Dorothy Stein

Except for attempts to market 'environmentally friendly' laundry detergents, it is only the beginnings and the ends of the life cycles of textiles and clothing that have so far attracted much 'green' attention. A newer approach is the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) in which the total toll in energy and other resources consumed and pollution created are estimated. And it is only then that the substantial contribution of the maintenance portion of the garment life is exposed.

An important reason why this longest phase of clothing life has received such scant attention is that its toll on the environment is so difficult to calculate, for when a garment (or other textile) falls into the hands of the individual consumer, its treatment is subject to private and capricious judgment. Nevertheless, because of the length of this period, there is reason to suspect that cleaning and maintenance procedures do have substantial impact.

Despite often overcautious manufacturers instructions, washing is clearly easier on human health, finances and the environment than the volatile chemicals involved in ordinary dry cleaning; but washing too involves ecological threats of several kinds. One important aspect relates to the fibre content. A study published in 1978, for example, estimated that the energy required for the laundering of a cotton shirt through fifty wearing and washing cycles was four times that for a polyester shirt, with blends of the two fibres coming in between (when all are washed at the same temperatures) [1]. The authors also found that more energy, all from non-renewable sources, is used to wash and iron a cotton shirt 50 times more than is consumed in the production of the fibre and manufacture of the cloth and the garment. (For a polyester shirt, the energy of maintenance was less, but still substantial.)

Energy consumption is only part of the total environmental impact of washing and maintaining clothing. The disadvantages of detergents, whether 'biological' (containing enzymes) or not, are multiple. Some launderers and/or wearers are subject to sensitivities and dermatitis. The enzymes added to some ordinary detergents are able to break down the proteins in stains, but they can cause severe allergic reactions in those who are susceptible. The foam from detergents creates unsightly billows on rivers and lakes. Phosphates (which are added to some detergents to help keep dirt from redepositing on the wash) speed the excessive growth of ugly and smelly algae that deprive fish and other desirable aquatic life of oxygen.

While manufacturers all try to get us to use as much detergent as possible, excessive amounts are harmful to both clothes and washing machines, as well as the environment. Some detergent remains after rinsing in both machine and fabric, forming hard-to-remove compounds with the chemicals in hard water, although modern detergents rinse out better than old fashioned soap. Commercial laundry detergents include perfumes and fluorescent dyes in addition to dirt removers. The dyes make clothes look whiter by giving off light, which is why clothes sometimes seem to glow under ultraviolet light. There is obviously no real need for either of these latter ingredients if the objective is simply to remove grease and other dirt, but many people feel that brilliant white, especially if sweetly scented, is the ultimate sign of true cleanliness.

Recently, a set of devices called 'laundry balls' or 'laundry discs' after their corresponding shapes have been advertised in 'green' magazines. The accompanying blurbs promise to replace powders and liquids and to last long enough to save the consumer money as well. Each ball or disc - ceramic or plastic, smooth and with slits, or covered with holes and spikes, filled with tiny unidentified balls or a mysterious liquid - when popped into the washing machine is claimed to last, i.e., remain effective at cleaning clothes, for between 60 and 1500 washes, depending on the brand.[2]

The fact that such organs as the Ethical Consumer and Ecodesign have accepted their advertisements and have mentioned their claims in the editorial contents of their articles without condemnation has been used by manufacturers as validation. The only UK detergent review that discussed these products, Ethical Consumer, was confused enough to decide that the question was 'not "how they work?", but "do they work?"'

As it turns out, both questions - whether and how they work - are more fraught than one would have expected. I will deal first with some of the claims, and then with attempts to test their effectiveness as washing aids.

Claim (from an internet discussion group)[3]: 'It's supposed to reorganize the water to make it slipperier, in the same way that soap does. Supposedly static electricity is somehow involved in this process.'

Comment (mine): Soap works because it contains 'surfactants' (surface-active agents), long chains of molecules that attract the grease molecules in the cloth, pulling them out into the water. There is no way in which water can be 'reorganized' to form such molecules, but agitating the water helps to free loose dirt. The chemical attraction of one molecule for another (and the mutual forces between elementary particles within atoms, for that matter) is mostly electrical.

Claim (from the 'Laundry Solution' brochure): The mysterious ingredients 'restructure' the water in such a way as to make it emit far-infrared electro magnetic waves through the walls of the container into your laundry water....

Comment (From Dr Hugh Cartwright)[4]: 'Any material at room temperature "emits far-infrared electro magnetic waves", including the walls of the washing machine, the water, and the clothes themselves. If radiation helps in the wash (and that's a big if!), one doesn't need to buy anything for the machine to get it.'

Claim (from 'Laundry Solution' blurb) ...This causes the water molecule cluster to disassociate...

Comment (Dr Cartwright): 'Clusters of water molecules, held together by hydrogen bonding, do exist, but are transient. Furthermore, the percentage of water molecules which might be considered to be bound in these clusters falls rapidly as the temperature is raised. If a cluster dissociates, it will reform (and re-dissociate) within a fraction of a second. It will do this irrespective of whether or not a plastic globe is bobbing around in the machine.'

Claim (from 'Laundry Solution' blurb)....allowing much smaller individual water molecules to penetrate into the innermost part of the fabric.

Comment (Dr Cartwright): 'There are always countless "individual water molecules" in a washing machine. At the temperature of most washes nearly all water molecules will be "individual" in the sense which the blurb presumably means. However, individual water molecules will be little more effective at cleaning than several water molecules bound together in a cluster.

Claim: (From Turbo Plus information sheet): This disc contains expensive rare minerals and activated ceramics and magnetic elements...the activated ceramics and the mineral tourmaline work in unison to reduce surface tension [see 'slippery' water above] The copper fibre in the disc helps dechlorinate the water and gives an anti-bacterial effect which kills germs.

Comment (mine): It is true that copper, which is of course a chemical, as is any other compound into which it enters, in water produces an antibacterial toxin, but it is not clear that there is enough in the product, nor that it is in contact with the laundry for long enough to sanitize it appreciably beyond the effect of hot water. Also, water is chlorinated in order to kill bacteria that might be resident in it. Why dechlorinate it to achieve the same effect?

Claim (from the 'Laundry Solution' blurb): The 'Laundry Solution' is negatively charged, so 'forces the positively charged dirt out of the fabric'.

Comment (From Dr Cartwright): 'Curiously, no mention of the infrared radiation waves here. However, it is not explained, for example, a) How the solution retains its negative charge through so many washes; b) Why the "positive dirt", once out of the fabric, does not collect on the outside of the solution container (to which it is presumably attracted electrostatically if the claims made for the product are correct), but remains in the water to be flushed away.'

Claim (From Turbo Plus information sheet): No Suds! Suds are small bubbles of air which actually prevent the water fully reaching into the fibres of the fabric thus restricting the cleaning action.[5]

Comment (mine): In fact, there is a small amount of foam associated with the use of at least some of these products. This may be simply the result of turbulence in the water caused by the mechanical action of the machine, aided by that caused by the irregularities on the surface of the ball. On the other hand, if you have been using too much detergent in the past, a few launderings without any more added may permit the excess to be rinsed out and, for a while at least, give apparently superior results. (Therefore, a single or a few tests, even blind tests, comparing the effectiveness of detergents and plain water as cleaners may not be sufficient to give a definitive answer.)

A closer look at many of the claims made show that they are hedged a bit. All the literature respecting these devices assume they will be used in a washing machine, and some even specify that hot water should be used.[6] (If you really want to be environmentally friendly, you will of course wash your clothes by hand, and in cold, or at least warm, water.) In addition, the instructions advise the use of bleach to eliminate stains, and the amount of oxygen released and hence the effectiveness of such bleaches as sodium perborate is related to the temperature of the water. Since an important modern development in home laundry is the use of colder water, which has environmental as well as economic implications at least as far as energy savings go, the advice to use higher temperatures with the laundry balls already undermines the major claims made for the products.

So do the devices, as the critics claim, merely make you concentrate harder on the specific type of laundry needed for each load, and, in general, make you feel better about using less detergent to get satisfactory results?

A proper test of the efficacy of the laundry devices would compare each of them with several brands of laundry detergent (both of the usual, commercial type and of the 'eco-friendly' type) and with plain water. This would be done for a number of pieces of cloth of various fibres and blends, identically soiled, and washed at several different temperatures. The results would have to be judged 'blind' (i.e., where the judge did not know which detergent program was used for the load being judged) or else electronically. So far there have been no tests where all these variables have been manipulated.

The first published systematic tests described in enough detail to be able to assess their shortcomings were done by a group known as 'Nirvana Research', and the results reported on their website.[7] The Nirvana trials compared soap (brand unspecified), plain water, and 'The Laundry Solution'. A 100% cotton cloth was cut into three strips, each soiled with sidewalk dirt, bicycle chain grease, ketchup, mustard, olive oil, felt tip pens, ball point pen, cloth marker and coffee. The strips, washed under identical circumstances at the same (unspecified) temperatures, were then judged by people who did not know which was which. The soap-washed strip was pronounced much cleaner than the other two, which were rated about equal. Then, apparently, TradeNet, the ‘Laundry Solution’ distributor, threatened Nirvana with legal action for their pains.

Another and more detailed set of trials was run by the Consumers' Association of Australia, with a report published in its April 1998 issue of Choice, the Australian counterpart of Which. They tested both cotton and polycotton, several types of 'laundry ball' devices, as well as a large number of regular powder and concentrate detergents, and evaluated the results electronically. They used cold water, but really cold - 20 degrees centigrade - throughout, and found the laundry balls no better than plain water (with a 'relative performance score' of about 55%, compared to the top scores of about 90% obtained by some detergents). And, incidentally, the so-called 'green detergents' (like most of the other detergents tested they are not readily available in the UK but are probably similar to Ecover) were not appreciably better.

All in all, Choice recommended minimal amounts of a non-phosphate concentrated detergent, low temperatures and a sparing use of water as the most environmentally friendly laundry option. But it should be noted that both the laboratory tests described here used new fabrics, deliberately soiled in a controlled fashion; that is, it was not really the normal washing situation. Moreover, no one seems to have tested wool or silk.

So far, the ideally effective, yet easy and environmentally kind, method(s) of getting various kinds of clothes clean has not been firmly established. Other than testing a few fibre mixtures, the impact of more broadly defined features of clothing design, including style, have yet to be taken into consideration.


[1] T. Leo Van Winkle, John Edeleanu, Elizabeth Ann Prosser, and Charles A, Walker, American Scientist, Vol 66, 1978, pp 280-290.

[2] The 'Aquaball', a plastic sphere with plastic spikes and holes covering the surface, and filled with small white styrofoam-like balls, for example, costs 14.95 for two, and is supposedly good for 60 loads per ball; the 'Turbo Plus' ceramic laundry disc, which has no spikes but a set of slots covering the surface, costs 45 and is supposed to last for 700 washes; 'The Laundry Solution' is a plastic ball filled with what appears to be a blue liquid; its distributor, TradeNet, claims a product life of approximately 1500 washes.

[3] Historic Costuming, Julie Adams savaskan@znet.com, 27 Oct 1997.

[4] Dr. Hugh Cartwright, Physical and Theoretical Chemistry Laboratory Oxford University. See http://www.laundrystuff.html. Other discussion by Bruce Toback, at the same website.

[5] The action of suds or foam may be more complicated than this claim asserts. In Chemistry in the Market Place (Harcourt Brace, 1998, p 52), Professor Ben Selinger says:

In systems where the amount of washing fluid is low, foam may have an important role. The individual foam films tend to take up and hold particles of soil that have been removed from the item, preventing them from being deposited, and allowing them to be washed or scraped away. This effect is very important in the on-location shampooing of carpets [and upholstery?]...Front loading washing machines work by bashing clothes against the side of the tub...but only if a low-suds detergent is used, because the suds cushion the impact and hence the cleaning action.

[6] 'Warm water produces good results for lightly soiled fabrics, hotter water will be more effective for cleaning more heavily soiled laundry' - Information sheet from Turbo Plus Laundry Disc.

[7] http://moof.com/nirvana/experiments/laundry/. The tests reported were performed late March 1997, with minor updates the following September.

In addition to the report that appeared in Choice, the Australian Consumer's Association laboratory kindly provided me with other details through the assistance of Kathy Diaco:


Powder and powder concentrate detergents were tested. The machines used for testing were the Fisher and Paykel GW508 and MW058 (both used for top loader tests) and the Hoover 1000F (front loader testing). The settings were: High Water Level, Cold Wash, Cold Rinse, Normal Cycle.

The loads were made up of towels made of equal masses of 100% cotton towels and face washers and polycotton pillowcases (50% polyester/50% cotton). The final mass was corrected with cotton handkerchiefs. To ensure a good washing action free of entanglements, the loads were made up to 70% of the claimed capacity of the machine.

Four types of swatches were used in each load. This included:

(1). Five AS12 swatches (100% cotton) soiled with - pigments, groundnut oil and milk

(2). Five PC12 swatches (50% polyester/50% cotton) soiled as the AS12 swatches

(3). Three CS4 swatches - saturated with coloured olive oil

(4). One redeposition swatch containing white cotton, white polycotton (50% mix) and 100% crimplene-like polyester squares.

An additional dirt load made up of 3.5 grams of British Standard Soil and 6.5 grams of homogeneous synthetic sebum prepared according to AS1658-1974 was applied to a face washer and added to each wash load.

The water temperature was maintained at 20+/- 2C throughout the tests. The water pressure was maintained at 320 kPa during filling. The water hardness was maintained between 42 and 50 ppm as CaCO3.

Each detergent was tested at least three times with a complete set of new swatches except that the redeposition swatch from the first run was used for the next two runs so that an appreciable change in reflectance could be seen.

Detergent dosage was according to the manufacturers' minimum recommended dose as indicated on the package for a light to medium soiled load on a normal wash setting. The dose used in each case was determined by the average mass of three measured doses. All detergents were dissolved in 1L 40C water before being added to the machine except in those cases where hot water was specified.

The Soil removal and Whiteness Retention scores were determined according to the methods set out in AS 2040-1990 for the performance of washing machines.

Dorothy Stein can be contacted at dstein@a1.sas.ac.uk

Web publication date: October 2000

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