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The Shower Curtain Rod Laundry FAIL and Other Adventures in Urban Laundry Drying

Avoiding the clothes dryer in the city is tough but worth it, as my experience with indoor clothes drying racks, improvised clotheslines, almost-mildewed bath towels and sudden rainstorms shows.

I try hard to do my part, environmentally speaking. When going green, some steps are more important and have bigger impact than others. But the big impact ones might not always be practical. Take laundry. Changing how we all wash our clothes can have a monumental impact. Cold water washing with a "green" detergent and line drying your clothing is the ideal. For years, I've been doing the cold water washing and eco-detergent part (well, minus my bedding, which I wash in warm or hot water to kill allergy-triggering dust mites). I do this to avoid skin and lung irritating not to mention hormone disrupting synthetic fragrances as well as non-renewable petrochemicals. According to Seventh Generation, if every household in the U.S. replaced just one bottle of 100-oz. 2X-concentrate petroleum-based laundry liquid with their 100-oz. 2X-concentrate plant-derived product, we could save 466,000 barrels of oil, enough to heat and cool 26,800 U.S. homes for a year. (Full disclosure: I'm currently under contract with Seventh Generation, writing a book with co-founder Jeffrey Hollender. It comes out in December of this year, and it has a laundry chapter that details the pros of line drying.) Plant-based detergent residue is also far better for our waterways. And I use cold water because the amount of energy it takes to heat water is unfathomable. And it mostly comes from coal-fired power plants, which I like to rely on as little as possible. Warm or hot water washing will also up your electricity bill. According to Project Laundry List, using cold water can save people as much as $70 a year. Trust me – and many studies – when I say that clothes get perfectly clean in cold water. So I'm happy to avoid the coal (for me and my neighbors).

But when it comes to line drying, I have much room for improvement. I'm a semi-line-dryer. I dry (most) clothes briefly, then let them finish drying on hangers or towel racks. This preserves your clothing. What do you think lint is? That's your favorite outfit disintegrating. I prefer them to last as long as possible. Sheets and towels, however, I put in the dryer. I happen to live in New York City and have no access to outdoor space. My (small) indoor space isn't very well ventilated. It takes a while for towels to dry post shower, so I have my doubts that I can effectively air dry them post wash. And though I do know that the EPA estimates indoor air is actually 2 to 5 times more polluted than outdoor air – even urban outdoor air — I'm not sure I want to dry my pillowcases outside in New York City, then breathe in car exhaust residue nightly. But this is unscientific paranoia.

I know people who manage to "line" dry everything in their apartments with similar constraints. I have been meaning to try it but haven't yet. Thankfully, unexpected motivation arrived not too long ago via email. Seventh Generation invited me to take part in a line-drying challenge/experiment. I jumped at the chance. They sent me detergent, a laundry basket, and a drying stand to make it all possible, plus a Flip camera to document the experiment. In return, I pledged to cold water wash in their detergent and line-dry for a month, and capture the process via words, photos, and film. What ensued was a tragicomedy! And a lesson learned.

My Laundry
A few words on my own laundry situation: My family of three does about two very full loads of laundry per week. We're well below average; according to a survey conducted by Seventh Generation, one quarter of Americans (24%) who do laundry do 21 loads or more a month. The average American does 15 loads a month. I don't have a washer or dryer in my apartment; I use the building-maintained communal ones on my floor. This means that unfortunately my eco-detergent loads are tumbling around with residues of the conventional products (including bleach) my neighbors favor. There is one front-loader washer (more efficient) and one top-loader. On either, I can choose the temperature. They're pretty big as washers go. The building's dryers are industrial. I can only buy an hour at a time. This is a problem. I wish I could buy 10 minutes or so – enough to de-wrinkle things before I hang them to dry. On some weekends, I do my laundry at my parents' house. I'm probably too old to do this, and a sucker to admit it in print, but I take my laundry with me when I go see my family. Don't get me wrong, no one is doing my clothes for me. And I usually do theirs. I like that with their dryers, I can dry (most of) my clothing to damp, then air dry.

The Challenge
For this challenge, I settled on doing a few weeks of urban air drying and a few weeks of back yard rack drying.

shower curtain rod line drying fail

Urban Air Drying
Week One in my apartment didn't go well. The drying rack turned out to have lines made of PVC/vinyl, AKA "The Poison Plastic." I didn't want it offgassing into my breathing space as I dried the clothes, so I didn't use it. But without a rack, I didn't have enough room to air dry all I had stuffed in the washing machines. I hung as much of the wet laundry as I could over every part of my apartment – on hangers on the shower curtain rod, on the backs of chairs etc. – but had to dry the rest. Not an entire failure but a failure nonetheless. Week Two was a mixed bag. I had a more organized approach and plans on where I would drape things in the apartment. I was relying heavily on the shower curtain rod until it broke; it gave out under the weight of the wet clothes. I wound up doing a third week of indoor drying (we didn't go visit my parents) which was by far the smoothest week. My new shower curtain rod was up to the task, but I still didn't manage to avoid the dryer completely; the towels were taking too long to dry and I didn't want them to start smelling, so I gave in and put them in the dryer. But at least one dryer load for two wash loads is better than two.

Outdoor Stand Drying
The rack with the PVC ropes did ok in a yard but wasn't big enough for all I stuffed in the washer, plus it tipped over when the wind picked up. I'd prefer a line. Getting the sheets on the stand was a challenge in its own right and just as I finally had everything on there, the sky opened up. It was pouring. Rookie mistake; I vowed next time to check the weather before outdoor drying. And to read some instructions. By the time we had to leave to head back to the city, the sheets were actually dry but nothing else was. So we had to enlist the dryer or go home with wet, mildewing clothes. Several weeks later, after the challenge was over, I successfully used the rack outside on a sunny, breezy day.

I will absolutely continue to air dry as much as possible – indoors and out. Reducing the amount of dryer time is a step in the right direction. I am actively searching out the best collapsible dryer rack for my apartment (if wood, I want it FSC-certified, and I have my eye on a metal Ikea rack, and many of the contraptions sold on Project Laundry List). I need to get better at what and how to put on the rack – and when. Currently, it takes me too long, which isn't practical. I now know to check the weather before drying outside. And I also know to set aside extra time when air drying, and have been reading various sites for tips on how to save time – putting the clothes from the washer directly onto hangers to dry saves some time. Got tips for me? Please post in comments! If and when we move – and we do have vague plans to – I will take air drying into account. We want a little outdoor space for many reasons; I will add "line drying" to the list.

Alexandra Zissu

Alexandra Zissu

Alexandra Zissu is co-author of The Complete Organic Pregnancy and author of The Conscious Kitchen.
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The Conscious Kitchen: The New Way to Buy and Cook Food — to Protect the Earth, Improve Your Health, and Eat Deliciously
Real world, practical solutions for anyone who longs to effect easy green changes when it comes to the food they buy, cook, and eat.
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