This article is part of a Teja on the Horizon Circular Living series, which is about my experience transitioning to a more circular, low-waste life. This article describes my experience exploring what zero waste laundry really means.

For why a zero waste & circular lifestyle is important, watch the video below.

Where relevant, I include feedback from my friends, to give a sense for alternative choices people might make, and why. Obviously, people are different and live different lives. I think zero waste solutions advice need to consider this range, rather than assuming everybody should live the same way in order to become sustainable.

On the other hand, having the ability to go against the current linear mass consumerism and experiment with changes, does require a minimum quality of life. When you’re living in poverty, you have to take the options you can afford. So, the articles in this series will likely be more relevant to middle class people and above.

Additionally, I am based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Consequently, the options and financial comparisons provided in these articles will reflect value calculations that are true for Kuala Lumpur; a different result may be true for your location. I welcome comments that describe how the choices would be different at your location.

Zero waste laundry vs ‘organic’ laundry

Doing the laundry was not one of the main sources of my household plastic waste. It didn’t feature in my waste audit when I took on Plastic Free April. Additionally, as an environmentally-conscious person since the 90s, I was already aware of basic water and energy efficiency tips for doing the laundry.

However, when I began more seriously cultivating zero waste habits, I noticed that my laundry habits were not zero waste. And when I did my grocery shopping at The Hive Bulk Foods, I noticed they also stocked laundry powder. It got me thinking, could I eliminate the packaging that laundry detergent and softener comes in as well? Although it was not one of the biggest sources of packaging waste, why not look into it anyway? Perhaps it would be easy.

This article describes what I learned during my attempt to be zero waste while doing the laundry. It may touch on related issues which are typically of interest to environmentally conscious people, but this article will focus more on zero waste aspects. It does not intend to cover attempts to avoid “toxic chemicals” from conventional detergents or find “organic” laundry detergents, which are generally primarily motivated by health concerns rather than waste.

While these concerns are valid, my interest is structural change, the transformation of consumer norms to circular versions as a public good, leaving the choice of specific products to the consumer preference and own research.

Zero waste laundry (water usage)

Before we talk about packaging waste, we should talk about laundry water use. Water is the most obvious resource associated with doing the laundry. After drinking water and hygiene, the laundry is probably the most important reason you need your household water supply.

I live in a humid country with lots of rainfall. Barring the occasional water pipe maintenance or unexpected droughts, people here don’t consider water to be a scarce resource. However, while rainwater is not scarce, treated piped water does cost money. Not to mention, you never know how long the rainfall predictability would last with climate change.

Cultivating water saving habits not only keeps your household water consumption in the lowest tariff brackets, at a societal scale it also helps reduce the scale of the problem our water engineers face in trying to make sure the water infrastructure is enough, even if the changing climate puts pressure on our water supply.

Doing the laundry uses significant amounts of water. The invention of the washing machine has made this amount less, compared to hand washing. But there are still a few things you can do to reduce it even more.

1. Choose a water efficient washing machine

The first thing you can do to reduce laundry water use is to buy an efficient washing machine in the first place. However, this is easier said than done.

Of the two main types of washing machines, the front loaders use less water than the top loaders. However, they are also significantly more expensive. Additionally, if you’re doing the laundry for a family, the front loaders typically have smaller capacities for a similar size appliance. Many landed households get a top loading machine so that they can do bigger loads and do the laundry less frequently.

However, if you live in an apartment, or don’t mind doing the laundry more often, front loading machines will save water.

Nowadays, there are also High Efficiency washing machines, designed specifically to use way, way less water. If you opt for one of these, I’ve read they’re supposed to be used with special detergent that can manage with how little water is used.

Front loader washing machine
Photo by PlanetCare on Unsplash

Waterless washing machine?

Could you do the laundry without using any water at all? This ultimate zero water waste laundry ambition is, in fact, possible. One example is LG’s idea of a waterless washing machines, which uses carbon dioxide instead. I suppose at the moment the world does have an over-abundance of CO2, but many places face water scarcity. I guess we might as well find uses for it rather than waste perfectly good water.

Another idea is to use dry steam, for nearly-waterless laundry. This invention is supposed to also eliminate detergents, although at the moment the pilot projects are not aiming at retail customers.

That said, I have to admit that waterless laundry is such a counter-intuitive idea to me. I don’t know if I’d be a first adopter of this technology, if it becomes available to retail consumers. I can follow the science of why water cleans, and why these alternatives also clean. But alas, I’m not a fully rational being. I think it would take a lot of getting used to, to feel that the clothes are indeed cleaned.

Would you buy a waterless washing machine?

2. Use the washing machine efficiently

Whichever kind of machine you have, it is a good habit to use it efficiently. Try to always run full loads, so that you run fewer cycles.

In addition, get to know your washing machine settings. My mother’s top loading machine has different defaults than my front loading machine. So for example, sometimes I would manually adjust the rinse cycle to run only twice rather than three times if I didn’t think the default was necessary. Generally, the quicker wash settings have fewer wash and rinse cycles, thus using less water. With modern urban living, most of our laundry loads aren’t actually very soiled, so you might consider choosing those.

In general, the top loading machine defaults tend to suit Asia’s laundry norms, whereas the front loaders suit European or North American norms. This means that an “Eco” setting could mean different things.

For some machines (in my experience usually the top loaders), this means a shorter cycle program, thus saving water. However, for other machines (usually front loaders), it means a longer wash cycle with warm water, thus saving water and detergent while achieving the same thorough wash – but it will consume more electricity to heat the water.

Zero waste laundry detergent

The main source of packaging waste related to doing the laundry comes from the packaging for laundry detergent, especially if you buy liquid detergent in plastic bottles. If you buy bags of laundry powder, the bag isn’t necessarily waste, since you can re-purpose it as a trash bag. This allows you to no longer need to get supermarket bags or bin liners. I started shifting to refills for laundry detergent only when my household waste dropped enough that I didn’t need the laundry powder bag anymore either.

When you’re on a zero waste journey, it’s common to find that you learn a lot of basic domestic chemistry knowledge that we really should have been taught while growing up. It allows us to see through marketing labels, understand which parts of the ingredients list are important, and what the ingredients do.

In general, basic zero waste laundry powder refills typically have these ingredients: sodium bicarbonate (i.e., baking soda), sodium carbonate (i.e., soda ash or washing soda), and sodium percarbonate. This is because, when doing the laundry, we actually want to achieve several different things. We want to clean dirty clothes, remove stains, and eliminate odour. These ingredients are also actually in most retail packaged detergents.

Baking soda is an item you’ll have a lot more of in your home as you go along the zero waste journey. This cheap alkali is useful for all kinds of odour and stain removal around the house, and helps to whiten laundry as well. Washing soda has an even higher pH, and is better at cleaning greasy stains. And finally, sodium percarbonate is an oxygen bleach. It is also a stain remover, but in a different way, and it also kills bacteria and mildew.

1. Laundry detergent refills

The pioneers of laundry detergent refills in the Klang Valley are KitaRefill and The Hive Bulk Store. The latter sells ‘biodegradable’ laundry powder in bulk. I guess it’s because the formulation only contains the above listed ingredients, salt, and soap as the surfactant. I’ve used it for a while and found it acceptable. Personally, I’d rather get powder detergent, as it takes up less space. But they also stock KitaRefill liquid detergent refills if you prefer this.

You can also get refills of all kinds of cleaning products at KitaRefill. They also sell laundry detergent in both powder and liquid form.

At the moment, laundry powder refills are more expensive. It’s probably because the option lacks economy of scale, since the ingredients are basically the same. I normally refill the laundry powder in a large yoghurt pot, which lasts me up to half a year. At The Hive, it comes up to RM20 per kg. By comparison, you can get a 4.8kg bag laundry washing powder at the supermarket for about RM40, which comes up to RM8.33 per kg. However, last year’s price at KitaRefill was RM6.40 per kg, which makes it price competitive with the supermarket.

Liquid laundry detergent has different active ingredients. It’s not as basic (pardon the pun) as the powder formulation, and typically comprise of surfactants. For liquid laundry detergent, KitaRefill is between RM4.50-RM11 per kg, depending on type of detergent. At the supermarket, a 3.6kg bottle is between RM25-30, or about RM7-RM8.33 per kg.

2. Soap nuts

At one point in my zero waste laundry journey, I gave soap nuts a go. These are saponin containing berries, with soap-like properties. So they seemed more eco-friendly, since they can be grown rather than manufactured from ‘chemicals’ in a factory.

I found a little bag to put 5-6 soap nuts in, and used them for 3-4 wash loads before changing them. At first, I found that they worked all right. However, its performance is inconsistent in a washing machine. Furthermore, the soap nuts kept escaping from the bag no matter how I secured it. And they have an annoying habit of staining clothes if they came in direct contact with them. They also start to disintegrate in the wash, which is not a problem if they stayed in the bag.

In the end, I stopped using them. They were expensive compared to conventional detergent, and I could not buy them loose in bulk. I had to order a delivery, which meant packaging waste, so it’s not zero waste. They work better in very hot water, which means energy waste. And yes, I could solve some of my issues with soap nuts by pre-boiling them and using the liquid. But then that’s yet another chore – and still doesn’t solve the staining issue.

They’re also berries that aren’t grown here, and had to be sent from far away. And if everyone uses them, we won’t have enough land to grow all the berries. What is a sustainable option depends on where and how you live. If I lived in a place where these berries are just all over the ground, I might still be using them. Since I don’t, soap nuts are actually not the sustainable option.

Soap nuts or soap berries
Photo by Alexandra Tran on Unsplash

3. Hydrogen peroxide refills

At the moment, the only laundry related ingredient that I still buy from the supermarket is Vanish peroxide stain remover. It’s hands-down the best stain remover I know of, for the particularly stubborn stains. I don’t use it often; most stains come out in the wash, and I can’t be bothered for much of the rest. However, occasionally stains happen that do bother me, and then I want the most effective product on the market.

It never occurred to me that a function-specific product like that could also be obtained as a refill! And in Malaysia! But it’s possible to get Oxyspot as a refill at KitaRefill. It’s not Vanish but is a similar peroxide cleaner. It just might not have anything else added in.

I haven’t tried to see if it performs as well (I haven’t run out of Vanish yet), or if the amines in Vanish are important for its stain removing performance. Maybe it is just as good for oxidisable stains, but won’t do much for protein-based stains (i.e. biological stains like vomit and poop). But at RM14.20 per kg, this is a rare zero waste refill alternative which is much cheaper than the supermarket version. A 500g container of Vanish powder is about RM26, which comes to RM52 per kg.

Zero waste laundry softener

To be perfectly honest, I never used laundry softener for much of my life. It’s only when I got married that I used it, because it was normal for my ex-husband. I’m blessed with not really being able to appreciate the difference, so it doesn’t bother me whether my clothes are a little bit softer or not. But fabric softener is the other laundry staple that produces plastic waste. Even if you bought the concentrated refill pouches, you’re still throwing out the plastic pouch. It’s just less grams of plastic. And the pouches are probably harder to recycle too.

However, today we have more options than whatever is the incrementally better product the manufacturer offers. And if fabric softening matters to you, then you should learn how it works. It doesn’t actually change the fabric to be softer. It just tricks your skin into experiencing it as softer.

If you read laundry softener ingredients, you’ll find (mild) acids among them. Or at least, if it has an ingredients list at all – you’d be surprised to find some brands in the supermarket just say “plant-based” and then have no ingredients list. By the way, that some brands advertise being plant-based should tip you off that normally softener is not. The active ingredients are lipids, which are probably of animal origin.

Fabric softener works in a couple of ways. Firstly, if you added too much detergent (which was alkaline), the acids help neutralise the residue and remove the excess in the rinse. This also helps with anti-static properties, reducing cling. Secondly – and this is the softening part – the fatty acids coat the fabric which gives it a smoother sensation. This also makes it easy to iron, and helps clothing withstand wear and tear.

1. Laundry softener refills

Of course, the zero waste option of not using any laundry softener at all is a perfectly valid option! This has the benefit of reducing the chemical loading in household wastewater, whether biodegradable or not, which ends up in our waterways. But if you like fabric softener in your laundry, nowadays you can get zero waste refills at KitaRefill. Their laundry softener is also not animal-based. Instead, it seems to be a wheat protein with similarly conditioning properties.

Even if you don’t really feel the need to use laundry softener in the washing machine, you might want to get some as an ironing aid. You can dilute laundry softener in a spray bottle, to make the ironing chore easier.

Softener refills at KitaRefill is RM3.80 per kg, or RM4.80 with added scent. By contrast, supermarket fabric softener has a large price range depending on brand, whether it’s concentrated, and how much you’re buying. They also come in a range of volumes, making it annoying to compare prices. It can range anywhere from RM2.50 per kg to as high as over RM15 per kg for small bottles. And refill pouches – originally supposed to be the less wasteful product in terms of packaging waste – are often now on the expensive side on a per volume basis!

2. Vinegar as laundry softener

Cheap white vinegar is commonly cited as an alternative to laundry softener. I’ve used it for a while, but I can’t really sense the difference. All I can say is that it doesn’t seem to damage or stain the clothes, and it doesn’t leave a ‘vinegar’ smell either (which is a concern some people have, who are considering it). I don’t use it regularly anymore, since I can’t appreciate the difference.

That said, vinegar isn’t really an alternative softener. It is water soluble, and does not coat the fabric like laundry softener does. It is, however, an acid. So it still does the first part which is about neutralising negative charge in the laundry, which is perhaps why its proponents report a noticeable effect. Vinegar might also help remove detergent residue which contributes to stiffness in clothing after a wash. Although, of course it’s better to avoid adding too much detergent in the first place.

If you do choose to use vinegar in place of laundry softener (maybe because you already buy it in bulk for general zero waste household cleaning), it is RM5.20 per kg at KitaRefill. It’s ironically more expensive than if you simply bought softener refills. On the other hand, it does simplify the number of chemical types you have to manage at home (one of the perks of going zero waste, IMO).

3. Post-wash fabric softening

If you use a dryer machine on a regular basis, perhaps because you can’t air-dry your clothes for whatever reason, you might be able to get acceptable fabric softening without using softeners in the laundry.

Using dryer balls or dryer sheets in the drying machine achieves the same ‘softening’ outcome from removing static. Dryer sheets also impart some lubrication on the fabric, similar to laundry softener. They are infused with the same compounds as in laundry softener, which volatilise with the heat of the dryer. The compounds then coat the fabric in a similar way.

However, the dryer sheets themselves become a waste source, whereas you can get zero waste refills of laundry softener.

Zero waste options for drying the laundry

Like most Malaysians, for much of my life there was only one way to dry laundry. With an abundance of warm sunny days, the default is to hang them outside to dry. If you did your laundry in the morning, it would usually be hot enough that the laundry would be dry in just a couple of hours. The advantage of relying on the sun is obvious: it costs you nothing.

But no, that’s not quite true. Hanging your laundry out in the sun does cost you something – the real estate cost of having a yard. As population centres become ever more dense, more and more people live in houses with barely any outside space. Or, in the case of high rise apartments, often none at all. People are then forced to improvise drying lines, or use a drying rack indoors.

Wealthier apartment blocks are more fortunate. The units might have a balcony, and the building would have been designed to remain aesthetically pleasing even when people put their laundry out on the balconies. Otherwise, residents would be able to afford a drying machine.

Drying the laundry doesn’t generate much waste. However, that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t generate any waste at all. There are still easy things we can do to be more zero waste.

Photo by Fabien Bazanegue on Unsplash

1. Line drying

As a child, I don’t remember ever seeing the clothesline needing any attention. The pillars were sturdy metal, and the lines were heavy duty rope that lasted for years. Today, my parents’ home uses a drying rack, but it still has a single clothesline for hanging out large things like bedlinen. And it seems as though the rope frays more quickly than before.

So if you’re using the line drying method, it’s best to invest in a setup that’s durable for an indefinite amount of time. Thick wire clotheslines are also the most durable. They bear a heavier load too, and bow less when you hang heavy items on them. If you prefer rope, invest in heavy duty, and consider natural materials such as jute. Rope will eventually fray and need to be disposed, and using natural materials avoids plastic waste and doesn’t add more microplastic dust into the environment.

And of course, the same goes for drying racks, especially if they’re left outdoors. Investing in heavy duty racks would easily last decades, but cheap ones become garbage within a decade under our unforgiving tropical sun and rain. While metal can be recycled, it’s still energy intensive, and we should buy better equipment in the first place.

Also, everything that applies to the racks apply to the clothes pegs and hangers. Plastic pegs are becoming more common than wood, but they will disintegrate in the sun into microplastic. Try to find ones that are more resistant to UV damage. I found that some of my plastic hangers don’t disintegrate while others do. I don’t know if they make plastic pegs from that kind of plastic, but they should. Another option are metal pegs.

Laundry on clotheslines held in place with clothes pegs
Photo by Daniele Bissoli on Unsplash

2. Choose an energy efficient dryer machine

A dryer machine is among the most energy intensive home appliances, for the opposite reason that air conditioning is. Any time you’re trying to keep things cool or heat things up, when they wouldn’t normally be that temperature, you’re expending energy. So if you choose to buy one (or have to), it’s a good idea to pick the most efficient machine. This is more important the more frequently you expect to use it.

The good news is, nowadays you can get very efficient dryers. The bad news is, it is invariably more expensive upfront. That said, these things last for a long time. If I’m buying a dryer at all, I would personally make do with air drying until I save up enough to buy the efficient machine, rather than be stuck indefinitely with an energy wasting one. Using an inefficient dryer in our hot climate makes apartment living space uncomfortable.

In my case, I mainly used the Elba that came with my apartment to dry bed linen and towels. It was old technology, and not very efficient. However, one day it fried, so I got myself a Samsung with heat pump technology. Even though it’s bigger, it uses less electricity than the Elba. It also doesn’t blow hot air around an already warm apartment. Not only that, the Samsung also recovers water vapour. This solves the problem of adding unwanted humidity to the house, and I can also pour the water into the washing machine when I do the next laundry load, saving even more water for doing the laundry.

I use my dryer around 3-4 times a month (more if I’m washing pillows), and my electricity bill is still seldom above the first tariff bracket.

Washer dryer machine | Photo by Point3D Commercial Imaging Ltd. on Unsplash
Photo by Point3D Commercial Imaging Ltd. on Unsplash

3. Use the dryer machine correctly

Although more Malaysians are buying dryer machines, it’s still not very common. You can tell by how the energy efficiency labels on dryer machines are usually foreign, e.g. Energy Star ratings, rather than local. This may change in future, of course.

So it’s no surprise if people don’t know the tips for using it optimally, which are basic knowledge for people in temperate countries, where the weather is not always suitable for drying clothes outside. For example, it wasn’t until my in-laws showed me that I realised I was supposed to regularly empty the lint filter, and that it makes the machine less efficient if I didn’t. (That was also when I realised just how much fabrics shed whenever you wash and dry them.)

In addition, while it’s not efficient to run the machine for just a few pieces of laundry, it’s not quite the same logic as using the washing machine more efficiently. Running the dryer with a ‘full’ load makes it less efficient, not more. This is because more wet clothes tend to clump more, which makes it more difficult for hot air to move around each item.

However, as with the washing machine, get to know your dryer. Use the right setting for whatever it is you’re drying. Sometimes, longer cycles are more efficient because it’s drying with less heat over a longer period of time. This is especially the case with heat pump dryers.

4. Dryer sheets and dryer balls

When I had the old Elba, I looked for ways to shorten the drying time and save energy. I heard about dryer sheets, but it’s not common here and while some people claim they reduce drying time, it wasn’t clear to me how they worked. You also had to throw them away afterwards, which seemed wasteful. In addition, the compounds they release can clog the lint filter, making it less efficient over time. For me, the softening effect is not worth the extra chore of deep cleaning the oils off the filter every now and then.

However, dryer balls are a different story. These are anti-static literal balls that you simply toss into the dryer with your laundry, and that’s it. They work by helping to keep the laundry items separate as it tumbles around, which makes it easier for hot air to reach all the items. I gave it a try and found that it really does work. I normally used the drying cycle with a sensor to detect whether the laundry has dried. And it definitely was done sooner with the dryer balls than without.

In terms of which dryer balls to buy, the main options are plastic or wool. Obviously, I chose the wool. Apart from avoiding end-of-life plastic waste, woollen dryer balls have other advantages. They are softer, and won’t damage the clothes. Wool is naturally anti-static, so it does the same anti-static role as dryer sheets without generating the waste. Wool is also absorbent, sucking in some moisture and further reducing drying time. I’ve had them for some years, and as far as I can tell they effectively last forever. And even when I theoretically have to get new ones someday, wool is biodegradable.

Besides, dryer balls are so cute! Check out Friendsheep’s adorable designs.

Laundry and microplastics

If there’s so much lint in the dryer lint trap, it stands to reason that laundry sheds a lot of fibres during washing as well. It’s just that the fibres are dumped out with the laundry wastewater, and we never see it. However, as synthetic fabrics become more common, these microfibres that are dumped into the environment are no longer natural fibres like cotton. They’re microplastics which don’t biodegrade, and the amounts are increasing exponentially. In Malaysia, we’re already ingesting the most microplastics in the world.

There are many reasons why synthetic clothing has become so popular. Since a lot of it is made from petroleum byproducts, this reduces the cost significantly, and clothes became cheap. The last time this happened was when textile weaving machines were invented. Synthetic fabrics could also be designed to increase the functions of clothing such as warmth and being wrinkle-free, as well as new aesthetic designs. And some of them are recycled polyester, part of interim attempts to alleviate the plastic pollution problem from other, non-clothing sources. In short, there are valid reasons why it’s not easy to go zero plastic microfibre waste.

Nonetheless, whatever the reasons why we may have synthetic clothing in our laundry, they are going to shed microplastics in the wastewater. However, there are things we can do to avoid or reduce it, aside from policy decisions on whether synthetic clothing should be regulated.

1. Install a microfibre filter at the washing machine

One solution you can consider is to install a microfibre effluent filter on your washing machine. This is kind of like a lint trap, but for the washing machine. It needs to be able to capture the tiny microfibres, and shouldn’t itself result in filters that you then throw away. The idea is to capture the microfibres and dispose them as garbage, rather than having them escape into the waterways.

Irritatingly, the laundry cupboard my apartment comes with has washer and dryer sections that just exactly fit the appliances. And if I placed the filter behind the machine, I wouldn’t be able to get to it to clean it later. So unfortunately, I can’t use this solution unless I renovate that corner.

However, apparently you can also use a laundry ball that catches microfibres. But it’s not as effective as the effluent filter, picking up only 26% of microfibres vs 87%. That said, for people who can’t install a filter, it might be the next best solution.

Photo by PlanetCare on Unsplash

2. Buy fewer clothes, less frequently & buy pre-loved

Microfibres are shed every time you do a laundry load, so you might be wondering, how does buying clothes less frequently help? Normally, buying fewer clothes and shopping pre-loved is a sustainable tip related to the problem of textile waste from fast fashion. However, this advice helps with the problem of laundry microfibres as well.

The reason is because clothes shed the most during the first five times they’re laundered. It makes sense; when I got new towels, the dryer lint trap was always full the first several times I washed them, before settling down to less than half the amount. This means that if you frequently buy a lot of clothes, you’ll be shedding a lot of microfibres perpetually. So if you like having a lot of variety in your wardrobe, consider buying pre-loved clothing that have already passed through this high-shedding phase, or participate in clothes swaps.

A final way that this advice helps has nothing to do with microfibres in your own laundry. Most of the microfibres shed by clothing in its life cycle happens during manufacturing (49%), with 28% occurring during washing them. The remainder are shed while you wear them. Therefore, the more you enable fast fashion, the more microfibres enter the environment during the manufacturing stage.

3. Wash some clothes less frequently

Another thing you can do is to try and reduce the overall amount of laundry that you do. Modern city life finds many of us inside air-conditioned buildings most of the time. Our clothes are not necessarily dirty by the end of the day. Even if we’re outdoors taking public transport, you can probably wear trousers and jeans for more than one day. At home, switch back to a batik sarong or kain pelikat, which can also be re-worn over a couple of days.

Less washing means shedding microfibres less frequently. It may also help keep your laundry chores manageable. When I began re-wearing pants and skirts through the week, the amount of laundry I have to do dropped enough that I could conveniently do the laundry once a week, rather than every 4-5 days. In addition, washing clothes less frequently keeps them in good condition for longer. Obviously, if you’ve sweated in them and they’re dirty, they need to be washed. But otherwise, clothes will last longer when washed less frequently.

ID  170259587 © C EDreamstime.com

4. Invest in a good iron

One of the reasons for my synthetic clothes was my past attempt to reduce ironing chores. Ironing is not a favourite chore. I wanted to have to do it less often, and also wanted to save electricity. So I began looking for office clothes that are easy to iron, or don’t need ironing at all. Most of these are synthetic. At the time, the microfibres problem didn’t occur to me.

However, I have since also realised that part of the problem was using cheap, ‘free gift’ irons. I was very frugal when I first started working. Eventually, I obtained a better iron (which was also free, actually) and lo and behold, ironing was a lot easier, except for the most annoying, wrinkle-prone fabric (ironically, a synthetic one which was gifted to me).

If you’ve been buying synthetic clothing because you hate ironing like I do, try investing in a good steam iron, and use a spray bottle of fabric softener (refilled at a zero waste store, of course). Maybe that’s enough to keep you contented with cotton.

5. Buy clothing made from natural fibres

And finally, there is the obvious advice. The microfibres shed in the laundry are a problem because they’re plastic. If the laundry didn’t have synthetic clothing, there’s no problem.

Buying clothing in natural fabrics ethically can be more expensive if you’re used to the cheap synthetic clothing. However, buying fewer clothes and making them last longer can help you afford the difference.

You may also have synthetic clothing because of their functional properties. Examples are sports clothing, and weather-related clothing. However, we can consider natural fabrics for when it doesn’t really make a difference. I have been guilty of ‘athleisure’ as well. But thinking back, those were probably not the best use of synthetics. And if you’re getting synthetic clothing for functional reasons, at least consider getting ones that are made from recycled plastic, which is very feasible for swimwear now.

Is there zero waste dry cleaning?

Before I end this article, let’s touch on a final way to do your laundry: outsourcing it to professional cleaners. Perhaps it’s because you’re too busy to do the laundry and ironing. Or perhaps it’s because the clothing label says ‘dry clean only’. We used to do this in my parents’ household before they retired, for the first reason. And it was always such a chore for me because, whether the clothes were cleaned the regular way or dry cleaned, they always came back on plastic hangers and covered in plastic.

I rarely sent my own clothes to the cleaners, but here was a massive source of plastic waste that I couldn’t eliminate. I could return the hangers to the cleaners, and even get a discount for it. But what to do with the plastic covers? In the end, I bought a heat sealer and sealed the tops, turning them into a steady supply of garbage bags, allowing my parents to stop buying the black bags.

Today, my own household doesn’t generate anywhere near the amount of garbage to fill up even one such makeshift bag a week. And since I now mainly do my ‘outside chores’ by walking to the stores rather than driving, it becomes a lot less convenient to take laundry out to the cleaners. In the end, it’s just a lot more convenient to avoid clothes that need professional or dry cleaning now, and not deal with the hassle and waste at all.

And that’s not even touching the other issue specific to dry cleaning. Dry cleaning is often a regulated industry due to the cleaning solvents it uses in order to avoid using water. That’s why dry cleaned clothes smell the way they do. As a result, dry cleaning sites are often associated with a significant problem of groundwater and air contamination. Plastic pollution is not even the worst of dry cleaning’s environmental impacts.

Clothes hanging on a circular laundromat rack covered in plastic
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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