• Ian McClellan

Week 38: I will look for the thing.

Updated: Apr 30, 2021

Sometimes, the thing is not the thing. Or the thing is the thing, but then you realise there is another thing. Things that are not the thing, are sometimes so obvious once you notice them, that they become the thing.

Got it? Probably not, and so please indulge me.

This week, our little change was more attention to what we put down the drain, and specifically the detergents that we put through our washing machines. But once I got into it, I realised that the thing was not the thing.

I’m back on the thing again, and so let me go back to the beginning and set the scene.

Our washing machine, is a hard working soldier. It is our household’s relentless workhorse that does not take a weekend off. It is solid and trustworthy and uncomplaining despite often working multiple shifts a day.

Washing our clothes is one of those habits that we rarely consider deeply when we sort, load, wash, dry, repeat. It is probably something that happens upwards of 200 times each year. We are a family of three, and so it is not unreasonable our use is normal use for a washing machine in a family such as ours. We work, exercise, and have a small child. Normal stuff.

The fact that I’m not quite sure how often we use the washing machine, shows how unconscious it for us. We don’t think about it – we just pile it up, and throw it in. These days, you don’t even need to sort it too much. We just want the dirt to go away and the clothes to be fresh with minimal effort on our part. Washing machines were invented as a labour saving device, and that is exactly what we want. We want to load dirty clothes in, and for our unappreciated hero to do the hard work. If there was a robot that could fold them and put them away at the end, that would be awesome too.

However, the washing machine is not the thing. But it is getting closer to the thing, because as I mentioned - what we put into the washing machine, and what ends up down our drains, began as the thing. Mainly here, we are talking about detergents, and other products that make our clothes soft and makes them smell amazing. Sniff your sleeve right now. Lovely.

However, behind images of marshmallow bedding, or families frolicking in Cotswolds fields, you will find pages on brand websites that give definitions of the chemical components that are behind that uncommonly purple or pink liquid and why they are included. All listed in neat alphabetical order. Yet despite the images, there is certainly no mention of ‘lavender’ in the ‘L’ section on the website. The fact is that what we put into our washing machines at the beginning of each wash, is less than the heroic status of the machine itself. Just a glance at the ingredients of detergent brands and other laundry products, will give you a startling education in chemical components. I have talked in previous posts, about how long lists of ingredients suggest that humans have created something in a lab, and laundry products are no different.

That said, being visible and transparent about ingredients, is a good principle, because it allows us to make a choice about how far from nature we are prepared to go as consumers of laundry products, or any product for that matter. I don’t think it is fair to criticise manufacturers or create victims out of ourselves as consumers, because we have the responsibility to read this information and make a choice.

I am also not prepared to take an strict activism stand against laundry products from this perspective, because I did not have to search hard to find this transparency, and I was under no illusion previously that the little bag of purple liquid we popped into the washing machine, was some kind of delicate package of essential oils.

In fact, it’s likely that many people reading this, will be rightly shrugging, because the fact that laundry products contain harmful chemicals and have been sold in convenient plastic boxes, has never been hidden from view. Entire aisles have been dedicated to brightly coloured packaging. Television adverts have been telling me for years that our white clothes will be even whiter after they have been washed, without really explaining that it wasn't by magic. I just didn’t notice, or pay attention, because have been entirely focused on just getting it done.

It is also not a big surprise or an unknown fact that the chemicals that go into making our clothes look or smell amazing, do not do the same for our waterways and our ecosystems. Common ingredients in our detergents can create blooms of algae that starve oxygen from fish and other aquatic creatures once they find their way down the drain and into the open planet. Dyes, chlorines, and other chemicals can hang around in the environment, causing damage that does not have to be there. Fabric softeners contain animal fats.

The good news is that planetwise choices for laundry products are available and becoming even more so, even if you do not want to make you own. My own newsfeed is full of sponsored products, that in their own words, are going to save the world. From detergent free options, to those who have eliminated plastic and animal products, we can all make choices for our washing machine that will make it more heroic.

This is the first change we will make this week. We will change our detergent. But detergents are not the thing either.

The reason for detergents not being the thing, is because I find many of these products have also missed the thing a bit, or use the planet to frighten us.

I do believe that changing detergent can help to change the world, but this also needs perspective. As a consumer I need a conversation about this, not a strapline. I am curious of simplifications of complex arguments, and so although I totally agree that I have been lazy about our laundry choices, I don’t want to be made to feel so bad about it. I’m trying.

For this reason, we have opted not for perhaps some of the brands that are immediately visible in newsfeeds or on review sites. This is partly I have to admit because I have read consumer reviews, and also a little bit because some of the more ecologically friendly brands have been snapped up by larger, not ecologically friendly multinationals.

Instead, we're trying out a brand called Smol, and you can read why by following this link to the blog that the people behind Smol have created. There is no doubt that the team have created a kinder product, and they have a range of many more kinder products that I didn’t realise, but more than that I love the visibility and transparency of the product and the conversation. Maybe it is the marketing that has appealed to me, but I don’t think this is a bad thing if the message is delivered with passion and authenticity and if the product is good. For example, I even know now, how to clean my washing machine thanks to some of the dialogue that Smol have with consumers, which means I can make our machine more efficient that way too.

If you have read this far, then you are probably dying to know what the thing is. Or what my thing is, because we all should have our own things.

The thing, to bring the suspense to an end, is nothing to do with the products or the potions we add to our washing. It starts when we plug the machine in, and it ends when the door lock pings. I’m even a bit concerned that I’ve bigged up the thing a bit too much, because it seems so obvious now that I’m writing it.

The thing is not what we use, or what we do, it’s how we do it. How we wash our clothes in our washing machines. We have been doing it all wrong.

Everything I read about detergents, and about washing machines, point to the fact that we wash our clothes for too long, and we wash them at too high temperatures. There is no reason that we can’t get the same performance from our washing machines by washing our clothes on a cold setting, and on the shortest washing cycle.

If you think about this, it makes perfect sense, and you don’t even have to do anything but press a different combination of buttons.

The reason this is also the thing, is because it is much easier to do, and it is something we can all do. We are all connected, and how we wash our clothes is a common ground. If you do not believe that kinder detergents work, you can still do it. If you wash your clothes every day, or if you wear your underpants more than once, you can still do it. If you mainly handwash, and use the machine only you have to, you can still do it. If you own a hotel, or a laundry, you can ask your staff or your customers to do it.

It is also the thing, because of these statistics on the change we can make by doing this. Perhaps some of the information I have been able to read it not laser accurate, and perhaps modern machines are reducing these statistics, but even if it is in the ballpark of being correct, it is startling.

First off, the colder setting. Changing this can be effective, because 90% of the power we use on a washing cycle, is used to heat the water in the machine. Only 10% of it is used for other power needs, such as the motor. The label on your clothes, is also a guide or a maximum washing temperature, not a target. It is an easy change to make. You can read about this, and some other cool facts that I discovered here.

The reason for a shorter washing cycle, can be power related too, but is also about saving water. Water is universal, and it is realistic to believe that saving water in the UK, can indirectly provide permanent water for someone else we have never met, somewhere else in the world. An average washing load, in a modern washing machine, can uses around 50 to 100 litres of water. This is water we never see, because of the magic of the washing machine. A faster wash can save this by 30%, which means each time we wash our clothes, we could be saving tens-of-litres of water that is otherwise invisible to us.

The shorter cycle also has other benefits. There is the difference to power consumption for example. But also it is related to microplastics, which are the tiny bits of plastic that escape from our clothes and that are too small to be picked up by any filtration systems. They end up in the sea, in creatures, and might be even ending up in our food. By washing colder, or on a shorter cycle, the release of these microplastics can be reduced. There are also systems and gadgets starting to be available that can collect these inside the machine or on the outlet pipe. There are types of clothes that shed more microplastics than others, and these are often in the category of ‘fast fashion’. Depending on what you read, washing can release anywhere between 700,000 or 17 million of these tiny fragments of plastic. Maybe it is the smaller number, but this is still a big number compared to zero. Microplastics are an important topic and you can read more about microplastics here. It is also so important I’ll be looking into it in future weeks, and so please stay tuned for that.

We are all connected, and by making this change, we can make a change inside the moment of a household chore, not around it. We can all save water. We can all save power. These are things that benefit us all. If someone said to us that we could save tens of litres of water a week, or that we could reduce our energy consumption by 90%, without switching anything off or stopping using a particular modern gadget, most of us would make that change. It is true to the ethos of being planetwise, of doing what we can, to make the little changes that help the big changes happen.

Maybe our clothes will not smell as good, or perhaps there is a concern that they will not be as clean. But we used to live mostly outside, and we used to wash our clothes in a river, and that was fine. Our lifestyles overall have become more sedentary and less manual. I’m not saying this change suits everyone, but it is food for thought to consider whether every washing load we put on, requires our clothes to be scientifically or clinically clean. Most of us have a lifestyle that does not collect lots of dirt. But we do have a lifestyle that continues to use more and more.

That is the thing, that was not the thing. It’s good to find the thing, when you are looking at the other thing. Being surprised by the thing that is not the thing is exciting. Life is good.

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