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DroughtPro: 5 Ways to Save Water on Laundry

You probably don’t need to wash your clothes as often as you do. Here are some tricks to tweak your wardrobe and habits to cut back one of the biggest water users in the home.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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Washing laundry — clothes, sheets, towels — is responsible for about 20 percent of the water consumed in the average home. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Most of us wash our clothes way too much. This means we’re doing too many loads of laundry in a week. Eliminating just one of those loads can save at least 30 gallons of water.

So here are five easy ways to save water on your laundry, and win back some time from your chores, too.

1. No Stains or Stink? Let It Ride

The clothes we mainly present to the world are shirts and trousers. Most of us wear them once and then toss them in the laundry bin. But let’s stop and ask a simple question: Why?

Unless you perspire heavily, most of us don’t make a shirt so smelly during a day’s routine that it will offend someone sitting next to you at a meeting. If it wrinkles your nose a bit when you get home in the evening, hang it up to air out, and chances are it will be fresh enough to wear another day. This is especially true during winter, when clothes generally get less sweaty. Summer might demand more frequent washings.

Another exception, of course, is if you sloshed coffee or lunch on that shirt. If so, don’t take a chance on being “that guy” who wore a stained shirt to work. Put it right in the laundry bin.

Trousers can be worn even longer, barring severe stains. In most daily activities, no one is going to get close enough to your trousers to notice dirt or smells. You probably won’t, either. So it’s possible to wear trousers three or four times before washing — or even much longer. Just ask the CEO of Levi Strauss Co., who confessed recently he hasn’t washed his blue jeans in a year — and he said you shouldn’t, either.

Most likely, the shirt and trousers you wore yesterday are still clean enough to wear today. If you don’t want people noticing you wore the same outfit two days in a row, skip a day and wear them tomorrow instead. In truth, nobody will notice, because they’re too preoccupied with their own outfit.

2. Dress Like Johnny Cash. Or Angelina Jolie.

A simple wardrobe won’t show stains as readily. Switch to an all-black look, and you’ll be able to wear the parts of that wardrobe a lot longer between washings, because black is great at stain camouflage. According to one study, going all black will also make you seem smarter.

Black will also make your daily routine easier — because everything goes with everything else. So you’ll stop wasting time scratching your head in front of the closet every morning. Mix in some gray if all black is too much.

An alternative is the rugged denim-and-chambray look, à la Robert Redford. Not as good at hiding stains, but pretty good at fending off dirt.

Some plaids are also good at concealing stains. But you wouldn’t want to take that too far, or people might think your plaid shirt is an attempt at abstract art.

3. Buy More Underwear

Your unmentionables are the one place you don’t want to skimp on washing. They collect more sweat and bacteria and smells than any other garment. So those skivvies should only be worn once between washings.

The exception, for the ladies, is bras. They can generally be worn three or four times between washings.

There’s a simple solution to the underwear conundrum, however: Own more underwear. How much is in your dresser? A week’s worth? That’s not enough. Maintain a two-week supply of underwear, or more, and you can really stretch out those laundry days.

4. Switch to Wool

If you’re not already a convert to the new generation of wool clothing, it’s time to kick your cotton and polyester habit and get on the sheep train.

Modern wool clothes have thrown off those thick, wiry fibers of yore and are now made of soft and supple weaves. Wool can be as comfortable as cotton — even on your feet. Wool is also naturally breathable and water resistant, so it will keep you warmer, even when wet. And most importantly, wool doesn’t absorb odors. That means you can often wear a single pair of wool socks two or three times between washings. One wool-shirt maker even asserts you can wear their shirt for 100 days without washing.

It does depend somewhat on where you tromp around and how much you sweat. But switching to wool is one way to downsize your laundry load. Oh, and wool is a more durable fiber than cotton or polyester, so those wool garments should last longer, too

5. Choose Linen Sheets Over Cotton

Elton John was onto something when, in his classic hit “Tiny Dancer,” he sang: “Hold me closer tiny dancer / Lay me down in sheets of linen.” Elton was probably rocking the linen sheets simply because they feel good. But linen is also a water conservation winner.

Linen cloth is produced from the flax plant, which requires about a third as much water as cotton to refine into cloth. It also requires far less fertilizers and pesticides to grow. In use, linen doesn’t absorb as much body oils or odors as cotton, so it can go longer between washings. And it dries much faster, which means you’ll be burning less fossil fuels on laundry day.

Linen is more expensive: A queen-size sheet set will run two to three times more than cotton. But it will also last longer, so the initial price premium may become, in the long run, as they say, a wash.

DroughtPro is an occasional look at advanced and unconventional ways to save water. Got an idea? Send it to matt@waterdeeply.org.

Top image: Adopt an all-black wardrobe like Johnny Cash (shown here on a visit to the West Bank in 1977) and you’ll greatly simplify your life and save water in the bargain. (Associated Press )

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