dry most of our clothes in the dryer with heat. I know it uses extra energy, but I have decided that, until my kids are out of school, this is something with which I can make peace. The kids and I bring home too many illnesses from school to just let the germs breed. In our old house, we had a clothes line that I used pretty exclusively in the summer. Our new neighborhood has a rule against clotheslines (!!!!!), so I am still trying to figure out a way around that. I am envisioning a rack that can fold flat against our fence when not in use. That's a project for another time.
To Wash or Not to Wash: That is the Question.
When it comes to adult clothes, we don't wash everything with every wear. If it wasn't worn for the full day and isn't dirty, I usually will just hang it back up for another wear. Same with bath towels - we hang them for another use. Let me rephrase - I hang them for another use and nag everyone else to do the same when I walk into their bedrooms and see 3 towels on the floor. Washing towels each time would mean significantly more loads per week. If you are in the market for new towels, go for linen or waffle weave towels. They dry faster and are really absorbent. Linen also has antimicrobial qualities, naturally, which is a bonus if you are reusing before washing.
*If you want to read more about germs and laundry, click here and here. This lady has a background in research and does her own experiments testing bacteria growth. I found her blog one night after a week of having sick kids and feeling desperate to figure out how I could stop the spread of Noro virus. She is really interesting!