Dear EarthTalk: How can I have a greener, healthier laundry room? -- Billie Alexander, Topeka, Kan.
While there are many ways to green one's laundry room, one place to start is with detergent. Luckily, in 2009 the federal government phased out phosphates, harsh chemicals that help break down minerals and loose food bits during the wash cycle, because their presence in waste water causes algae blooms in downstream waterways. But mainstream detergents still often contain the surfactant nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE), which researchers have identified as an endocrine-disrupting estrogen mimic, meaning exposure to it can cause reproductive and other human health problems. Bleach, a corrosive chemical known to burn skin and eyes on contact and damage lungs when inhaled -- and which can react with ammonia to produce toxic gases -- is also a common ingredient in detergents.
Sarah van Schagen tested and reviewed six leading eco-friendly detergents for Grist Magazine. To qualify for consideration, each needed to be "free and clear" of dyes and perfumes and also "concentrated" in order to save water, packaging and extra carbon emissions from transport. The contestants included detergents from Earth Friendly Products, Biokleen, Mountain Green, Planet, Seventh Generation, and All. Each did a respectable job getting clothes clean and smelling fresh, with most performing just as well as mainstream brands. Seventh Generation Free & Clear was the overall winner for its combination of eco-friendly ingredients, good stain fighting, pleasant but not "perfumey" scent and low price.
Another way to green the laundry room is to lose the fabric softener. Mainstream varieties, whether dryer sheets or liquid, contain harmful chemicals like benzyl acetate (linked to pancreatic cancer), benzyl alcohol (an upper respiratory tract irritant), ethanol (linked to central nervous system disorders), limonene (a known carcinogen) and chloroform (a neurotoxin and carcinogen). Many dryer sheets also contain tallow, a processed form of beef or mutton fat.
"You can avoid these health risks, the animal fat and the waste simply by using vinegar to soften your clothing," reported Josh Peterson of The Discovery Network's Planet Green. "Add 3/4 cups of vinegar to your final rinse cycle and your clothes will come out soft." And since vinegar "is ludicrously inexpensive when compared to fabric softener," consumers can save money and the planet at the same time.
Of course, swapping out that old water-hogging, energy-gulping washing machine for a new model that meets federal EnergySTAR standards will save lots of electricity and water. EnergySTAR certified washing machines use about 20 percent less energy and 35 percent less water than regular washers, and also have greater capacity so it takes fewer loads to clean the same amount of laundry. Their sophisticated wash systems flip or spin clothes through a stream of water and rinse them with repeated high pressure spraying instead of soaking them in a full tub of water. Likewise, replacing an older clothes dryer with a newer EnergySTAR model will help reduce your household's electricity consumption. And if you live in a place with a mild and often sunny climate, ditch the dryer altogether and hang your clothes to dry outside.
Contacts: Biokleen, www.biokleenhome.com; Earth Friendly Products ECOS, www.ecos.com; Mountain Green, www.mountaingreen.biz; Planet Inc., www.planetinc.com; Seventh Generation, www.seventhgeneration.com; All Laundry, www.all-laundry.com; Grist Magazine, www.grist.org; Planet Green, planetgreen.discovery.com; EnergySTAR, www.energystar.gov.
Dear EarthTalk: Has recycling lived up to its promise to reduce waste and pollution, save energy and provide jobs in our ailing economy? -- Ian Atkinson, New York, N.Y.
Americans still don't recycle as much as they could. Nonetheless, the practice is already considered a huge success given that it keeps about a third of the solid waste we generate out of our quickly filling landfills and saves natural resources while generating much-needed revenue for struggling municipal governments. Recycling also helps us keep our carbon footprints down: According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, recycling one ton of aluminum cans conserves more than 1,665 gallons of gasoline.
Of course that doesn't mean the progression from virtually no recycling just 40 years ago to today's U.S. average of 33.8 percent has always been smooth. Some types of materials, especially mixed plastics, have proven difficult and/or expensive to recycle, causing skeptics to question the overall value proposition. But well managed recycling systems that focus on profitable resources like glass, paper and metals have been a big success. And why wouldn't they be, when recycling uses as little as 5 percent of the energy required for virgin production of materials such as aluminum?
"Unfortunately, recycling pick-up services are not cheap and it is viewed as a redundant service; extra trucks mean extra cost. On top of that, single stream recycling requires investment in technology to sort the loads efficiently," she said. "Trash, on the other hand, is far more indiscriminate because everything just goes to one place, the landfill."
Brown said that the availability of curbside recycling programs varies throughout the country, as does their success. For example, New York City was a pioneer in recycling, but when the city became strapped for cash, recycling rates fell precipitously to just 15 percent and have not recovered.
"New York City officials claim it is more expensive to recycle than to send trash to landfills and incinerators for disposal, and that they have to weigh those costs against environmental goals," she said.
On the other end of the spectrum is San Francisco, which has been steadily increasing its recycling and composting and is now up to more htan 77 percent. Even more incredibly, the city is aiming for zero waste by 2020. Brown lauds San Francisco for structuring its recycling program to promote the desired behavior.
"Curbside fees are charged on a `pay as you throw' basis for trash, while recycling and compost are free, creating a financial incentive for following the law and sorting your waste."
Brown added that programs like San Francisco's prove that recycling can be economically viable besides being good for the planet.
Brown acknowledges we've come a long way with recycling but that there is still great potential to do more. A November 2011 report entitled "More Jobs, Less Pollution" by a coalition of groups including the BlueGreen Alliance, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Recycling Works! advocates that the U.S. government mandate diverting 75 percent of our waste coast-to-coast by 2030. The result would be 1.5 million new jobs as well as significant pollution reduction and savings in water and other resources.
Contacts: More Jobs, Less Pollution Report, docs.nrdc.org/globalwarming/files/glo_11111401a.pdf; Presidio Graduate School, www.presidioedu.org.
EarthTalk is by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss of E -- The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.