Washing clothes on quick, cool cycles causes less environmental damage – research

Study finds clothes washed in colder water last longer, with less energy used for cleaning

Washing clothes at 20 degrees rather than 40 degrees saves approximately 66% of the energy used per load. Photograph: iStock

Washing clothes at 20 degrees rather than 40 degrees saves approximately 66% of the energy used per load. Photograph: iStock

 

Washing clothes in colder water for less time is less damaging for the planet than using hotter, longer washes, according to academic research published on Tuesday evening.

Researchers working with the University of Leeds have found that, by following some simple steps, people can dramatically increase the lifespan of garments and keep them out of landfill, while significantly reducing the level of microfibers sloshing around in oceans and washing up on beaches all over the world.

The research suggests that washing clothes with a quicker, cooler cycle reduced the amount of microfibre release into the environment by up to 52 per cent and cut dye release by up to 74 per cent.

Furthermore, washing clothes at 20 degrees rather than 40 degrees saves approximately 66 per cent of the energy used per load – according to the UK’s Energy Saving Trust.

Academics from the university and specialists from Procter & Gamble (P&G), the makers of Ariel, Daz, Bold, Fairy and Lenor, have wrung out their new insight into how laundering clothing affects fading, colour runs and microfibre release.

Every load of washing releases hundreds of thousands of microfibres – tiny strands that are flushed down the drain. Many reach beaches and oceans, where they can remain for many years and be swallowed by sea creatures.

The lead author of the report Dr Lucy Cotton, from the University of Leeds School of Design, said people were “increasingly familiar with the environmental threat posed by throwaway fast fashion, but we also know that consumers claim their clothes can lose their fit, softness and colour after fewer than five washes – this means it’s more likely they will ditch them long before they are worn out.”

She said that by using “shorter, cooler washes is a simple way everyone can make their clothes last longer and keep them out of landfill.”

Dr Cotton worked with Dr Adam Hayward and Dr Neil Lant from P&G’s Newcastle Innovation Centre, as well as Leeds colleague Dr Richard Blackburn, and their findings have just been published in the journal Dyes and Pigments.

“Our findings can help tackle the issue of ‘invisible’ plastics in the environment,” said Dr Blackburn, who heads the Sustainable Materials Research Group at the Leeds university.

“Synthetic microfibres are released every time textiles are washed and account for more than a third of all plastic reaching the ocean. But microfibres from cotton and other natural sources are found in even greater numbers in the sea, and we’re worried about their impact too.”

As to the impact on the cleanliness of the clothes, Dr Lant, a P&G research fellow, said advances in detergent technology, “especially in sustainable ingredients such as enzymes, are allowing consumers to get excellent cleaning results in colder and quicker washes”.