After being hung up overnight in a breezy location, shirts worn once (even in the tropics!) smell quite fresh enough to wear again.

Washing and drying clothing are common activities that can use a lot of labor, energy and water and produce large amounts of wastewater - if we aren't careful. However, there are several best practices, like washing in cold water and line drying, which are not only better for the environment, but will make your clothes last longer. This reduces the burden of mending and replacing clothes, and saves resources for other uses. Hygiene is also a crucial aspect of clothing, and improper cleaning can lead to infection and diseases.

Washing can be laborious when there are no washing machines, but there are tools and devices that can be utilized to make washing easier and faster.

Energy usage[edit | edit source]

We need to use less energy with efficient washers. Use unheated water (unless there is abundant solar hot water), and use renewable energy where possible.

Water usage[edit | edit source]

The more water we use, the harder it is to process the waste water, and the more strain we place on the water supply.

We need to:

  • Use more water efficient washers,
  • Use water at least twice - e.g. use greywater irrigation of gardens (which requires greywater treatment and/or using suitable detergents to avoid poisoning the plants).
  • irrigate gardens at night

Water pollution[edit | edit source]

Minimize the use of detergent, by:

  • Remembering that water itself is a solvent - you probably don't need as much detergent as you're using now. Consider washing in water only, every second wash - this works surprisingly well especially if there are no stains, or you have solar water.
  • Following other recommendations on this page to reduce the need for washing (air your clothes to keep clothes smelling fresher longer, and choice of clothing color).
  • Washing in warm or hot water, as appropriate to the clothes - only as long as you have solar hot water!

Consider these words about the chemicals you use:

What do you do when you clean? You take dirt, you add more dirt in the form of chemical agents, and then you put all that dirt somewhere else - usually into the water supply. Once people appreciate that they make other things dirty when they make their clothes clean, they think differently about what they're doing...
Do you want to take a chemical derived from benzene, put it on your white clothes, let it absorb ultraviolet rays, get energized, and then emit ultraviolet rays with a bluish hue - all to trick your brain into thinking a graying shirt is white? Is there a value to that, especially when it may create health risks? Is it worth the hazards to your kids? - Gunther Pauli, head of Ecover.[1]

Labor[edit | edit source]

You have better things to do than wash clothes, and you'd rather your hands didn't become dry and cracked from hours of handwashing, so you would probably prefer a washing machine rather than hand-washing your clothes. Many low income communities share the same thoughts, but cannot afford such a large purchase. Homes that do buy a machine, increase their environmental impact and energy demands as a result.

So, how do we find the best balance of efficiency and convenience for your budget? We need better designs, better practices and better detergents.

Reducing the need for washing[edit | edit source]

Environmental impact and labor can both be saved by measures that reduce the need for washing: suitable choice of clothes (color and fabric) and habits such as hanging and airing clothes. See the Clothing page for more detailed suggestions.

Levi Strauss[1]recently claimed that putting their jeans in a freezer for a couple of days would kill most of the bacteria and smells. However an anarctic microbiologist has debunked this claim as a myth,[2] saying that "one might think that if the temperature drops well below the human body temperature they will not survive, but actually many will. Many are preadapted to survive low temperatures. And it takes only one survivor to repopulate your jeans when they warm up."

It might be true that freezing clothing reduces the smell. But freezing clothing does not make them clean or hygienic, so there is little benefit.

Saving energy[edit | edit source]

About 90% of the energy used for washing clothes is for heating the water. There are two ways to reduce the amount of energy used for washing clothes—use less water and use cooler water. Unless you're dealing with oily stains, the warm or cold water setting on your machine will generally do a good job of cleaning your clothes. Switching your temperature setting from hot to warm can cut a load's energy use in half.[3]

  • Wash your clothes in cold water using cold-water detergents whenever possible.
  • Wash and dry full loads. If you are washing a small load, use the appropriate water-level setting.
  • Dry towels and heavier cottons in a separate load from lighter-weight clothes.
  • Don't over-dry your clothes. If your machine has a moisture sensor, use it.
  • Clean the lint filter in the dryer after every load to improve air circulation.
  • Use the cool-down cycle to allow the clothes to finish drying with the residual heat in the dryer.
  • Periodically inspect your dryer vent to ensure it is not blocked. This will save energy and may prevent a fire. Manufacturers recommend using rigid venting material, not plastic vents that may collapse and cause blockages.
  • Consider air-drying clothes on clothes lines or drying racks. Air-drying is recommended by clothing manufacturers for some fabrics.
  • $ Long-Term Savings Tip: Look for the ENERGY STAR and EnergyGuide labels. ENERGY STAR clothes washers clean clothes using 50% less energy than standard washers. Most full-sized ENERGY STAR washers use 18-25 gallons of water per load, compared to the 40 gallons used by a standard machine. ENERGY STAR models also spin the clothes better, resulting in less drying time. (Note: Energy STAR and EnergyGuide are U.S. programs, but similar programs exist in many developed countries)
  • $ Long-Term Savings Tip: When shopping for a new clothes dryer, look for one with a moisture sensor that automatically shuts off the machine when your clothes are dry. Not only will this save energy, it will save wear and tear on your clothes caused by over-drying.
  • $ Long-Term Savings Tip: ENERGY STAR does not label clothes dryers because most of them use similar amounts of energy, which means there is little difference in energy use between models.

Saving water[edit | edit source]

A method of saving water is to re-use water from the rinse cycle for the next wash. A place is needed to store the water. Great care should be taken if color has come out in the water, not to use that water for washing light-colored clothing. Thus the best design is likely to use a tub or tank which is white or light colored on the inside, and which can be looked into to check the water.[expansion needed]

Buying a washing machine?[edit | edit source]

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If you're in the market for a new washing machine, consider sinking your clothes into an energy-efficient one. It will not only conserve energy but, closer to home, can help lower your utility bills.

To help consumers see just how energy-efficient a washing machine is, the Federal Trade Commission requires manufacturers to post an EnergyGuide label on their appliances. The Guide shows how each model measures up — energy-wise — to others of the same size.

For many years, the Guides compared top-loading models with similarly sized top-loaders and front-loading washers with similarly sized front-loaders. But changes in technology and marketing are resulting in changes in the law: Starting July 2000, changes to the FTC's Appliance Labeling Rule and the familiar yellow-and-black EnergyGuide will make both more meaningful for consumers and manufacturers.

With front-loaders now more widely available for purchase in the U.S., the FTC has decided to require manufacturers to provide information that will compare all washing machines of a certain size (either "standard" or "compact") with others of the same size, regardless of whether they are loaded from the top or the front. The label change is expected to alert consumers to highly energy-efficient clothes washers and spur competition among U.S. manufacturers. Front-loaders, which have been popular for years in Europe, generally are considered more energy efficient than top-loaders, although they usually are more expensive, too.

Separation and washing options[edit | edit source]

This section describes a procedure to ensure proper washing yet in a speedy and simple manner.

Some other methods describe more separation of laundry and several washing periods (for several types of fabrics), but that consumes more time, electricity, water and cleaning agent.

Separation[edit | edit source]

When clothing is dirty, it may be separated immediately into a correct bin, so that the sorting of the laundry does not need to be done twice - this method means that two bins are placed in the room where the clothes are discarded (e.g. bathroom). There are one for white & heavily polluted clothes and one for colored clothes. However it is also a matter of the colorfastness of the fabric.

Separation method 1[edit | edit source]

  • White and heavily polluted clothes and fabrics are sorted together. These include white clothing and fabrics as towels (kitchen towels, bath towels,...), linen, white socks, and heavily polluted clothing as underwear, handkerchiefs, pillow cases,... Note that most of the heavily polluted clothes are generally white as well so that no color blending can occur. Where this is not the case, an alternative method should be used. Also note that heavily polluted clothing refers to the amount of bacteria/microorganisms the clothing generally carries after use, not only the degree of visible filth.
  • Colored clothes. These include pants, shirts, colored socks, skirts,...

Washing procedure[edit | edit source]

Washing method 1 (requires additional ironing afterwards)[edit | edit source]

The washing method for washing laundry with a washer machine after the separation method 1 has been followed is the following:

  • The separated laundry piles (see laundry separation above) are inserted separately in the machine (thus in 2 runs). When the separation method 1 is used, the white and heavily polluted clothes/fabrics are washed at 60°Celsius and the colored clothes are washed at 40°Celsius.

Ironing[edit | edit source]

After drying, the clothes may be ironed,W which de-wrinkles the clothes and may help with disinfection (see #Disinfection, below).

The de-wrinkling my be unnecessary, especially if the clothes are hung carefully and air flow is optimized when drying. Wrinkling may also be kept to a minimum by tricks such as adding vinegar to the washing machine.

Disinfection[edit | edit source]

For people with compromised immune systems, or where clothes have been exposed to dangerous pathogens, it is important to ensure that disinfection occurs. For people without significant health problems, regular washing should be sufficient. One or more of the following steps may be important:

Washing - Thorough soaking and washing, cleaning the clothes thoroughly with soap or detergent, will remove the majority of pathogens. Increased soak and wash times help with the breakdown of these pathogens. Clothes, bed sheets, and fabrics that have come into contact with bodily fluids, should be removed and washed as soon as possible to reduce the spread of infection. Handle any potentially infected fabrics with nitrile/latex gloves, apron, and a face mask if possible.[4]

  • Be sure to use adequate quantities of detergent. follow any instructions listed on the packaging of the product
  • Hot water should be used with infected fabrics. Clean these separately from other laundry if possible. The fabrics should be exposed to water at a minimum temperature of 160°F (71°C) for at least 25 minutes during the washing process.[5]

Sanitizing -A separate step for further elimination of pathogens

  • Unscented bleach can be diluted in water for sanitizing. Mix 5 tablespoons (1/3 cup) of bleach per gallon of water. Use this solution within 24 hours to have the proper effect. Chlorine bleach becomes activated at water temperatures of 135°F–145°F (57.2°C–62.7°C)[6] Submerge and let soak for at least 5 minutes. Bleach can stain or damage some types of fabrics.


  • In sunshine - in sunny conditions, the ultraviolet light the sun emits can help with disinfection. For example, this is effective for the clothing of people with golden staph infections.

External links[edit | edit source]

Note: this article section was based on information from

Human power[edit | edit source]

Pedal-powered washing machines have been made at MIT in partnership with Maya Pedal, a Guatemalan NGO (see Bicilavadora: A Pedal-powered Washing Machine) and at Humboldt's Campus Center for Appropriate Technology (see HSU Bike powered washing machine). These designs use direct power, rather than generating electricity to run the washer.[7] There are also many more hits on Google.

The Centre for Appropriate Technology (Australia)W has had some success in Australian indigenous communities with a hand-operated "washing machine" using a paddle to stir the water, which is popular for washing blankets. Attempts have been made by CAT (or people associated with CAT) to introduce it to Indonesia, but it was not popular, as they felt the clothes were not getting a proper wash.[8]

A television show in Australia in the 1980s ("The Inventors"?) had a small hand-operated washing machine, suitable for nappies (USA "diapers"), for example, while camping.

Reducing labor[edit | edit source]

Washing clothes for those who cannot afford a washing machine can be hard work which is particularly hard on the hands.

Solar hot water could make soaking and washing easier and more effective, as the additional cleaning effect from using warm or hot water could be an alternative to hard scrubbing work the hands. Of course, this is not suitable for all materials, especially colored clothing, or clothing which is liable to shrink. Care should be taken not to immerse the hands in very warm or hot water for long periods, as this will be even harder on the hands than usual. The clothes might be soaked for a time in just enough water to cover, with detergent, then cooler water added before scrubbing; or it may be left to soak for long enough (overnight or a couple of hours) that the water has cooled down significantly before scrubbing.

Spin-drying or wringing[edit | edit source]

In developing countries, after washing and before hanging up, clothes are generally wrung out by hand.[9] This is less effective than the spin cycle of a washing machine, and the result is that the clothes dry less quickly, and have a less fresh smell.[10] Wringing is also hard work, and tough on the skin of the hands.

It may be possible to build an appropriate technology spin dryer.

  • Depending on just what you have in mind, a simple centrifuge to extract "most" of the water from the clothes should be one of the simplest possible human-powered devices. One needs only a circular "cage" mounted on an axis (horizontally would probably be best), and a bicycle-chain, drive shaft, or even a rope "belt" around pulleys from the power source. Pedal power would be ideal, but even a handcrank should work with this. -- Writtenonsand 15:07, 5 March 2008 (PST)

However, the best solution may be the one which was popular in Western countries before washing machines became popular, i.e. the mangle or clothes wringerW, in which clothes are passed between two rollers which squeeze them tightly.

Examples of wringers can be seen at here at Survival Unlimited - these start at around US$100, but it can be expected that they should be much cheaper in a developing country, especially if mass-produced. (Other pictures, including old-style wringers, can be seen at Google image search.)

Drying clothes[edit | edit source]

Clothes hanging to dry in Parras, Mexico

Traditionally in most places, clothes are dried on a clotheslineW. This practice uses readily free, renewable energy sources - wind and sunshine.

Care should be taken with colored clothes, as they may fade in the sun. They should either be left in the sun for a short time only, or dried in a shady position (or hung out overnight so that they are almost dry by sunrise - this may be less effective where there is heavy dew or fog).

Wealthier people (whether in developing or advanced countries) may choose to use clothes dryersW - they are seen as convenient and reliable, not dependent on weather. However, they are very wasteful of energy.

Some council codes (e.g. in many parts of Sydney, Australia) actually require developers to install clothes dryers.[11] This is very wasteful of energy, and so sustainable alternatives are desirable. Where drying clothes in public view is not allowed, in order to maintain a tidy appearance, there are designs which can satisfy both sustainability and aesthetics. One approach is to have drying rooms (perhaps a small section of a balcony) with louvers to allow airflow. Another is to have the balcony railing designed in such a way (e.g. with louvers) that drying racks below a certain height are not visible from outside the building. You could also have some ventian blinds pulled at different levels and stages of opening to create warm air flow and aesthetically pleasing.

In some cases, such as hospitals or large hotels, clothes dryers may be considered necessary, either for regular use or (preferably) only as a backup. It is perhaps inevitable that laundromats will have dryers as well, if only for urgent situations where a customer needs or wants to dry clothes quickly. In this case, more efficient dryers such as heat pump dryersW and mechanical steam compression dryersW should be considered. Gas dryers may also be more efficient and have lower carbon emissions.[expansion needed] Where energy ratings are given, these should be considered. More efficient dryers are likely to be more expensive up front, but will have lower ongoing energy costs, which will be very significant in cases of frequent use.

New technologies[edit | edit source]

Ultrasonic cleaning[edit | edit source]

Ultrasonic cleaning is currently being investigated as a possible alternative to conventional dry cleaning.

Ultrasonic waves pass through a solution of water and soaps, and the particles of soil, being more dense than the fiber, separate from the fabric.

Results have been encouraging enough that it is being developed further, but the effect on fabrics is not completely clear yet.[12]

See also[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  7. Pedal Powered Washing Machine Tests, David Butcher, a pedal-power enthusiast, calculates it would take 1 hr and 45 minutes of pedaling to generate electricity for one load of washing. Presumably it is significantly more efficient to use the mechanical power directly, rather than using a generator; also this may be cheaper in a developing country setting.
  8. Based on personal conversation between Chriswaterguy and (name?) from CAT, at the EWB Australia national conference, 2005.
  9. This is common practice in Indonesia, and presumably also the case in other developing countries. --Chriswaterguy
  10. At least, I assume it's the less effective wringing that is the reason for the smell. Note that it's not a really bad smell, but clothes that have been through the washing machine and spun dry are definitely fresher smelling. --Chriswaterguy
  11. This contributes to the unexpected result that new apartments in Sydney use as much as or more energy than stand-alone houses.
  12. Training Curriculum for Alternative Clothes Cleaning, the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute, University of Massachusetts. See also the answer and links at Yahoo Answers.
FA info icon.svg Angle down icon.svg Page data
Keywords clothing, wastewater
Authors Chris Watkins, KVDP, Emma, Joe Turner, Writtenonsand
License CC-BY-SA-3.0
Derivatives Lavado y secado de ropa, Lavare e asciugare i vestiti
Language English (en)
Related 1 subpages, 39 pages link here
Aliases Clothes drier, Drying clothes, Laundry, Washing clothes, Clotheslines, Clothes drying line, Wash clothing
Impact 6,365 page views
Created October 16, 2006 by Chris Watkins
Modified June 21, 2024 by Kathy Nativi
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