The rumble in the tumble: Fight for the right to dry

What could be more environmentally friendly than hanging out your laundry in the fresh air? Yet a growing global movement that advocates doing just that has met outrage in America from those who want to keep their neighbourhoods knicker-free. David Usborne reports


I have been meaning to have a word with my next-door neighbour in the upstate town where I have a small weekend home. A perfectly amiable retired gentleman – he used to work in the local match factory until it closed – he will insist on hanging his laundry in the garden. From our deck, we can almost read the labels on his yellowing boxers. And let me tell you, he does not shop at Calvin Klein.

Bud's line is one of those double fraying cords stretching the length of his sloping garden with pulleys at each end which squeak whenever he attaches a new load. Hasn't he heard of tumble-dryers? I mean who hasn't in this day and age? At Christmas, I was almost tempted to buy him one.

Is it possible, though, that it's me who needs bringing up to date, not Bud? It's taken me a while to notice, but a movement is stirring all across North America to reinstate the venerable clothesline and ditch the dryer. The clothes-peg is making a comeback (not plastic, please, but those sturdy wooden ones with springs your mother used to collect). The reason, of course, is concern about global warming.

The drive to reinstate the clothes lines is suddenly getting a lot of people's attention. Saturday, believe it or not, was "National Hanging Out Day" in the US and it was not an invitation for kids to assemble at the shopping mall. (They do that anyway.) It was about damp whites and was the brainwave of an advocacy group based in New Hampshire called Project Laundry List. For its motto it borrows from Benjamin Franklin. "We must all hang together or most assuredly we will all hang separately."

Its mission is to educate. With our harried existences, most of us do not think twice about using whatever labour-saving devices are at hand. Tumble dryers certainly fall into that category. But most of us are beginning to worry also about what we can do in our own homes to reduce our so-called carbon footprint. In this country, households count for about a quarter of all the greenhouse gases wafting into our atmosphere. It is why, in a fit of eco-piety, I recently switched to green-generated electricity for my Manhattan apartment. Joining Bud, not beating him, may have to be my next step. Project Laundry List will tell you that dryers account for about 6 per cent of energy consumption in a typical American home, just behind fridges and lights. Use them regularly and they will generate emissions roughly equal to driving five cars.

Changing to green electricity means paying a bit more on your monthly bill. Resurrecting the clothes-line should be appealing because it implies no additional monetary costs. How many other opportunities do you see out there for cutting your carbon footprint substantially for free? "A clothes line is not a solar panel or a Prius," notes Alexander Lee, the founder of Project Laundry List. "It's something that everyone can afford." It will cost you time of course, but fresh air is good for you and your clothes.

But the Right to Dry movement, as it has been named, is meeting resistance. In fact, it has detonated warfare in many communities. In the red corner is the smattering of homeowners across the land who have seen the error of their tumble-drying ways and are erecting either lines or those umbrella-like contraptions that were once popular in Britain.

In the blue corner are their neighbours who consider knickers in the wind a blight. For these people (yes, I was one of them), seeing clothes on a line somehow denotes poverty and an absence of sophistication. It's a class thing. Neighbourhoods with washing in the gardens are not nice neighbourhoods. Heavens, it could even be lowering the values of the homes all around them.

Not helping is the fact that for many in this country, their home is not exactly their castle. Nearly 60 million Americans live in communities, usually called housing associations, where occupying a unit – whether apartment, row-house or even detached house – means also accepting a range of regulations regarding upkeep and general appearances, such as lawn-mowing and paint colours. Most of these associations also impose a strict no-clothes-line rule. But inside these associations rebellions are starting to erupt. In Concord, New Hampshire, for instance, there is the case of Mary Lou Sayer, a grandmother in her 80s who sought permission to begin hanging out her clothes in the assisted-living complex she calls home after hearing a talk by Mr Lee. She was turned down and for now suspends her dripping smalls from her dining-room light fixture and opens the windows. She is considering hanging a line outside anyway in protest. "Most of my friends are taking environmental issues seriously," she says.

Then there is Susan Tayler, 55, who faced legal action from her association in Bend, Oregon, after deciding to ignore its no-clothes-line rule. She sent the association a pleading letter asking it to change the rules to "reflect our urgent need and responsibility to help global warming by encouraging energy conservation". After she was also turned down, she tried screening off her newly erected line with fabric so the neighbours would be less offended. But it didn't help and the threat of legal action remained. Today, she dries her clothes in her garage with the doors open.

But Mr Lee believes that the logic of switching off the tumble dryer will eventually prevail against the Nimby forces of not in my – or rather your – back yard. Partly, he says, it is about changing popular perceptions. Clothes lines need to be seen as acceptable once again, even praiseworthy. "We want Martha [Stewart] and Oprah [Winfrey] to make the clothesline into a pennant of eco-chic," he said, "instead of a flag of poverty".

His group is also spearheading an effort to persuade state and local legislatures to pass laws overriding individual housing association rules. Pro-clothes line laws are now pending in Vermont, Connecticut and Colorado. One was also tabled in New Hampshire but was recently thrown out in committee.

One of the sponsors of the Vermont effort is the state senator, Dick McCormack. He knows it may be an uphill effort. "People think it's silly, but what's silly is to worry so much about having to look at your neighbours' undies that you would prevent them from conserving energy. We're not making a big deal over clothes lines; we're making a big deal over global warming."

Suzanne Harvey, a New Hampshire lawmaker and author of the failed initiative to override anti-clothes-line regulations, lives in a housing association herself in Nashua and complains that even shaking a rug on her patio is forbidden. "We all have to do at least something to decrease our carbon footprint," she said. "And once you start seeing your nice neighbours hanging clothes lines that can take down stereotypes."

Frank Rathbun, a spokesman for the Community Associations Institute, representing housing associations across the country, accepts that the drive for ecological responsibility is worthy but opposes turning the issue over to state politicians. Leave it in the hands of the associations and the residents, he says. "If you imagine driving into a community where the yards have clothes hanging all over the place, I think the aesthetics, the kerb appeal, and probably the home values would be affected by that, because you can't let one homeowner do it and say no to the next."

For now, just two states, Utah and Florida, have laws on the books specifically protecting the right of homeowners to flaunt their smalls in the garden. How much longer it will be for one of the initiatives to find favour is hard to say. But there is encouraging news from just across the border where the Premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty, just last Friday introduced a law that precisely overrides the ability of housing associations to ban clothes lines. "There's a whole generation of kids growing up today who think a clothes line is a wrestling move," the Premier said. "We want parents to have the choice to use the wind and the sun to dry their clothes free."

Mr McGuinty took the action partly in response to a petition from Phyllis Morris, the Mayor of Aurora, Ontario, who had been made aware that numerous ecologically conscious residents in the town were chafing at clothesline restrictions. She took up their cause without a moment's hesitation. "If we can't change simple stuff like this, we'll never handle the big things we need to do for the planet," she said of her petition which declared the clothes-lines bans a "barrier to conservation". "People say, 'Oh, Phyllis, you want to turn women back into the laundry lady', and I say, 'Wrong: this is about rights. It's about the environment."

Recently, I was tempted to try out a new brand of washing powder from Tide that promises a "clean breeze" scent, described as "the fresh scent of laundry line-dried in a clean breeze". How daft is that? As far as I know, there is not a thing to stop me from junking the tumble-dryer upstate. Which means I have no excuse but to knock on Bud's door and borrow some pegs.

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