Re-wearing gym gear and zapping clothes with plasma: My week of sustainable laundry swaps

While buying fewer clothes is a vital part of developing a more sustainable approach to fashion, the items we already own are wreaking havoc on the environment every time we wash them. Sophie Benson sets out to see if she can improve her laundry habits

Monday 29 November 2021 06:00 GMT

By now, most of us know we can’t fix the fashion system on our own, we need brands and governments to get involved. But, there are things we can do as individuals to help prolong the lifecycle of our clothes, save energy, conserve water, and protect aquatic life, and a lot of them are covered by laundry.

While fibre production has by far the biggest impact in the lifecycle of a garment, the ‘in-use’ phase, when clothes are in our care, comes third on the list according to sustainability charity WRAP. Campaign group Fashion Revolution, meanwhile, states that 25 per cent of the carbon footprint of a garment comes from the way we care for it.

Knowing that approximately 360 billion litres of water are used for washing each year, and with Environment Agency warnings that the UK could face water shortages by 2050 ringing in my ears, I set out to see if I could improve my laundry habits.

I already do a few things to try and reduce my impact: I use refillable detergent and fabric softener, I wear clothes multiple times before washing (obvious items excluded…), I wash on 30 (heating the water accounts for around 90 per cent of the energy used in a laundry cycle), and I line-dry everything (tumble dryers emit more carbon in one year than a tree can absorb in 50) but I was certain I could do more.

Checking The Facts

First up, I wanted to check my laundry habits to make sure I was on the right track, so I reached out to Luke Harding, GM of Electrolux. One of the key points he mentioned was switching from washing at 40 to 30. Many of us are aware that we should do this but what we may not know is that such a tiny switch can save 60 per cent of the energy consumption comparatively.

Other pointers he gave me were to make sure I washed a full load each time, to make use of my machine’s eco setting, and to be mindful about detergent doses. “Overdosing detergents speeds up the damage in fibres, and if you’re using a powdered detergent with bleach, it can cause clothes to fade over time,” he told me. Equally, however, if you underdose, then white garments can turn grey. Harding explained that AEG’s new 9000 series takes care of dosing automatically, so a good machine can be beneficial, but he also noted that it’s not all about buying fancy new appliances, simply reading care labels and product instructions can make a big difference.

25 per cent of the carbon footprint of a garment comes from the way we care for it.

Before our call ended, I mentioned that I often use quick wash cycles, assuming they save energy. Was I right? The answer was a resounding no. “You add heat, and you add agitation and do it fast but it’s going to damage your clothing and it’s using more energy,” Harding explained. “It may seem counterintuitive that running a machine for several hours is better for the environment, but it saves energy.”

No Sweat

Armed with the facts, I started by tackling my workout clothes. I exercise four to six times a week and while I try to save up worn workout gear to put it all in together, the amount of washing quickly adds up, especially as my workout vibe is less glam fitness influencer and more pink-faced sweat factory.

I was intrigued then, when I saw bamboo clothing brand BAM challenging people to wear their T-shirts without washing for a week to prove they could stay fresh. It’s all to do with the bamboo fibres, apparently, which the brand says absorb moisture effectively meaning no sweat moisture sitting on your clothes and therefore no bacteria causing odour. Without meaning to sound too irresistible, the idea of me wearing the same workout gear for a week without it needing to be quarantined in an airlock seemed laughable, but I was keen to try it out.

BAM sent me a long-sleeved base layer, a pair of leggings, and some socks. I drew the line at re-wearing socks, but I committed to rewearing the top and leggings for as long as my olfactory system could stand.

A knee injury meant that running was off the cards, so my new gear would have to stand up to a week of home workouts. I kicked off with chest and triceps day with some HIIT to finish, and although I was hot and sticky by the end my clothes still felt surprisingly fresh. I let them air out while I had a shower then back in the drawer they went.

Around 35 per cent of microfibres released into the ocean are due to the laundry of synthetic textiles

I felt slightly grotty putting on yesterday’s gym gear as I got dressed for back and biceps the next day but, thankfully, there were no odours to speak of. I diligently chucked some dumbbells around for 40 minutes or so and by the time I finished I’d worked up a good sweat. After leaving it to air, my top had the vague musk of being worn, but it didn’t smell per se, so I folded it back up to wear again the following day.

The next day was shoulders day and there wasn’t a lot of sweating involved so I kept my top and leggings on to do a few bits around the house, and it turns out that hoovering with the heating on is quite the workout. By this point I felt wearing it for another day was pushing it, so I enlisted my boyfriend to give the armpits of the top a good sniff. “They kind of smell like a gym changing room,” he said. Clearly, I’d found my limit.

It wasn’t quite a week, but my bamboo kit had certainly outperformed the synthetics I usually wear and while my boyfriend had already washed two loads of running gear, I was yet to wash a single thing. When it comes to replacing my kit in future, I’ll certainly be choosing my fabrics more wisely.

Plastic Not Fantastic

The microplastics that our synthetic clothes shed are causing an enormous problem. A 2017 study estimated that 34.8 per cent of microfibres released into the ocean are due to the laundry of synthetic textiles, while another study found that “approximately 2 million tonnes of microfibers are released into the ocean every year from various sources, of which 700,000 micro fleeces are released from each garment through domestic laundry”.

Once released into the environment, microplastics harm aquatic life, blocking digestive tracts, changing feeding behaviour and causing reproductive issues. Their stomachs full up with plastics, some fish and aquatic organisms simply starve.

So, I decided to test out perhaps the most well-known microplastic tackling product out there: the Guppyfriend. A washing bag for synthetic clothes, it’s designed to capture microfibres before they’re released into the drain.

Keen to see the results, I loaded last week’s synthetic gym gear into the bag for a wash. At around 48 by 72 centimetres, it was larger than I was expecting and accommodated my washing comfortably. When it was finished, I immediately turned the bag inside out and inspected the corners for fibres as instructed on the (plastic-free) packaging. And there they were: little clusters of blue-ish fibres in each of the top corners. I was expecting to see more but, speaking over the phone from Germany, Alexander Nolte from Langbrett, the company behind the Guppyfriend, explained that “It’s not what you find in the bag, it’s what you don’t find.”

While the laundry bag does capture the microfibres which shed during washing, it simultaneously reduces shedding overall by reducing friction. Tests by the Fraunhofer Institute UMSICHT showed fibre breakage was reduced by 86 per cent with completely synthetic clothing. An independent 2020 study charted a 54 per cent reduction with the Guppyfriend, however Nolte questioned the methodology as clothes weren’t worn between washes.

Later in the week, my boyfriend used the bag for his running gear but this time the whole load was still dripping wet when the cycle finished. We put it back in for a spin, sans bag, which seemed to defeat the object, so I took to the Guppyfriend website for advice. “When washing with the Guppyfriend Washing Bag, an imbalance can occur during the spin cycle,” it read. “To prevent damage to the washing machine, the spin cycle is often automatically stopped, or the speed reduced. This can result in your laundry coming out of the washing machine very wet.”

The solution is to add non-bagged, non-synthetic items into the drum to balance the load. Some may find this frustrating, however, I sort the majority of my washing by colour rather than fabric so it was actually helpful to know that I could wash synthetics and non-synthetics together in that way.

Such an easy solution that adds around 5 seconds to the whole process, the Guppyfriend will most certainly become a permanent feature in my laundry roster.

Whitening the Right Way

Reusable makeup removal muslins and cotton kitchen cloths avoid waste, but they can start looking grimy pretty quickly, even after they’ve been in the wash. So, every few washes, I add a scoop of whitener in to brighten them up and remove the stubborn lipstick, mascara, and coffee marks. But when reflecting on which laundry habits I could improve, it struck me that while I was using plant-based, biodegradable refillable washing products, I was chucking in a scoop full of powder from a tub with hazard signs all over it and the word “DANGER” written on the back. It didn’t really make sense.

The alternative I found was Bio-D Laundry Bleach; vegan, cruelty-free and an Ethical Consumer Best Buy. I got about half the amount for the same price I was paying for the stuff I’d been buying from Tesco, but the packaging advises that it’s used sparingly so in terms of usage I think it just about adds up.

I was sceptical about whether it would be as effective as what I had been using but I was quickly proven wrong when my face cloths came out sparkling white. Later in the week, I soaked some seriously coffee-stained kitchen cloths and, again, they came out gleaming. It does the job and it costs the same. I’m sold.

Washing Machine-Free Refreshing

Luckily the food spilling genes in my family went to my Dad and sister so, apart from the above, I mostly wash to get rid of odours rather than because things look dirty. So, I wanted to see if I could effectively refresh my clothes without resorting to sticking them in the wash. Hanging outside to air or hanging in a steamy bathroom can often do the trick but sometimes it doesn’t cut it when it comes food, smoke and other odours that just seem to linger.

First up, I tried the Bosch FreshUp. The portable, handheld device uses “plasma technology to dissolve odour molecules” (which sounds like something I’d say if I were pretending to be a scientist). There’s no water, detergent or chemicals involved; you just swipe it over your garments to treat the area.

The website says it can be used on “cotton, silk, cashmere, wool, linen, polyester blends, sportswear, and functional clothes” so I picked out two items to put it to the test: a pyjama top and a running T-shirt. The pyjama top had that general air of being worn, so I laid it flat to treat the whole garment. At first the device produced a slightly odd synthetic smell, but once that had faded, the top did indeed smell completely fresh. I was pleased but my delight quickly faded as I realised what was next: my boyfriend’s sweaty running T-shirt fresh from the washing basket. I decided to focus on one side so I could compare. I treated both the inside and out to make sure all those molecules were dissolving and, as I breathed in my boyfriend’s dried-on sweat and questioned my life choices, I had to admit, there was a significant improvement on the side I’d treated. It wasn’t fresh as a daisy but as the device is called the FreshUp rather than the OdourDestroyer, I was fairly impressed. For dealing with day to day odours, it will certainly do the job.

Next up, I gave the W’air a spin. A “3-in-1 sustainable fabric care device” it claims to use 99 per cent less water and 77 per cent less detergent than conventional laundry. Recommended to tackle stains and odour, refresh fabrics and deep clean delicates, the plug-in device comes with a retractable ‘wand’ which mixes air with water and detergent. Although I’d had refreshing in mind, I picked a range of items to put it to the test: a T-shirt with an oil stain, a coffee-splashed sweater, and a jumper that I’d worn a few times in a row.

Hanging outside to air or hanging in a steamy bathroom can often do the trick but sometimes it doesn’t cut it when it comes food, smoke and other odours that just seem to linger

As directed, I used only detergent on the oil stain and rubbed the wand over the area. It was quite a large stain as it was caused by cocoa butter applied to a tattoo and I did find the backing mat I was supplied with to be too small. Nevertheless, I tackled the whole area and hung it up to dry. Unfortunately, the stain remained but I must admit I did think it might have been a tall order as the stain had been left to sit for a few days beforehand.

The coffee-stained jumper was next, and I used the recommended pre-treatment. After that dried, I followed the same steps as before and this time it did the job, no more coffee even though it was thoroughly dried on. Impressed, I moved onto the jumper. To refresh garments, you simply wave the wand over the fabric rather than scrubbing so the process was quick and easy. I treated the whole jumper, hung it to dry and about 10 minutes later it smelled freshly laundered.

At £249.99 and £159 respectively, the FreshUp and the W’air are hardly cheap swaps but I think they have their place. Bosch’s device is ideal for frequent travellers, while the W’air – if you have the room to store it - is a fantastic solution for use at home on everything from suits to trainers.

After a week of testing, I’d be happy never to look at a load of washing again but it did show me that, from free solutions like choosing the eco setting to more significant investments like the W’air, there’s a lot we can do to cut down the footprint of our laundry.

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