How Clean Laundry Can Change the World

We have laundry machines in our basement (the dank, bark, spidery basement with the mystery puddle) that require nothing more than that one of us carry laundry down two flights of stairs, sort and load the washer while trying to avoid dropping anything on the stained concrete floor, pour in detergent, set controls, and then come back in forty-five minutes to take everything wet out of the washer and load it into the dryer, remembering that little nonrecyclable chemical infused sheet that is supposed to make the clothes smell fresh and get rid of the static generated by tumbling wet fabric in a heated metal barrel. Then in another forty-five minutes, we have to return to the dank basement (no one stays down there by choice) and remove the now (or maybe) dry clothes, chemically infused so they don’t smell like hot metal, and rapidly fold them or put them on hangers so they don’t crinkle into a million wrinkles. The only clean work surface is the top of the freezer – the old workbench collapsed a century ago and sits in the corner, forlorn and covered with rusty bits of tools from past inhabitants. (No one has the courage or fortitude to disassemble the thing and haul it out.)

Or, at this time of the year, I can carry the galvanized tubs to the backyard, set up a workstation under the shady maples, attach the antique wringer, fill the tubs from the hose and add a gallon of hot water to take off the chill, hang the clothes pin bucket on the line over my head, bring the clothes down one flight of stairs, and let them soak in the nice sudsy water for a little while, then gently rub or scrub them, rinse in  the other tub, and immediately hang on the line, where a pleasant zephyr drives them almost wrinkle and odour free. (They often smell like ozone when they come in, which is a good, pure smell and means that bacteria were killed off, in a gentle, natural way, of course.)

I usually use Fels Naptha or Sunlight laundry soap bars, or even plain Ivory bathsoap, but right now we have a concentrated detergent that comes in a tiny pump bottle. One little bottle does a couple of dozen loads in the automatic washer, and I could make it go further if I did all the laundry by hand. I don’t know what it’s called, but it seems a lot of laundry brands are moving to super-concentrated. Well, why not? Why ship gallons of water in tons of plastic all over the world when the same detergent just needs to be shipped in its concentrated form in much smaller bottles? I will go back to real soap in bars soon; I prefer having the bar in my hand for scrubbing at stains and spots. Surely there can’t be as great an environmental impact from making yellow soap, wrapping it in paper and shipping that as there is in processing detergent and making and shipping plastic bottles! For those who may have a surfeit of bath soap, just grate it on a four-sided grater, using the medium-sized holes, store it in a glass jar, and add a half-cup or so to hot water before dumping in the tub. This will work in a top-loading machine, as well. The grated soap will dissolve fast in the hot water, which you then add to the water in the tub, so you don’t get lumps. My father remembers his mother doing this, when wringer washers became common, and detergent powders were advertised. He remembered it because he saw me doing it.

I found a good stain-removing stick, made locally by “Buncha Farmers.” I bought it at Len’s Mill Store. It has eucalyptus oil in it, and it will scent a room pretty powerfully if it isn’t sealed into something – I like the smell of eucalyptus, so it doesn’t bother me to have it out. I got a grease stain – like bike chain oil or worse – on one of my white aprons, and a little work with the stain stick removed it. This is a stick like a narrow bar of soap, no plastic in the packaging, and nice to work with. I feel like I’m crayoning onto the clothes.

So how is this going to save the world? I’d like to say it’s because your handwashed, sun-dried clothes will radiate light and goodwill and peace – but not everyone can see those wavelengths of moonshine.

It’s because you bought plain galvanized tubs, which last years if handled properly, can be re-used as planters, dog watererers, hay cribs, and manure haulers, and use a fraction of the materials that automatic washers use; you use 5-10 gallons of water per tub for multiple loads (presoak really grungy things); you can use natural soaps rather than detergents and not much of them, saving manufacturing and shipping waste; and a clothesline, pegs and bucket to store them are super cheap, last for years, and the sun and wind are FREE!

With a little practice, you can get through a load of laundry in about fifteen minutes. Your clothes will be cleaner, fresher, and will last longer since they aren’t getting stressed and stretched in the agitating washer and the tumbling dryer. They dry at lower temperatures, which will save elastic bands and stretchy fabrics. You can handwash just about every fabric made and save lots in dry cleaning. You won’t need fabric softeners or bleach or stain-removing chemicals. You will get a pleasant break outdoors and even small children can help with the wash.

I will address some other laundry issues soon, such as winter washing, indoor drying, and handling delicates.

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