It’s estimated that between 75% and 80% of our clothing’s ecological impact comes from washing and drying, so doing our laundry as efficiently as possible is a good way to minimise our effect on the environment.

Washing clothes can affect the environment in a number of ways. As well as using energy and water in the process and releasing pollutants from detergents, washed clothes also shed microfibres, which make their way into the sea and damage wildlife.

Microfibres are tiny threads. While some are plant-based - from cotton, wool and viscose - others are plastic-based, from fabrics including polyester. Polyester is a very common clothing material.

These plastic microfibres break down extremely slowly and pollute aquatic environments over a long time period.  

The University of Northumbria has published new research in time for World Oceans Day. It’s the first forensic study into laundry and the microfibres that are shed by clothing. It showed that 13,000 tonnes of microfibres make their way into European marine environments every year. That’s the equivalent of two rubbish trucks a day.

But this could be reduced by almost a third if we change our laundry habits.

Here are some steps you can take to minimise the environmental impact of your household laundry.

Use an eco-friendly detergent

If you check the back of the packaging of your washing detergent, you may see the disclaimer: “Harmful to aquatic life with long lasting effects.” This warning is required by the EU because if a large, undiluted amount of the detergent in question were to be released into the water, it would be extremely hazardous to wildlife (and people).

We rely on dilution and treatment in a water plant to ensure that the quantity of detergent never reaches harmful levels. However, what we should take from the warning label is that the product is not harmless.

And you don’t have to take the risk. You can choose to buy laundry detergent from Ecover or Method, neither of which make environmentally damaging products. They also sell powder, if you prefer to use that.

Lower the temperature of your wash

Since 2013, all washing machines in the UK have been required to have a 20°C washing option. If you have an older machine, the lowest temperature setting may be 30°C.

Using a lower temperature will hugely reduce the amount of power your machine uses as 90% of a washing machine’s energy consumption goes on heating the water.

Lowering the temperature of your wash will also help your clothes to last longer and release fewer microfibres into the water.

Use an eco-mode

Many people don’t use their machine’s eco-mode at all.

Washing machine programmes have three key variables: time, temperature and volume of water. As you may guess, an eco-mode will use less water and heat, although it may not wash your clothes more quickly. It certainly won’t get the job done faster than a quick wash, which will use more water (and probably more heat) to compensate.

But an eco-wash will save you 20-30% of the energy you’d use with a standard wash.

How effective the eco wash on your machine is will depend on the machine and manufacturer. You should experiment with yours to find out what it can do. It may well be that you can use it instead of a standard wash on most lightly soiled loads of laundry.

Hang your clothes to dry them

This is pretty obvious but if you can let your clothes air dry, do. If you live in the UK, every time you use your tumble dryer, it costs you about 35p. So if you use it twice a week, that’s an additional £36 on your electricity bill every year.

Tumble dryers will also wear out your clothes faster. They create extra opportunities for fine fabrics to snag and will shrink clothes by twice as much as air drying. Clothes can also be damaged by the tumbling action and elastic can warp in the heat.

Tights, lingerie, swimsuits and anything with embellishments or elastic must be air dried, but ideally everything should be. So investing in a drying rack for indoors or an outside washing line is a good idea. You can buy a slimline, three-tier clothes airer from John Lewis for £17.

Buy an energy efficient washing machine

When you next buy a washing machine, choose an energy efficient model. These machines will use less water while cleaning just as effectively. Not only will you save water but you’ll use less energy to heat it in the first place.

They will also leave your clothes drier at the end of a cycle, meaning less time in the clothes dryer, saving energy there as well.

Look for an appliance with a high energy efficiency rating. To comply with EU regulations, all washing machines made since 2014 that are for sale in the UK must be rated from A to A+++, with A+++ the most efficient. Your washing machine should last you about ten years, so getting a better rated appliance will make a significant difference to your energy usage during that period.

Want to read more? Find out how to save money on your energy bills, how to maintain your washing machine and how to recycle coffee capsules.