When the Department of Energy started researching laundry in the late 1960s and early 1970s, its primary concern was identifying the best ways to remove any radioactive contamination from protective clothing worn by employees.
During and after the 1970s energy crisis, however, Congress passed a series of laws that gave the department the authority to set energy standards for appliances, including washing machines, and its work on laundry shifted to efficiency. Since then, it’s taken the lead on overseeing and promoting efficient in-home equipment.
Though the adoption of highly energy-efficient washing machines in the United States has been slow-moving, wider implementation could significantly cut down on day to day energy use.
Importantly, it can also help cut down the carbon footprint of the clothing that we wear every day.
“This is a system that’s part of the home, and it’s an obvious way that household’s impact the environment,” Gwendolyn Hustvedt, a professor in the School of Family and Consumer Sciences at Texas State University, told The Daily Beast.
About 20 percent of the total carbon dioxide emissions from the United States comes from energy used in residences. Of that segment, just over eight percent comes from laundry, which includes both washing and drying. That may be a modest percentage, but it’s still about 120 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and carbon dioxide equivalents. In addition, 21 percent of the water used indoors is used to wash clothes.
The classic washing machine opens at the top, and has an agitator in the middle of a deep barrel. While it’s running, the barrel fills with water, and the agitator bumps the clothing around to clean it. High-efficiency washers primarily load from the front (though there are top-loading, high-efficiency washers on the market) and rinse with a spray—rather than a soak—of water. They use far less water, and clothes aren’t as damp when the cycle is done. These washers don’t use enough water to rinse out the high volume of suds created by regular detergent—that’s why they require low-sudsing, high-efficiency soap. High-efficiency washers tend to be more expensive than traditional washers, but the savings on the water and electricity bill can make up for the upfront costs.
High-efficiency washers first started to appear on the market in the 1990s, though they didn’t pick up a major share of the market until the early 2000s. The Department of Energy sets appliance efficiency standards, which mark the maximum amount of energy something like a washing machine can use. In 1992, in collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency, it introduced the EnergyStar program to certify appliances that exceed those standards and meet a benchmark for energy use. Washing machines were added to the EnergyStar program in 1997.
According to the Department of Energy, replacing all washers in the U.S. with EnergyStar models would save 11 billion kilowatts of energy and 550 billion gallons of water per year. An outside analysis, published in 2010 and based on data from 2005, found that each additional 25 percent increase in front-loading washers used in the U.S. would lead to a five percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and significantly reduce water consumption.
Though the focus of the Department of Energy and the EnergyStar program has, due to their jurisdiction, been on the energy consumed by the appliances, the water use is just as important, Hustvedt said. “If you want to know if your washer is efficient, you look at your water bill,” she said.
High-efficiency washers can also help cut down a significant portion of the environmental impact of clothing. About 60 percent of the energy used by an item of clothing happens after its purchased, when it enters the home and it’s washed, worn, and washed again.
That’s why it’s frustrating to Hustvedt that a lot of the focus and awareness around sustainability in fashion tends to be on purchase decision, and not on the life of a product after its purchased. “We create a story around sustainability that’s about shopping,” she said. “The company making the clothes often doesn’t care what happens after you buy their product. If you look at what you buy as the way you impact sustainability, you only can help so many systems.”
Rates of energy-efficient washers in the U.S. have been climbing over the past decade. In 2005, only 11 percent of U.S. households had washers that meet EnergyStar criteria; that number rose to 41 percent in 2016. But we still lag far behind many European countries: In 2004, 80 percent of washing machines sold in Europe had an A rating for energy efficiency.
In 2013, Hustvedt conducted research on consumer adoption of high-efficiency washers, and found that younger, higher income people were more likely to own a front-loading washer. Not only were they satisfied with their purchase, they also reported that they would purchase that type of washer again. The study, which surveyed over 300 people, noted that cost was a significant barrier to purchase, and that consumers weren’t aware that the energy savings could help offset that price.
Increased awareness of the specific benefits of the high-efficiency washers might help boost adoption, the study noted. Most people reported that they’d turn to the internet, or to appliance stores, to get more information. “We found that the salespeople, who could talk about EnergyStar, have a very important role to play,” Hustvedt said.
Some suggest that impressions given by early, faulty front-loading washer models might have contributed to slow adoption, Hustvedt said. The different motions—bending to pull laundry out from the front of a machine, rather than up through the top—might have also been a cause for concern. “But consumers adapted to that. Most people, if they have a high efficiency washer, don’t really think about it,” she said.
A key piece, Hustvedt said, is making people aware that their laundry choices in the home can play a big role in their individual and family sustainability. And sometimes, rewearing an item of clothing rather than washing it immediately might be the best choice. “I want to challenge consumers to think more broadly,” Hustvedt said. “We’re already doing too much laundry as it is.”