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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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I don't believe in laundry strips

Uploaded: Mar 7, 2021
I don’t believe in laundry strips. Is something wrong with me, and what does this mean for our chances of dealing with climate change?

Can these paper-like strips possibly clean the laundry?

It’s fair to say that I have a bias against laundry strips and I’m not sure why. I’m not the only one who harbors prejudice against paperlike laundry detergent. The strips are flimsy, to begin with. This reviewer confesses “To be honest, I really doubted a 2-inch x 4-inch strip weighing under 3 grams would get the job done.” The problem isn’t just that they are delicate, it’s also that they are eco-friendly. An article for sanitation professionals quotes a property manager as saying “If it’s green I’m not interested. That green stuff doesn’t work. I want the good, strong stuff.” No less than the Harvard Business Review cites a study that demonstrates that “when people valued strength in a product—a car cleaner, say—they were less likely to choose sustainable options.” (1)

This looks like a product that will get the job done.

This looks like the top-ranked detergent that it is.

I could also get behind this.

Another highly ranked detergent.

And probably this, assuming it fits on the shelf and isn’t too leaky.

Same detergent, less plastic in the packaging.

Or even this. In fact, it’s in my closet, and I use it except not with cold water. (I can’t tell you why.)

A fairly well-ranked and environmentally friendly laundry detergent.

But this little cardboard envelope of 32 loads’ worth of strips? I keep reaching past them. Maybe I hate laundry so much that I don’t want to have to redo a load if the strip doesn’t work? I don’t know. For whatever reason, the well-intentioned gift sits in my closet unused.

Why am I so sure that these don’t work?

The thing is, I’m wrong. They do work. They may not be the most effective laundry detergent on the planet, but according to these impressively thorough detergent reviewers, they are in the “top third” of all detergents. Furthermore, I’m not even sure I could tell the difference between the top-ranked detergent and these. (The reviewers use an optical scanner or something to measure the differences in stain removal.) On the environmental side, the strips are clearly much more efficient to store and to ship, which means a nice reduction in transportation emissions.

What’s not to like? I don’t have an answer, and that bugs me.

In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter all that much which laundry detergent we use. But it does matter how we choose to get around, how we heat our homes, and what we choose to eat. If many of us are irrationally dismissive not only of laundry strips but of other “new” technologies like EVs, heat pumps, or plant-based “meat”, or even of low-tech energy savers like scooters or attic fans, then our transition to a sustainable economy is going to be much harder and slower than it needs to be. We should be embracing these unfamiliar ways of doing things. And that goes double for the professionals we interact with, like car salespeople, HVAC installers, restaurant proprietors, and electricians.

I’m going to try one of these strips next time I do the laundry, and with cold water no less. Ask me about it a week from now! In the meantime I’m curious if you have similar hangups, or have witnessed similar, and what you think is behind it.

Notes and References
1. They go on to add that “some men associate sustainability with femininity, leading them to avoid sustainable options” (like laundry strips), but I’m not sure how many of those men do laundry to begin with. After all, the paragon of masculinity, Jack Reacher, just throws out his clothes when they get dirty.

2. This is a review of some of the main eco-friendly laundry detergents.

3. Both WebMD and the Environmental Protection Agency have information about certifications for environmentally-friendly cleaners, but they focus more on health and safety than on emissions.

4. There is now a “platinum” version of these Tru-Earth laundry strips, “designed to fight the dirtiest clothes” and “perfect for stinky workout gear”. That has to be enough to get me over the hump…

Current Climate Data (January 2021)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

A map of February's weather...

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Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Mar 7, 2021 at 7:27 am

Bystander is a registered user.

Surely the test for a laundry product depends on how dirty the laundry is in the first place?

Unless someone is playing in the mud or getting really smelly from exercise most of our laundry today is lightly soiled. I rarely see greasy work clothes from car mechanics, or toddlers' clothes covered in spaghetti sauce and if any such items came into the house I could use a special treatment or a heavier duty detergent on those items or on a particular load.

I am not a laundry freak, but I do think we spend a lot of effort washing clothes that are not really very dirty. A towel that has been used to dry after showering can be hung and is fine for the next day and only needs to be changed weekly and a sweatshirt can be worn many times if it has been used only as an extra layer for warmth.

I think the best thing for the climate is to launder only when items really need them and to use the strongest detergents only when necessary. I would rather the products have less artificial ingredients for making clothes smell clean or fragrant than get rid of such rarely made stains on our clothes.

Now of course, those living with manual workers or a houseful of young children may need to do more laundry, but even then selective loads with different products might make most sense.

Posted by John Sack, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 7, 2021 at 7:50 am

John Sack is a registered user.

I looked at some of the linked articles, and I believe the conclusion was that these new products were significantly more expensive per load. I would say I'm willing to pay a premium, but a 25% premium is just a bit too high.

We know from experience with electric cars that prices have to be closer to comparable for broad market success. Of course, those are big ticket items so a 25% premium for an EV is thousands of dollars. Maybe it matters less for laundry products when we're talking about 13 cents/load premium!

We switched to using wool balls instead of fabric softener sheets and while those balls are cheaper (and much better for towels where you want the fabric to absorb more) they don't seem to help with static. Maybe a small price to pay.

I agree with @bystander that reducing the number of loads is probably the first line of environmental defense. If you can reduce loads by 25%, then the switch to the cleaning strips is a wash (pun intended) in terms of cost, and a win environmentally.

Posted by eileen , a resident of another community,
on Mar 7, 2021 at 3:52 pm

eileen is a registered user.

I use the laundry strips but today I gave in and purchased a small bottle of TIDE. The strips don't remove stubborn stains. Having said that, I also pretreated stains with extra detergent when I used TIDe He. Can't pretreat with the strips. But I sure like the extra room on my laundry area shelf.
As for the dryer balls, they are great! The penguin ones are particularly cute.

Posted by Jennifer, a resident of another community,
on Mar 7, 2021 at 5:43 pm

Jennifer is a registered user.

The "premium" for laundry strips is 50%, not 25%. Strips are 25% more expensive than TIDE PUR CLEAN. I'll stick to Tide and Downey. If you really want to save the environment (no more throw away plastic bottles) you can make your own laundry detergent. I've never done it (nor would I) but I always come across it when reading "saving money" articles.

Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Mar 8, 2021 at 11:02 am

Alan is a registered user.

Echoing "Bystander"'s comment - not washing things that don't need washing is the easiest and most cost effective way to cut down on detergent, energy, cost, effort. Of course - set your standards too low, and you end up stinking. On the other hand, if you become indistinguishable from the "good earth" around you, that's very environmental... ;)

Posted by Rachel G, a resident of Rex Manor,
on Mar 8, 2021 at 3:46 pm

Rachel G is a registered user.

Great point about irrational aversions, and it takes some self-awareness to recognize when this is influencing our behavior. Often it's a combination of rational and irrational aversions, I think. For example, I'm trying to eat fewer animal products. I'm still learning how to make unadulterated plant-based food more satisfying and I haven't quite gotten there. (Probably there are irrational factors contributing to whether certain foods are more or less satisfying.) At the same time, I have also been trying out the engineered foods such as the latest fake meat and fake egg products. The fake meat and eggs are pretty close to the real thing, although I have a small amount of irrational aversion to them -- I don't quite trust them and they seem slightly icky. But from a rational aversion perspective, they are also more expensive! The fake meat costs more than organic grass-fed ground beef. And the fake eggs cost more than eggs from pastured hens, purchased from the farmers market. So, like, more expensive than the expensive version of the real thing.

Maybe the fake meat and eggs and the laundry strips will come down in price if they get more popular? Gonna try the laundry strips soon.


Posted by maryanne peters, a resident of Mountain View,
on Mar 9, 2021 at 6:08 am

maryanne peters is a registered user.

we use old bars of ivory soap for our laundry. when they get thin, I take a vegetable peeler and make small shavings which I then toss into the washer.

my husband was a youth missionary and told me that in Central America, the villagers do their laundry by the riverbank and use rocks to pound the laundry clean.

he said it is very hard on softer cotton fabrics as his shirts wore out after a couple months or so of village washing.

he then adopted to dress like the villagers as the materials used in their clothing is much coarser, like canvas.

Posted by Elie Weisman, a resident of Professorville,
on Mar 9, 2021 at 8:09 am

Elie Weisman is a registered user.

Being elderly, I have a lady who stops by and does my machine washables at her house so the choice of detergent is no longer a problem or issue in my home.

Posted by Consider Your Options. , a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Mar 9, 2021 at 2:16 pm

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

Huh. I can't recall ever seeing these in the store. Where did you get them, Sherry? I'd be willing to try them.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Mar 9, 2021 at 2:51 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

I love all these comments, they really made me smile.

@Rachel, you are really getting at what this blog post is about, and I love your term for it, “irrational aversions”. There is no good reason why I won’t try these strips. They were a gift, so I didn’t even pay for them, and they are right with my other detergent. Is it because I hate doing laundry and worry I’ll “waste” a load with them? But why am I so skeptical about them to begin with?

In this case, laundry detergent, it doesn’t matter so much. The point is, when this concept of “irrational aversion” is generalized, either to something more important like food (as you write about), or to a more influential person, like a car salesman or an HVAC installer, then it becomes really problematic. These aversions slow down progress. How can we get more comfortable embracing new things? (BTW, coincidentally, I have the fake eggs in my refrigerator, have yet to open them, and my daughter made me swear that I would never serve her anything made with them. So even the new generation is susceptible.)

@Elie, imo you don’t get a pass just because you outsource your laundry. For example, you could let your laundry person know about this new product if it’s something you want to try. As a better example, if you want to eat more vegetarian but your favorite restaurant only has one veggie dish, your job is to say something and encourage them to offer more veggie options.

@Bystander and others made a great point about doing less laundry to begin with. YES!

To @maryann’s comment, doing less laundry would certainly be a lot more compelling if we were all doing laundry with rocks. An HVAC guy told me once that the appliance he dislikes most is the tankless water heater because it makes people so careless with their hot water use. It’s an interesting thing to think about.

@eileen, one of the articles I read said you can pretreat with the strips, you just have to dissolve one in a cup of water. (That said, imo stressing about what you use to pretreat laundry is not a good use of our mental energy.)

Several of you made a point that these cost more. Yes, and I should have mentioned it. But it isn’t material to the main point of the blog. (They were sitting on my shelf and I wasn’t using them.) But I’m sure the high cost affects which retailers bother to stock them, and so whether people see them to begin with.

@Consider, these were a gift, but you can buy them on Amazon (there are four kinds) and I’m sure many other places.

Anyway, thanks all for the very fun and insightful comments...

Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Mar 11, 2021 at 1:44 pm

Alan is a registered user.

I will plunk down one more thought about laundry detergent - and where it's meaningful. "Laundry to Landscape" greywater systems are very simple - effectively, people use the water dumped by their washing machine to water landscape plants. I believe it used to be illegal - different sorts of greywater, such as from the shower or dishwasher, can pose a health risk if completely untreated - but I believe washing machine water is considered safe out of the drain. A system can cost as little as $100 (basically, a pipe) - the one caveat is that the detergent should be biodegradable, and, ideally, low in sodium for long term use (you don't want salt building up in the soil). That may require a special detergent; but considerable water can be saved this way.

Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Mar 11, 2021 at 1:47 pm

Alan is a registered user.

Laundry to landscape system (good for a drought!)

Web Link

Posted by eileen , a resident of another community,
on Mar 12, 2021 at 9:15 pm

eileen is a registered user.

@Alan YEARS ago when we lived in Toronto, washing machines were equipped with an option to save and recycle the water into the next load of laundry. Double laundry sinks, essential for this, were common in homes. Saved water and detergent. Never gave it much thought at the time, just did it.

Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Mar 15, 2021 at 12:05 pm

Alan is a registered user.

@eileen - That's interesting; it is a sort of frugality that's rare these days. I suppose you just wouldn't recycle the water if the laundry was dirty enough. Although - with high efficiency machines - we might get a similar effect, as they use much less water per load (ideally - just exactly what you need for one load).

Posted by Cameron, a resident of another community,
on Mar 21, 2021 at 11:10 am

Cameron is a registered user.

Really excellent blog, and definitely an issue I struggle with in myself and with friends and family on a regular basis.

When ever someone close to me has their HVAC, water heater, or car break down, they know they're going to get “the talk" from me about how a climate friendly solution like solar, heat pumps, and EV's are more cost effective, convenient, and absolutely necessary if we're gonna slow down this whole climate change thing. But my success rate is soooo low, even if I have extremely convincing teaching tools like fun to drive EV's or black and white PG&E bills.

It seems like “big idea" changes are adopted in longer-than-generation timelines, which is just really unfortunate given the situation we're looking at on climate change. Is someone studying this phenomenon in academia, I wonder?

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Mar 21, 2021 at 8:57 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Cameron, I would love to learn more about approaches to dealing with this kind of hesitation or aversion. More generally, there is so much social science work needed to hit our goals but I don't find as much emphasis on that as I do on the physical sciences.

I do know that "people are doing/using x" seems to work. https://theweek.com/articles/792616/peer-pressure-help-solve-climate-change

"People are already essentially informed, a lot of people are politically not opposed to (climate action), a lot can financially afford it; so the question is, what's holding them back?" Sparkman says. "It could be that other (people's) inaction is pretty debilitating. Maybe when you see information about others mobilizing and starting to make a change, perhaps there's something about it that can be contagious. Our research suggests that can be the case."

Economists will also say that price makes a big difference. But if "cheaper" is a complicated story it gets harder. EVs are cheaper overall, but more expensive up front. Same with LED bulbs. Explaining why a $2500 rebate on a HPWH is a great deal and will save money, it's not an easy sell. But my electrician saying (as he did) "Boy, I am installing a lot of these heat pump water heaters" -- that may get peoples' attention because they don't want to miss out.

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