Is Handwashing Clothes Better for the Environment Than Using a Washing Machine?

Washing laundry contributes to around 75-80% of our clothing’s life cycle impact on the environment. There’s no getting around how unsustainable clothes can be, especially when you factor in all the energy used to heat wash water and run washing and drying machines.

Could handwashing clothes be the eco-friendly alternative to washing machines?

When it comes down to it it’s really difficult to judge whether handwashing clothes is better for the environment than using a washing machine because it all depends on machinery, frequency, and method.

Generally speaking, full loads in a high-efficiency washing machine are more eco-friendly than handwashing with lots of hot water, while a low-efficiency washing machine is less environmentally friendly than handwashing in cold water.

Is washing clothes by hand better?

Most people assume that because washing machines require electricity to run, handwashing is better for the environment. But there are more factors to consider.

Modern washing machines don’t use as much electricity as you might think.

The EU uses the European Union Energy Label to note how efficient appliances are, and from 2021 the A-G scale has been made even easier to follow to decide just how efficient an appliance is.

The average washing machine has an average power rating of between 1200-3000 watts. Ovens, electric fires, kettles, tumble dryers, electric showers, and hairdryers all use more electricity. This includes the electricity needed to heat water.

Handwashing is harder to judge because heating water from the tap uses variable amounts of energy, which is amplified by the heating used in the home.

Handwashing clothes typically uses half as much water as the standard washing machine. Older washing machines will use even more water, while newer and eco machines will use less.

High-efficiency washing machine models will save water and energy compared to outdated, inefficient washers. Running only full loads makes washing machines more efficient as well.

Washing machines work by throwing clothes around so that they clean with friction. This friction cleans dirt and grime from the fabric, and it affects the fibers of the clothes. This also results in the tearing of fibers and generates microfibers.

Microfibers are a kind of microplastic. Once the washing machine is done with a load, the microfibers are then drained away and affect the environment. Handwashing can also cause this, especially if you’re using a washboard. The only way to stop microfiber pollution is to buy only natural, organic fabrics.

When handwashing, you’ll want to fill your sink or bathtub with water and place the clothes in the water, making sure they’re saturated. Rubbing the fabric together can help mimic the agitation used in a washing machine, but by being more careful and aware of what you’re washing you can avoid releasing too many microfibers.

Cold water is better than hot water because it uses less energy and prevents any dye from staining other clothes. Using as little water as possible is ideal to help reduce your water usage.

When handwashing, you can usually use less laundry detergent than the manufacturer suggests because you’re using less water. This helps reduce waste packaging and the number of synthetic chemicals released into the environment, especially if you use eco-friendly brands.

How to do laundry and be eco-friendly

To be eco-friendly when washing laundry, we have to consider how to reduce water usage and what products we use when washing.

The frequency of washing is one of the biggest factors in water usage.

Every wash uses the same amount of water in a washing machine (ignoring all the settings, most of which we don’t ever use), so by committing to only washing full loads of clothes we can be as efficient as possible.

You can reduce how much laundry needs to be washed by wearing your clothes more and only washing when they’re visibly dirty or cycling your clothes. Even Levi’s recommends washing jeans once every 10 wears or until they smell.

You can, for example, remove stains from denim with an old toothbrush or damp cloth with some mild soap to keep them out of the laundry pile for longer.

Of course, you can go ahead and wash them as often as you feel you need to, but ask yourself whether it’s really necessary to clean the jeans yet – could you wear them one more day?

We know that conventional detergents are not as eco-friendly as plant-based laundry detergents. So swapping to plant-based laundry detergents is one of the most important sustainable swaps we can make due to how often we use them.

You should aim to only use as much laundry detergent as you really need – the less you use per wash, the longer you have until you need to refill.

When it’s time to swap out your washing machine, make sure to go for the most energy-efficient washing machine. If you’ve got a good few years in it yet, make sure you wash on low heat settings or even cold water.

Always hang clothes to dry. Line-drying or a clothes airer will help you ditch the energy-hogging dryer and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide pumped out of your house.

If you need something dried quickly, put them by a radiator or heater that’s already on (but do it safely as many fabrics are actually flammable) to dry them quicker.

Ironing isn’t always as necessary as you might think, and air-drying as soon as the washing is done can reduce wrinkles. Once dry, try folding where you want the creases to be and store them at the bottom of your clothes pile or drawer.

Most importantly, when buying clothes be aware of what you’re buying. By swapping to natural fabrics, we can reduce the amount of microfiber released into the environment.

You should also ask yourself if you really need that new shirt or another pair of jeans. Could you sew up the hole in those old socks to get some more use out of them? Every purchase counts and the less you buy new clothes, the more sustainable you can be with your laundry.

Is washing machine water good for plants?

Using the greywater from your washing machine or handwashing on your plants seems like a great way to reuse water without it going to waste, but the chemicals used in conventional detergents can damage plants or even kill them.

Even if they don’t do that, the chemicals could seep into groundwater or plants meant for consumption which can affect wildlife and humans who eat them.

Using plant-based detergents only will make greywater suitable for plants. If you can store greywater, it will help break down the active ingredients in the greywater so the plants won’t be weakened.

Check how best to apply greywater to plants before committing to it. You don’t want to accidentally damage them!

Are dry cleaning chemicals harmful?

Some people believe that dry cleaning is a more environmentally friendly answer to washing machines and takes the pressure off of you needing to handwash all your clothes. Sadly, this isn’t true.

Dry cleaning uses harmful chemicals like perchloroethylene (PERC), a neurotoxin. So, it’s definitely not more eco-friendly to dry clean your clothes rather than washing them in your washing machine.