Sometimes I think about how I can make a big impact on the problems of the world; that perhaps I could be a catalyst for a societal change to a lower energy, low consumption, more satisfied, happier future.
And sometimes I’ve got to do laundry.
With three young children, a big garden (complete with what are apparently very inviting muddy paths), using cloth in place of paper towels, and cloth diapers we do a lot of laundry in our house. While I may not care all that much for such modern technologies like cell phones, modern high efficiency washing machines are truly awesome. A couple of years ago I read Opal Whitley’s hauntingly beautiful, The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow. (Aside: if you have not read this book go put it on your to read list right now. It is stunning and truly unlike anything else I have ever read.) Amongst all of Opal’s magical descriptions of nature I was also fascinated by the glimpses that she offered into everyday life in the 1890s. Reading her mentions of boiling cloth diapers in a pot of water on the stove to clean them made me truly appreciate how wonderful and time saving the modern washing machine is. Can you imagine washing cloth diapers by hand? Shudder.
That same time savings afforded by a washing machine does, however, have its downside. Because it doesn’t take me all day to wash one “load” of clothes we can (and do) have far more clothes. On top of that our standards of cleanliness can (and are) much higher. Smeared a little mud on my sweatshirt, then throw it in the wash. Kids wiped their nose on their sleeve – into the hamper it goes. Meant to flour the table while making bread but floured my pants instead – no problem for the washing machine. Of course, all that time savings from the magical machine isn’t free, we pay for it in detergent, water and electricity, and eventually we pay for it in repairs and new washer. Every load of laundry I do adds a little bit more CO2 to the atmosphere and uses up another few drops of oil. I’m not about to parade around in smelly, gray clothes but I know that we have become quite lax about truly evaluating what we are wearing and using and whether or not it is really dirty. Take for example, little kid undershirts. The boys barely even sweat- those shirts are perfectly fine to wear again. And if I haven’t been outside all day do I really need to change my socks before I go to bed? I could certainly hang up my towel after drying my hair rather than toss it in the hamper. And I have a lovely little selection of vintage aprons to choose from to minimize the inevitable flour on my pants problem.
I’ve also noticed that I use more laundry detergent for each of these many loads than I need to. Perhaps I am getting old and in need of reading glasses or perhaps the detergent manufactures want me to use excessive amounts of soap (cleanliness conspiracy!), but I find it really hard to see that little line on the detergent cap that indicates how much detergent one is supposed to use. I inevitably just slosh some detergent into the machine using more than I need. I also think that some primitive part of my brain thinks something like this: soap = clean and clean = good so more soap = more clean. This is, of course, nonsense; more soap just means I use up the soap faster and possibly even end up with slippery clothes that don’t have all the soap rinsed out of them.
So this week I resolved to think about each item before it goes into the laundry. We all have hooks on teh backs of our bedroom doors and the bathroom door and we are going to use them to hang up clothese that can be worn again. I got a red sharpie and drew a bold, unmissable, circle around the detergent cap so that I had no excuse for overuse. I decided to try washing everything but diapers and sheets on the shortest, cold wash cycle only to see if that works just fine. I am looking forward to our next water and electric bill and hopefully will see some savings in energy and money. Maybe I can even get back a tiny sliver of time spent hauling clothes to the washing machine, hanging them up to dry, and putting them away. And we all know that free time is priceless. In this case, less is more.