Sage mir, wie du wäschst und ich sage dir, wer du bist

What does this little detour into the past tell us? Well, in spite of all the hard work that laundry washing entailed at that time, you can't help but get the impression that washing was much more environmentally friendly. Today, we do this work within one or two hours at the push of a button. And what about environmental friendliness ?

Laut the statement of the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) there is no environmentally friendly detergent. In general, all detergents can contain substances that are not biologically (or only with difficulty and incompletely) degradable, that harm aquatic organisms or that accumulate in organisms or the environment. All these substances can reach the aquatic environment via waste water. On the homepage of the Federal Environment Agency follows the extremely sobering sentence: """Whoever washes, therefore accepts a certain environmental pollution in any case."

So better organic - or what? There is no general answer to this question. Those who consider organic powders to be consistently more environmentally friendly than those produced conventionally are unfortunately also wrong. Markus Gast, detergent expert at UBA, says: "The decisive factor is not the origin of the raw materials, but their biodegradability". Complete degradability, especially for surfactants, is therefore an important feature; one that is even prescribed by law. Surfactants are the main components of all detergents and ensure that dirt dissolves better. However, they are toxic to water organisms, so it doesn't matter whether they are of vegetable or chemical origin.

Someone must have decided at some point that laundry is only clean when it smells good. So fragrances are another deficit of detergents, which play no role at all in the washing effect, yet almost all detergents - including organic products - are perfumed. Many fragrances are very poorly biodegradable, even if they come from natural raw materials. They can also trigger allergies and are also toxic to water organisms. According to NABU, these also include lime - a fragrance found in all lemon, organ or lavender oils.

The trio of environmental damage is rounded off by optical brighteners (at least in conventional heavy-duty detergents) - for radiant cleanliness. Marcus Gast also describes these as hardly degradable and, moreover, unnecessary for the cleanliness of the laundry.

In Germany, approximately 630,000 tons of detergent are consumed annually. Converted to each inhabitant, this results in a consumption of almost 8 kg of detergent per year. The number of fabric softeners and other auxiliary and care products amounts to a total of about 220,00 tons annually. These figures show one thing very clearly: we consumers can influence the market for these products by purchasing and using detergents and actively campaign for environmental protection!

Many people like to use washing powder in XXL packs because they give the impression that this can save money. In fact, however, the powder is stretched on large packages with fillers, which means that in some cases twice as much powder is needed for one wash cycle as would be the case with detergents from small packages. By the way, the fillers even attack the concrete of the sewerage system.

We prefer the liquid version, don't we? Marcus Gast generally advises against liquid detergents, as they pollute the waste water much more than the powder form. This is due to the fact that liquid detergents also contain considerably more surfactants. Although surfactants in washing and cleaning agents have had to be completely biodegradable since 2005 (which means that they decompose within 28 days), the surfactants are still a burden on the environment within this period. Reducing or avoiding surfactants is therefore a good thing.

Wash properly - protect the environment

But what do we do now? Frustrated, stick your head in the washing powder or go back to the washboard and soda? The UBA recommends a number of options that are less harmful to the environment and also save money. Actually, it is the classics in terms of washing behaviour that many people are probably already familiar with:

Washing machine fully loaded, dose according to the degree of soiling and water hardness (information on the latter can be obtained from the respective water supply company), wash mainly at 30 °C to 40 °C, do without prewash and fabric softener, wash appropriately frequently and do without tumble dryers.

NABU also recommends correct dosing, according to the package information. Three parameters are decisive for this: degree of soiling, water hardness and drum size. In this way we achieve the highest possible cleanliness with the lowest possible environmental impact. Ina Enterlein is environmental officer at NABU; she categorises the degree of pollution as follows: "Lightly soiled laundry is sweaty, but otherwise spotless; as normally soiled, laundry with visible spots and heavily soiled laundry is practically non-existent in the average household. In private households, the dosage for "light" or "normal" dirt is perfectly adequate. More detergent does not make the laundry more shiny or cleaner, only the environmental impact and costs are higher. As far as water hardness is concerned, it looks like this:

Softer water hardness requires a smaller amount of detergent; medium and hard water hardness requires a little more.

During washing, the washing machine consumes two types of energy: mechanical energy and thermal energy for heating the water. The latter requires the most energy. Spinning and turning are not very important in terms of energy. A wash cycle at 60 degrees therefore consumes three to five times as much electricity as a 30 degree wash. For clean clothes it is sufficient to wash at 30°C to 40°C. However, to prevent the growth of germs in the machine, you should wash once a month at 60°C and then use a powdered detergent. Cooked laundry should be an exception in private households (e.g. in the case of infectious diseases).

The UBA also has recommendations for the choice of detergent: modular systems or compact and super-compact detergents in tandem. Organic shops sell detergents that work according to the modular principle. Depending on how much bleach, water softener or stain remover you need, you can put them together yourself using the modular system and only use what you really need.

Another guide to environmentally conscious washing is the yield of the detergent. High-yield products require a low dosage. Such detergents mean that fewer chemicals end up in waste and water. And another plus point: concentrates get by with small packages and less packaging. At first glance, compact detergents may seem very expensive, but a comparison of the data on washing machine fillings shows that in the end they are better. A detergent is highly concentrated if a dosage of max. 70 g detergent per wash is specified for normally soiled clothes. Such a low indication indicates an environmentally friendly detergent that contains fewer chemicals and fillers.

The most environmentally friendly method is probably do-it-yourself. There are many instructions on the web for making your own detergent, many of which require only three ingredients and a few minutes' time.

And maybe we should just consider the washing machine for what it is - a device that saves us two or three days of scrubbing, kneading and wringing to have clean clothes. Let's face it: We don't really need agents that make our clothes smell like flowers and feel like feathers.