Environment

Washing and Drying Machines are Polluting the Air

A new study confirms dryer machines are an equal threat to the environment as washing machines.

By Cari ShaneJun 4, 2022 9:00 AM
Washing and drying machine
(Credit: New Africa/Shutterstock)

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While we are cleaning our clothes, we are polluting our air. A typical U.S. household does about 300 loads of laundry every year and because our cleaning habits are bad for the environment, scientists want us to cut back.

Not only does washing our clothes this much use an excessive amount of energy, it also spews out tons of carbon dioxide. This is bad for the environment, and it wears down our clothes, which adds clothing to our landfills. Researchers report that the E.U. alone produces 2.2 million tons of “textile waste” each year.

Drying Just as Bad as Washing

Up until now, researchers have mostly focused on the negative effects of washing machines on the environment. Now, a new study suggests that tumble drying is just as bad.

First, this is what we know about washing machines:

  • A residential washing machine uses about 41 gallons of water per load.

  • A commercial washing machine uses an average of 34.74 thousand gallons of water and up to 910 kilowatts of electricity per year.

  • Residential washing machines emit 179 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. 

  • Using cold water can reduce emissions by 864 pounds of carbon per year.

  • Scented liquid laundry detergent emits compounds that the Environmental Protection Agency has classified as carcinogens.

And second, we now know that drying one load of laundry in a residential dryer is equally as bad for the environment as doing one wash load, suggests a new study published in the scientific journal, PLOS ONE, earlier this year. A team of scientists at Northumbria University and scientists at Procter & Gamble (P&G) conducted the research and found that a drying cycle releases the same amount of potentially harmful microfibers into the air as a wash load releases into the water system.

Even before this study came out, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) were calling for more environmentally and energy efficient dryers.

“Clothes dryers are arguably the most important of all residential appliances in need of an energy efficiency upgrade,” writes the NRDC in a June 2014 paper.

“Of the washer-dryer pair, clothes washers have received more attention with a complete makeover over the past two decades. Nearly half of all models now open from the front rather than the top, which allows them to spin more water out of the clothing and reduce energy and water consumption,” the NRDC states.

Hazardous Chemicals

While the team researched the impact of dryers on the environment, they also found that the dryer sheets and fabric softeners could reduce the release of microfibers during tumble dryers. Scientists at the University of Washington published research a decade ago in the journal, Air Quality, Atmosphere and Health, showing that liquid laundry detergent and scented dryer sheet contain hazardous chemicals — including two that are classified as carcinogens — that a drying cycle releases into the air.

The Northumbria and P&G study measured the output of microfibers in loads totaling 1,200 garments. It found that if a link filter had smaller pores, it could trap the microfibers better. That means drying cycles would spew less hazardous material into the air.

In a press release reporting on the study, Dr. Kelly Sheridan, an expert in textile fibers at Northumbria University, says, “It is critical to our understanding of the impact of microfibers on human health and the environment that all the potential pathways for microfiber release, including air, are assessed. Airborne fibers are just as concerning as those present in wastewater.”

In tandem with their new research findings, researchers are calling on the appliance industry to improve the efficiency of filtration systems in vented dryers.

"The recent rises in energy costs have led us all to think carefully about the financial impact of using dryers, but few are aware of their impact on particulate air pollution,” says Dr. Neil Lant, a research fellow at P&G and lead scientist on this study.

According to the NRDC, a clothes dryer is responsible for approximately six percent of the average home’s energy use.

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