How to Minimize the Environmental Impact of Doing Laundry

Written by Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT


Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT

Sustainability Expert

Leigh Matthews is a sustainability expert and long time vegan. Her work on solar policy has been published in Canada's National Observer.


Recognizing that we’re not going to stop doing laundry anytime soon, many municipal environmental campaigns have begun to focus on reducing the amount of detergent discharged into wastewater collection systems. The easiest way to do that? Check to see if your water is soft or hard.

Table of Contents
  1. Laundry Detergent Packaging
  2. Concentrated detergents are more eco-friendly
  3. Use biodegradable bottles
  4. Take your own containers for bulk purchases
  5. What Makes a Good Laundry Detergent?
  6. A Quick Word on Wastewater and Greywater

If you live somewhere with soft water, you can use half the recommended amount of laundry detergent and still get the same results! Most detergents are formulated to contend with hard water. Save yourself money by using half your normal detergent amount and reduce wastewater contamination at the same time.

See Also: The 6 Best Eco-Friendly Liquid Laundry Detergents

Laundry Detergent Packaging

In addition to the chemicals in the laundry detergent itself, laundry detergent packaging takes a huge environmental toll. These mostly plastic bottles quickly pile up in landfill, where they degrade slowly, leaching chemicals into the air, soil, and groundwater. They’re also energy intensive to produce in the first place, relying on the wasteful extractive fossil fuel industry. Sure, they can be recycled in most places, but this also takes energy (you should still recycle though!).

Seventh Generation claim that if every US household replaced a single plastic bottle of laundry detergent with a biodegradable plant-based bottle, this would save nearly 150,000 barrels of oil, enough to heat and cool 8,500 homes for a year. Assuming most households go through a bottle of detergent every couple of months at minimum, this would save nearly 900,000 barrels of oil annually.

How can we cut down on our use of these plastic laundry detergent bottles? Concentrated laundry detergent is one option and arguably the most readily available.

Concentrated detergents are more eco-friendly

Many of the better laundry companies have made the switch to highly-concentrated detergents, recognizing that using millions of gallons of water to dilute detergent then ship it around the globe makes very little sense. Each bottle of concentrated liquid can cover many more loads of laundry, meaning you get through fewer plastic bottles. Most concentrated laundry detergents can be used in regular and high-efficiency machines.

Use biodegradable bottles

Even better, though, are bottles made with 100% biodegradable materials. This usually means a carboard exterior and an interior bladder made from a starchy plant plastic that can degrade then biodegrade under the right conditions after use. The plastic cap of the bottle may still be a problem, though, so be sure to recycle all of these parts according to manufacturers’ instructions.

Take your own containers for bulk purchases

Another great option is to find a bulk-buy outlet near you and take your own containers for refills. No extra plastic production needed and nothing to throw away after use! Happily, thanks to the general green ethos of zero waste stores, they usually choose to stock eco-friendly laundry detergents (like Dr. Bronner’s!). If they don’t, consider sending them an email with this article and a suggestion to switch providers if possible.

Top of the pile, though, are laundry strips. These biodegradable strips are usually made with cornstarch impregnated with detergent. They dissolve in the wash, leaving no residue or waste. They’re lightweight (reducing shipping-related costs and emissions), plastic-free, and super easy to use. Not all of these strips are ‘green’ though, so check back for my reviews of the most eco-friendly laundry detergent strips, coming soon!

The same goes for laundry powders, which usually come in a biodegradable or at least recyclable cardboard box. I’ll review the best of these soon too.

What Makes a Good Laundry Detergent?

Major detergent brands are constantly tinkering with their formulas, striving for even greater stain removing power. This makes it tricky to stay on top of the best detergents, let alone the greenest detergents. Add in the fact that some detergents are great for removing grass stains but barely put a dent in blood or sweat stains, and vice versa, and you’ve got a lot of room for poorly cleaned laundry.

My advice is to figure out what stains you’re typically dealing with, then trial a few detergents. Once you’ve found one that can handle your family’s current needs, make a note of the ingredients (as much as possible), and stick to products with that particular mix wherever you can. If your needs change suddenly, such as if there’s a new baby in the house, or you’ve started playing soccer regularly, see if your regular detergent can handle these different types of stains. If not, consider getting a different laundry detergent for these specific loads of laundry. This may also help you cut costs by only using a more expensive detergent when you really need it (this is super important when tackling Mount Laundry once you have kids!).

Remember, even the best detergents can’t completely remove every stain. Blood, oil, chocolate, coffee, grass, body sweat, wine, blueberry mush, and other stains are trouble. Pre-treating tough stains with a natural stain remover can make a big difference.

A Quick Word on Wastewater and Greywater

I recently bought a new home and during the inspection process discovered that the laundry discharged into a perimeter drain instead of the septic system. This is a big no-no and was top of the list of things to fix, given that even eco-friendly laundry detergents can be harmful to fish, frogs, insects, plant life, and all the creatures that eat them.

Sure, there are initial environmental advantages to natural surfactants and other chemicals derived from olive or coconut oil, say, but these still have an impact on aquatic life, regardless of where the chemicals come from. And even when wastewater is treated by a municipality, breaking down and neutralizing these chemicals can prove difficult and extremely costly. Some chemicals give rise to yet more toxic metabolites that require a whole separate type of processing.

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