By Joe Wachunas

Air drying clothes is a simple practice that holds nothing short of immense power and pollution saving potential. This most hum-drumiest of daily chores, in which we simply hang damp clothes over a line or rack and wait for the sun or air to dry them, has the potential to match the herculean efforts of the entire power sector — from its bulldozers, dump trucks and train cars to its conveyor belts, thousand degree boilers, massive cooling towers and overhead power lines.

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Hanging sheets replace coal plants in Italy

Yes, line drying is an ace in the hole for a species that needs every single effort to get itself out of a warming world, eleventh hour predicament. It’s a proverbial slingshot stone as we nervously stare down carbon Goliath. Hanging laundry ranks at the top of the list of life choices we small folk can make for its ease and extraordinary, pollution eliminating effects.

Almost the entire world, even industrialized countries that can afford clothes dryers and the energy to power them, seems to recognize this. In country after country, warm climate alongside cold, citizens hang their clothes to dry. In Siberia, people freeze their clothes dry and the ice sublimates (changes directly from solid to gas).

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Freeze drying clothes in Russia

In China, despite rapid industrialization, it’s hard to find dryers sold in stores. Brazil doesn’t even keep national statistics on dryer usage because so few people have them. In Japan, where the average home is 60 percent smaller than ours, the Japanese choose line over dryer drum even when they happen to have one in their home. (1)

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A common sight in Japan

In the vast majority of the world hang drying is the norm and dryers are the exception and for good reason. The simple task saves an obscene amount of energy and a decent amount of money with little effort. And most significantly, its large scale effects are enormous when it comes to helping the climate.

Italy

My first real exposure to solar powered laundry drying started when I boarded an airplane, and flew across the ocean, to spend a year as an exchange student in Italy, at age 18. Italians are famous for line drying clothes, and images of dark-haired Neapolitans hanging sheets on lines between buildings are present in many of our collective imaginations for good reason.

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Drying my daughter’s diaper in Northern Italy

That year I learned that line drying goes way beyond the sentimental. It is an ingrained cultural habit in which only 3% of households have a dryer in a country of 60 million, with the eighth largest economy in the world. Virtually all Italians, regardless of any age, income, climate and season, air dry their clothes and linens.

Coming from the US, this was a fascinating cultural phenomenon. In Italy, I noticed drying racks and outdoor lines of every shape and size imaginable in houses of all shapes and sizes. In winter, I saw clothes drying near radiators and in summer racks, they hung off balconies. I learned how cross breezes blowing through an apartment can dry clothes in an hour.

And I took in the fact that this practice, so different than what I was used to, was unremarkable to Italians, a daily chore done without appreciation for the energy or money saved or the pollution avoided or the power plants not built. To me, this simplicity felt revolutionary.

The World vs North America

Italy isn’t unusual in their avoidance of this appliance so near and dear to the hearts of my fellow North Americans. Besides Canada, none of the world’s top 10 economies use the clothes dryer anywhere near as much as we do. The richest and most productive nations on earth have managed to thrive in absence of an appliance that many North Americans consider to be indispensable.

Top 10 World Economies and Related Dryer Ownership (Back of the envelope calculations)(2)

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These estimates on worldwide dryer usage reveal that the vast majority of people, 6.3 out of 7.1 billion, hang dry their clothes.

What are we North Americans missing here?

Why People Hang Dry

Culture

This phenomenon demonstrates the awesome, and often unrecognized, power of culture. Many nations have more reasons than North Americans to use a dryer (smaller houses or colder climates) and yet they don’t.

And while environmentalism might be a factor in some people’s decisions to line dry, the practice is way too widespread to consider it tree hugging. It simply because it’s how local families, neighbors and communities dry their clothes. It’s woven into culture, an invisible hand that profoundly affects all of our daily habits.

In the US, I don’t know one other person who air dries his/her clothes. In Europe, I don’t know anyone who uses, or even has a dryer.

In China where seemingly every other technological device is adopted in mass by a rapidly industrializing culture the “only people who buy dryers are foreigners” and some factories “stopped producing dryers since last year because they don’t sell.”

Clothes drying in China in wintertime

The reason for this, amongst other factors, is Chinese culture with “years of tradition and an unshakable belief in nature’s superiority.” Sunlight “leaves clothes cleaner and healthier to wear, and is better for the fabric, than a machine.” (3)

Limited Options

It’s likely that the vast majority of the world hang dries laundry because people have no other choice. Dryers, and the excessive amounts of electricity they require, are an extreme luxury. When I traveled in Ghana, I saw people both hand wash clothes and hang them to dry. I never once saw a washing machine. I bet that a good percentage of the world’s population doesn’t even know the dryer exists.

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Air drying school uniforms in Ghana. Notice you can also “lay dry” clothes!

Energy savings

And, of course, much of the world recognizes that the dryer has enormous impacts on energy usage and air pollution.

When different factors and competing studies are taken into account, a reasonable estimate is that in American homes, dryers account for around 7–8% of residential electricity usage.(4)

So what does that 7–8% of residential electricity usage look like in numbers we can understand?

  • Every time we hang dry our clothes we keep the energy equivalent of three pounds of coal in the ground.(5)
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Every load of laundry requires this
  • With the minimal effort involved in hang drying, it’s as if we’re taking handfuls of toxic coal that would be spewed into the atmosphere and keeping it in the ground. In my family we do a lot of laundry and that means we’re saving the amount of energy contained in over 2000 lbs of coal per year.(6) That’s a literal ton, which looks something like this:
All this to dry my undies?
  • The electricity used to run a dryer two times a day (yes, we do almost two loads a day) over the course of a year would enable my electric car to drive over 10,000 miles.(7) With the energy saved from hang drying my clothes I can drive across the country three times.
  • If America hang dried clothes at the same rate as Italy, or the United States of 50 years ago, our power savings could match the total amount of power produced by the tens of millions of solar panels(8) in the United States and save us something like 1–3% of all electricity produced in our country.(9) Think of it! Altering one small cultural habit to match what most of the world does, and what most of our ancestors did, could match energy impact of the millions of solar panels the country has installed over the last 20+ years.
  • Hang drying clothes would help shut down 42 coal fired plants(10) and save 1% of our national CO2 emissions.(11)
  • Finally and perhaps most strikingly, if America hang dried laundry, there would be something like 222 less deaths per year due to coal particulate emissions.(12) There would also be thirteen fewer deaths due to fires as dryers can cause over 15,000 fires every year in the United States.(13) This means that dryers account for triple the number of deaths as terrorism each year in the United States.(14)

Cost

The world also hang dries to save money. Most countries pay significantly more for electricity than Americans and Canadians(15) do and so have added incentive to hang dry.

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In North America, electricity is underpriced and doesn’t take into account the costs of pollution (see: tragedy of the commons). Too often, our air, water and land are treated as free waste disposal sites and toxic by products are vented or dumped with little to no cost. These individual savings (at everyone’s expense) are passed on to us in the form of reduced electricity prices. They also encourage us to use electricity sloppily because it is so cheap we don’t think about it and don’t have incentives to use it well. In the states with the highest costs for electricity (California, Massachusetts, etc.) citizens use the least amount of electricity.(16) Coincidence?

I estimate that in hang drying clothes in my family, we save $341 per year while the average American family would save $200.(17) While these totals alone aren’t that significant, they add up over time. In other countries cost savings play a bigger role. In Italy for example, I would be saving about $700 a year while in Germany more like $1000. (see chart above)

In the U.S., money becomes a much larger consideration for the 20% of people using laundromats. With an average cost of $2.00 per load to dry clothes in a laundromat — if you’re washing clothes near the North American average of 289 times per year, you can save nearly $600 by line drying. Line drying can thus offer a huge financial savings to those middle to lower income Americans who are using Laundromats.

Time

The primary reason people use a clothes dryer is that it saves time. But with the vast majority of the world’s population, including most of the world’s leading economies, air drying clothes, hanging laundry can’t be that much of a daily encumbrance or drag on productivity. It’s all about making it part of your routine.

On average, I’ve found that each load of line dried laundry takes approximately eight minutes of extra work. Since I do close to two loads a day this means about 15 minutes of extra work a day. 15 minutes to reduce my home’s energy use by 20%, and keep 2000 pounds of coal in the ground, seems like incredible bang for my buck when I’m looking for small ways to make the world better for my daughters.

Personal Satisfaction and Gratification

Nearly every day I wake up and start at least one load of laundry. Later, while I’m hang drying clothes, sheets, towels and cloth diapers, I feel an immense amount of meaning and purpose in my routine. I find so much satisfaction in saving enormous amounts of energy, money and pollution and knowing I’m doing something unabashedly good. Hang drying clothes gives us small folks access to the most easily accessible and low cost form of solar energy.

How inspiring that one answer to the intractable and enormous climate crisis of our time, can be found in something as small and simple as air drying clothing. How great to think that we can scrub our skies, clean our water, reforest our earth and create a better future for our children all with a little string and some clothes pins.

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