Some technologies are sexy and some aren’t. Whole blogs are dedicated to eco-gadgets or electric cars, reporting on the tiniest rumours and excuses for news. These are fewer people tracking developments in the more mundane technologies of everyday life, such as how we cook, wash, and deal with waste, even though these may have a far bigger impact on the environment.
As I’ve mentioned before, the flushing toilet is taken for granted, despite being hugely wasteful of water and reliant on complex and expensive infrastructure. There are better solutions. Some of them are simpler, some of them more complex, but they’re all smarter than purifying water at great expense and then using it to flush toilets.
Another unglamorous technology that’s ripe for re-invention is the washing machine. We take them for granted and the basic design has been more or less the same for decades, though they are more efficient than they were. Are there better ways of cleaning our clothes? Here are four reasons why we might want to think again:
- Water: The average washing machine will use 50 litres of water for a load, though some will get through 150 litres. That’s not a problem everywhere, but in areas of water stress that’s reason to look again and see if there are other ways of doing things.
- Energy: In an age of rising energy bills and a changing climate, anything that reduces our energy use is welcome. With laundry, the biggest energy use is not so much washing the clothes as getting them dry again afterwards. Yes, you can hang clothes outside, but that’s not practical when it’s wet outside.
- Pollution: detergents used in laundry aren’t great for the environment. The big problem is phosphorus, which is a nutrient for plants. When too much of it runs off into watercourses, it can cause algae blooms that choke out other aquatic life. At its worst, it can contribute to ‘dead zones’ where rivers meet the sea.
- Durability: Tumbling them around in a drum and then spinning or wringing them puts a lot of wear and tear on clothes. That means they don’t last as long, losing their colour or shape and degrading the fabric and seams.
So there is room for improvement in how we do our washing, and there are companies working to re-invent the washing machine to improve its environmental performance. I’m aware of two different approaches.
The first alternative technology is steam cleaning. The theory here is that most of the time we don’t need to actually wash anything off our clothes. Sometimes we get dirt or stains on our clothes, but usually we need to wash them because they start to smell otherwise. That’s down to bacteria, and you don’t need to get clothes wet and then dry again to dispose of the bacteria.
LG recently launched the LG Styler, a high tech wardrobe that refreshes and deodorizes clothes rather than washing them. It looks like a fridge, and it blasts clothes with steam and then gently shakes out the wrinkles. For most of us, most of the time, this would be enough, although we’d still need to clean things in the more traditional fashion from time to time.
The hipsters have known about this approach to laundry for years, with their advice to put your jeans in the freezer overnight rather than launder them. Whether it works or not I can’t say, but it’s a similar principle. (For most of us, washing jeans with a little care will do just fine.)
The other method has been pioneered by a company called Xeros, who have developed a washing machine that uses polymer beads. It uses 70-90% less water and is far gentler on clothes, so they last longer. The little beads tumble through the machine, working the fabric and absorbing stains. The beads are sifted back out, and can be reused hundreds of times and then recycled.
They aren’t making these machines for domestic use just yet, but the technology is being used in commercial laundries already. Xeros won a bunch of awards for their breakthrough invention last year, so it looks like they’re onto something.
Both of these technologies are very new, so it’s not really possible to say whether or not they’re viable. But who’s to say? Maybe in a few years time washing clothes in water will look thoroughly old fashioned.
UPDATE – here’s one more option. A few years ago Sanyo developed a washine machine that turned oxygen into ozone and used that to blast clothes clean. That was in 2006 and it’s not available now, so I’m guessing it didn’t catch on, but that’s still three different concepts for waterless washing machines.