It is quite incredible, the amount of plastic that's simply integrated itself into our homes and daily life these days. It can be overwhelming, for sure, when we first decide to hop on the plastic-free living train, and then see that almost every room, every task, every person, every product - every little bit of our lives - is impacted.
For me, this led to a lot of frustration. A lot of annoyance and anger and distrust at the companies and regulatory bodies that allow this type of consumption to carry on, when there are other options. But in the end, if we go back far enough or dig deep enough, we can find the focus to push forward, one item in our homes and lives at a time.
I once heard a funny thought online somewhere, that millennials were the death of so many things, including fabric softener. Apparently this demographic has walked away from it in a big way, and the change has been a bit of a wave, as we immerse our own children in a different normal. But why? And what can we do differently, if we are wanting to switch things up?
Why skip the dryer sheets + fabric softener?
To start, we need to remember that in living sustainably, we need to view a product in its full life cycle, from what it is made of, its impact during use, and its final death's "legacy." For dryer sheets and fabric softener, neither have any redeeming qualities when we look at it through this point of view.
Firstly, dryer sheets are made out of an unwoven polyester fabric, which is a plastic cloth made from petrochemicals. Every time we wanted a static-free load of laundry to pour out of the dryer, we created a piece of plastic waste (actually, maybe two - or at least that's how many I used growing up per load) that will shed apart and disperse itself through our environment. This shedding begins to occur while it is in use in the dryer, fluffing out through the dryer vent, separating through our clothing, and tumbling into the lint trap to head towards the dump after being wrapped in more plastic garbage bags, where it will join the rest of the used sheet. These plastic fragments have ended up throughout the food chain, in our drinking water, in our homes - basically, it will bioaccumulate as it heads up the food chain and ends up in our food as we are now currently ingesting plastic in this form at an alarming rate. This is how it happens - tiny little bits floating away that are impossible to collect.
Both fabric softener and dryer sheets are also coated in chemical artificial fragrances, with the purpose of adhering to our clothing to give it a "fresh" scent. But there isn't actually anything fresh about it. It's a little cocktail of surfactants that stick to clothing, giving it a slicker feel and coating our clothing fibres so that we can breathe it in until we take it off and hop in our sheets covered in the same slick mix. A quick little search of the ingredients in your fabric softener or dryer sheets will give you a run-down of how unnatural this is, for humans to slather chemicals onto clothing in order to keep the natural fibres from feeling... natural, and breathing that significant mix in all day, day after day. The same mix of chemicals off-gasses into the air (and accumulates in your home) or washes away into your water table with the dregs of the laundry rinse. Just because we can't see them, doesn't mean they don't stick around.
And finally, the issue of contamination for recycling is quite high with fabric softener jugs. Almost no one rinses out their plastic laundry jugs (I definitely did not ever do this, I honestly had never even thought about it!), and so each jug has a sludge in the bottom of it when it hits the recycling bin. This leads to being dumped inside a larger plastic recycling load, one that can be contaminated by these extra chemicals/liquids and potentially rendering the full load garbage. Dark plastics are also not recyclable as they are tougher to sell to make into new plastics, and we all know what our selection of plastic softener jugs look like, unfortunately!
So, what can we do?
We can hit the pause button on the norm that we used to have, and try out a few different solutions to wanting soft textiles in our home without the same impact. If one doesn't work out for whatever personal preference or reason, there are plenty of others to try. And as we walk into 2022 with such a scary environmental state looming over us, we need to try.
Some of these options are super cheap, and some ring in for about the same price that conventional softener does. I have spoken with so many community members about their experience in trying to swap in this area, and I've tried to pull together a lot of their ideas here on top of my own adventures. It seems that we all learn we likely don't even need to soften a lot of our clothes, or worry about static, the more we move away from having plastic-based clothing, and we find that some loads of laundry might just need dryer balls, while others (towels, maybe?) could use the vinegar option or line-drying. The bottom line is, figure out what works for you, and find a new normal, and a lot less lower impact!
1. Wool Dryer Balls
Dryer balls are a pretty common solve, that's for sure!
These guys works by being absorbent and helping to decrease water in the laundry load. If you think about how wool gloves can absorb water but not then wet your hands inside the gloves, then you get the idea. They are antibacterial (due to this being a natural property of wool) and so you don't need to 'air' them out between loads. They are good for about 500 loads, or when you can notice they aren't as absorbent anymore and are very hard/firm to the squeeze.
The second way that dryer balls work is by bouncing; this work of agitating a load decreases drying time and static electricity.
The beauty of these guys is that they are compostable when they are done with, as long as you ensure you've collected 100% wool balls. Being a natural fibre, they can degrade with natural elements - air, water and bacteria.
You can add essential oil fragrance to the balls to distribute scent throughout your laundry. I honestly usually miss this step. There are other "eco" plastic designed options that disperse scent, but you definitely need to look into the actual fragrance ingredients being used, and the plastic portion of it always doesn't seem to make sense to me, as you're always going to end up with plastic at the end of its life anyway. Those little guys also don't provide any water absorbency or the same agitation that the wool balls do; it just depends where you're at with leaving the fragrances behind.
Our dryer balls are 100% Canadian wool, sourced from a B Corp certified, female owned company. They are also unpackaged.
I've had a few wonderful customers tell me about putting a safety pin into their dryer balls to give them more power in alleviating static cling, but have yet to try this one out!
2. Plain White Vinegar
Vinegar is one of nature's fresheners, despite how it might first come off. It's also a very versatile guy in your home when you switch over to some natural cleaning products, so you likely already have it kicking around to test out. Vinegar is effective and also extremely cost effective, too.
There are many different ways to add vinegar to your laundry routine, depending on your machine. You can add it directly in with your clothing, do a pre-soak, or add it in with your detergent. Adding it into a machine's dispenser long term could potentially pose the issue of long term exposure of your machine's rubber gaskets to acetic acid, so try to avoid that. Putting it in with your clothing is a better option, but depending on the machine, the best time to add it will differ. If you go with adding it to your dispenser, try to use a lower acetic acid concentration vinegar, 5% regular white vinegar (instead of a 12% vinegar).
Vinegar can soften laundry and deal with the freshening aspect as well, and your clothing won't smell like vinegar. If you add it directly to the wash, you can rinse again, but I've not ever had that issue. We use this option when washing towels that tend to get a bit musty, cloth diapers, and with any heavy work pants or coats when they hit the wash and need a freshening up.
3. Baking Soda
Baking soda is a natural freshener like vinegar, but it is also a natural softener. You can add it directly to your detergent if you'd like to do both with your laundry (honestly, what doesn't baking soda help with?!) and it can also be bought in a package free manner.
4. Line Drying
Line drying in the sun can definitely stiffen certain fabrics, especially items like towels and canvas items. However, it can help to soften cottons and linens, and the fresh air scent is unattainable by any type of chemical-based fragrance blend you'll get out of a bottle. The sun is also a really great way to naturally sanitize fabrics, neutralize odours, and "sun bleach" out stains without really having to do any work other than getting the item out into the sun.
Line drying is also a way to make your clothing and textiles last longer, as the dryer agitates and heats them to a degree that can be damaging. It uses less energy, and doesn't require a big machine to get it done!
5. Biodegradable Fabric Softener Sheets
If you're still worried about static in your laundry and want a product you can purchase specifically for this task, try out some biodegradable softener sheets. There is still some processing, production, and waste cycle parts that impact this product, but at least you're avoiding the plastic fibres found in dryer sheets that will become ready-made microplastics once they are in your dryer and degrading in the landfill (or wherever they end up).
6. Adjust it - or maybe just don't?!
With anything these days that we chat about in this blog, it's like a long process of unlearning whatever we've been taught is normal. If you try one thing and it didn't work right away, try something else. Try it a little longer, or adjust it a little bit, until you can get it to work for you. Or, just try ditching the whole process altogether and tell yourself you're just being a millennial getting rid of stuff we can't afford to buy without a real purpose (cheeky, right?!).
Whichever way you achieve the no-more-softener route, leave us a comment or share this blog with someone looking to live a chemical-free, plastic-free lifestyle!