lifestyle technology

Can you wash clothes without water?

xeros-washing-machineHanging out the washing again the other day, I found myself wondering what happened to those waterless washing machines I wrote about a couple of years ago. Did they go into production? Did any of them catch on? Is there one I can afford?

If you remember, there have been at least three different versions of the waterless washing machine developed, using steam, ozone or the plastic pellets version on the left. So far they are not available to the general public or cost far more than I would want to pay. But can you do waterless laundry at home without the expensive washing machine? And without taking everything to the dry cleaning, obviously.

Well, perhaps its best to begin by asking why clothes need washing in the first place. If we’re talking about the kids’ clothes, it’s because they have yogurt, sauce, and mud all over them. In which case, water and detergent of some description is probably going to be best.

Beyond obvious spillages, perhaps clothes have been worn for a day, gone another round or two, and now it’s borderline whether they should be worn again in polite company. Clothes begin to smell a bit, and it’s time to throw them in the machine. As we wear our clothes, skin cells rub off inside them. We shed 30-40,000 skin cells an hour, as the body endlessly and unobtrusively replaces our skin. We have a trillion and a half skin cells, so it doesn’t matter that we lose a million every day.

This is not gross! It’s wonderful. You get a whole new skin about every 27 days.

However, a lot of those skin cells end up in our clothes. So does sweat and oils from our skin. More to the point, bacteria get carried along with them. We are all ecosystems, with thousands of different bacteria cooperating peacefully in and on our bodies. This is not gross either. It’s a wonder of altruistic co-evolution, or at least that’s how I like to think of it. It is these bacteria, breaking down the oils and dead skin cells, that cause smells in our clothes.

So a big part of washing clothes is killing bacteria, and with them the biological micro-processes that cause the smell. And soap and water is not the only way to kill bacteria.

When I was at boarding school there was a guy down the hall who we believed never changed his underwear. So we put the contents of his underwear drawer in a bag and stuffed it in the freezer to see how many days it would take for him to notice it was gone. A distressingly long time, as it turns out. Underwear is something one wants to change and wash, obviously, but some people claim you can freeze your jeans. This was a matter of internet rumour for a long time, but Levi’s jeans come in a canvas bag for that very purpose. The CEO of Levi’s does it.

Good for him, but it’s not the most robust theory, scientifically. Bacteria are resilient, and freezing may not get all of them.

Another theory is that alcohol kills bacteria, and vodka dries odourless – so spritzing your clothes with a cheap and diluted vodka will freshen them up. This is popular with vintage clothing fans and theatre wardrobe managers, people who don’t want to risk washing things unless they really have to. Cheap vodka is not hard to come by where I live, so I may give this a try.

I once met someone who, due to a suspicion of chemicals, cleaned everything with lemons. I’m sure they would advise squeezing lemon juice on things and then hanging them out to dry.

I also note that one of the waterless washing machines I read about before uses steam. That’s something I could make at home, but then I imagine clothes would still need to be hung out to dry or air.

No alternative convinces me, but there are good reasons to keep the question open. The traditional washing machine uses a lot of water and energy, both things that we want to use more sparingly. Our global detergent use is disrupting marine life. Washing machines are not gentle either, and clothes would last longer if we could find a better way. Just because the front-loading water-based washing machine is a standard of middle class living today, doesn’t mean it must inevitably remain so for all time. So hurry up already with the affordable clothes maintenance closet.

Right, now back to hanging that next load.

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