Does washing clothes at 30ºC actually help climate change?

Washing clothes at 30ºC is often portrayed as an eco-friendly choice. But how much of a difference does doing laundry at lower temps actually make?

A person operating a white washing machine turning temperature knob to 30 degrees celsius
(Image credit: Getty / Avalon_Studio)

Are you washing clothes at 30ºC? Whether your motivations for always setting your washer on the lowest temperature cycle are to do with saving the planet or the cost of your energy bills, you may actually want to reconsider this practice. 

Let's put the most common assumptions about the benefits of using your washing machine at lower temperatures to the test.

Will washing clothes at 30ºC help save the planet?

Does using a washing machine at a lower temperature reduce your personal carbon footprint? Yes, technically. However, if we take just the US, all the commercial and residential human activity combined accounted for just 12 per cent of greenhouse emissions (opens in new tab) in 2017. By contrast, 29 per cent was generated by transportation, 28 per cent by generating electricity, and 22 per cent by industry. 

So, basically, by the time you've bought your washing machine, which would've been manufactured (industry + massive electricity use at the manufacturing facility) and transported to you, you've already contributed to CO2 emissions in a bigger way than your actual washing will do. Washing at a lower temperature may make you feel slightly better about that fact, but it can't undo the much higher level of emissions produced by your washing machine before you've even plugged it in.

And finally, a word on water use. Think doing fewer loads will help the environment? Again, not really. The official numbers (opens in new tab) on how we use water are as follows: 69 per cent of all freshwater withdrawals around the world are made for agricultural purposes; the industrial sector claims 19 per cent, and only 12 per cent of all the water that humans draw is for personal and municipal uses combined. Food production and textile production are far bigger problems than how many wash loads we do per week. 

Will washing clothes at 30ºC save on your energy bills?

Yes, however, the saving will be small.

According to the Energy Saving Trust (opens in new tab): 'washing clothes at 30 degrees rather than higher temperatures will save around 40 per cent of the energy used each year. Modern washing powders and detergents work just as effectively at lower temperatures.'

However, as we've reported previously, washing only on a low-temperature cycle can you at risk of falling ill from harmful bacteria, too. So saving energy at home in this way should be taken with a pinch of salt. 

While you might decide to wash wool jumpers and cardigans on a cool cycle to stop them from shrinking, you should wash towels and shared items to get rid of any bacteria that can spread between people. Underwear should also be washed on hotter cycles, for obvious reasons.

The verdict

Washing clothes at 30ºC will generally save on your carbon footprint and energy usage, especially over time, but it's pretty low impact in the grand scheme of things and although washing garments at 30ºC in most cases will remove any stains (should hand washing clothes not work), if you really want to get rid of bacteria and other harmful viruses, you'll need to use a washing machine cleaner which is usually on only effective on a cycle that's 60ºC (or hotter) or, when run on an empty cycle. You should only need to clean your washing machine to this extent around four times a year, depending on whether you have pets for example as their fur easily clogs machines. In which case, there's a chance you may need to watch your carbon pawprint too...

So, as with most things, it's all about balance, but if you want to make better choices for the environment, buying fewer clothes in the first place will have more of a positive impact. Putting pressure on governments to pass laws that will finally change the way agriculture and industry function is even better. You could also switch out your usual plastic-packaged washing powder or laundry detergent for an eco-friendly laundering product.

Or, clean without commercial cleaning products altogether! Spot clean lightly soiled clothing by using acetic acid in a glass spray bottle. By using neat or diluted vinegar to clean, you can save 15-20 gallons of water per load, according to ENERGY STAR (opens in new tab).

Of course, sometimes it's not viable to ditch your detergent altogether so by using less (or foregoing fabric conditioner), and integrating some eco-friendly laundry tips into your wash routine your conscience can somewhat be spared!

Anna Cottrell

Anna is Content Editor at Real Homes. She moved to the world of interiors from academic research in the field of English Literature and photography. She is the author of London Writing of the 1930s and has a passion for contemporary home decor and gardening. At Real Homes, she covers a range of topics, from practical advice to interior and garden design. 

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