Cleaner by degrees
Jane Turner investigates the environmental performance of washing machines and finds that green machines don't always mean clean companies.
The washing machine has become one of the many home appliances we don’t want to live without – 96% of UK homes now own one. We make them work hard too, putting them through an average of 220 standard wash cycles each year and using thousands of litres of water and lots of energy.
Competition in the marketplace is intensifying, with big suppliers from the Far East, like Samsung, Panasonic, Haier and LG, putting pressure on established European brands. The Italian Indesit brand, which includes Hotpoint, sells nearly three times more than their nearest rival Beko, a Turkish company, which competes on price. These are followed by the German Bosch and Siemens brands. These five brands account for 60% of all washing machine sales in the UK.
In 2005, 13.6 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity was used by all the washing machines, tumble dryers, washer-dryers, and dishwashers in the UK. By 2009, energy consumption by those appliances had risen by 4% to 14. TWh. Given the trends and existing policies, this figure is now expected to keep rising and reach 15.7 TWh by 2020.
Nonetheless, technology is making new models more efficient. Between 1990 and 2011, the energy efficiency of washing machines improved by 31%.
Sales of larger washing machines are increasing. Bigger drum sizes and higher overall energy-efficiency ratings could help to reduce the energy we use washing clothes – if people respond by washing larger loads, less frequently. The danger is that better efficiency could be undermined by machines running with small loads in them just as often as the previous smaller machines. On the other hand, people are washing at lower temperatures, which can use up to 40% less energy than high temperatures.
The carbon footprint of a load of laundry
The lowest footprint is 600g CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) for laundry washed at 30°C and dried on the line. Wash at 40°C and that rises to 700g. So there is a simple saving of 100g of CO2e per wash if you turn the temperature down to 30°C.
If you use a tumble dryer it more than triples the impact – 2400g CO2e – which is why we have chosen not to include washer dryers or tumble dryers in this guide. More than two thirds of the carbon footprint comes from using a tumble dryer.
Alternatively a clothes horse and a washing line are the truly zero-carbon option if you have the space, although it can be difficult drying clothes in a damp climate.
Which? Energy Saver logo
To highlight their Best Buys that are the most energy efficient, Which? awarded their Energy Saver logo to the 20% that use the least energy. Their pick of the best energy saving models were from: ISE, Miele, Bosch, and Hotpoint. It should be noted that Which? did not review all the manufacturers on our score table.
Out with the old?
The manufacture and delivery of an appliance accounts for 10% of the total carbon footprint of each wash. So if switching from your old machine to a new A+++ model gains you around 10% in energy efficiency then that’s just enough to make up for the emissions needed to make your new machine. It’s probably not worth it unless the efficiency savings are much greater than 10%. Compare their annual energy consumption – the figure in kWh/yr on the Energy Label.
Less is more
Do you need to wash your clothes so often? There is a sensible trade-off between smelly clothes and washing things unnecessarily often. You can minimise unnecessary washing by hanging up clothes to air after wearing them. Reducing the number of washes you do not only saves energy but also time. A lower carbon life has many advantages.
Human-powered washing machines
We surveyed our online readers and found that not one of the responses was from someone who said they live without a washing machine. Fridge, yes but washing machine, no. The drudgery of wash day trumps carbon footprint every time.
However, if you do want to do your bit to use your washing machine less, there are a couple of lower carbon alternatives that are a half-way house between a machine and handwashing.
The Laundry POD uses less than six litres of water and zero electricity. It’s basically like a large salad spinner which you manually operate. You fill with water and drain it via a hose into your sink. The washing process takes about half an hour but clothes come out dripping wet and it can only take small loads. The Laundry POD is heavily marketed toward people who don’t have easy access to a washing machine or for camping trips. It sells for $99.95 (about £60) from www.thelaundrypod.com
It’s an interesting idea but we can’t really see why a plastic salad spinner is needed when you can get the same results from handwashing in the sink.
There are loads of pedal-powered washing machines that use leg power rather than arm power. They are advertised as “Great for camping and caravan holidays, or for small loads at home”. Other models, like the GiraDora, are advertised as being useful in poorer countries and where there is little or no access to electricity. The fact that it is pedal powered means that it leaves your hands free for other tasks.
You can buy one such machine for £60 from Nigel’s Eco Store. There are videos on Youtube about these machines and how to make your own, such as the SpinCycle, a device you can attach to a bicycle.
Heating the water is the most energy-intensive part of the washing process, using 85-90% of the total energy used by a washing machine.
If your machine has a hot fill you can use your low carbon, gas condensing boiler to fill the machines or your solar-heated water supply. But very few companies now make ‘hot fill’ machines. The water has to be heated in the machine by electricity. It is not advised to connect your hot water supply to the cold fill.
Most manufacturers say that because modern washing machines hardly use any water for washing, a hot water fill would hardly fetch much hot water from the customer’s hot water supply in cases where the water is supplied from a hot water tank or with a long run from the boiler because it cools in the pipework and often takes a while to run hot. Plus, people are washing at lower temperatures. However, removing the hot water fill also means that the machine is cheaper to make for the manufacturer.
The ISE W288eco washing machine has hot and cold fill (but only uses cold fill at 30°C washes). But beware, it costs about £1,000! Which? said it has a noisy spin and is very expensive but they praised it for its energy efficiency and its 10 year parts and labour warranty which comes as standard. Its life expectancy is 20 years and it is A++ rated.
Which? found that the best washing machines use about 33 litres of water per wash cycle whilst the worst use 72 litres. If you use the standard 40°C washing programme four times a week for a year, filling the drum to 80% capacity, the difference in water used amounts to 7,967 litres of water. That’s nearly enough water to fill 100 baths.
Look on the Energy Label for the water consumption data. That data is not included in the rating – the best and worst machines above are both A++ rated.
Different washing machine programmes also use varying amounts of water. The average 40°C cotton programme uses approximately 10 litres per kilogram of washing, while the equivalent 40°C synthetics programme is less efficient, using nearly 16 litres per kilogram.
Other ways to save water are to always wash full loads and not use the extra rinse.
Drum sizes available range from 5.5kg capacity to 11kg but as a machine runs most efficiently when full, it’s worth assessing what capacity you will actually use.
Picking a drum size that best suits your needs will ensure no energy or water is wasted. A 6-7kg washing machine will normally be sufficient for a couple, a 7-8kg for a family of four and a 9kg or above for the larger family.
Nanotechnology in home appliances
There are washing machines and fridges on the market that use nanotechnology to kill bacteria and fungi. Silver nano antibacterial technology was introduced by Samsung in April 2003. In fridges, it is used to line the inner surfaces. In washing machines, it is released into the washing water.
Samsung, LG and Daewoo make washing machines and fridges with silver nano. We could not find any Samsung or Daewoo ones on sale in the UK but LG UK lists 44 refrigerators that use its ‘Bioshield’ silver nano technology.
Friends of the Earth wants products containing nano silver to be banned until their safety has been proved. It has asked consumers not to buy washing machines that use silver nanoparticles claiming that considerable amounts of silver could enter sewage plants and seriously trouble the biological purification process of waste water. It is also claimed that silver nanoparticles have a toxic effect on different kinds of living cells.
Concern over its toxicity resulted in the US EPA’s decision to regulate nano silver as a pesticide and the temporary withdrawal of Samsung’s “Nano Silver” washing machine from sale in Sweden.
Samsung countered that only an accumulated amount of 0.05 grams of silver is released per machine, per year, while the released silver-ions quickly bind to non-nano-sized structures in the water. This then raises the question of what structures Samsung thinks these nanoparticles will bind to that they will not later come into contact with marine life.
Panasonic operates in a wide variety of sectors producing consumer goods, including owning 51% of Sanyo, but also selling to other businesses (including the aviation sector) and the military.
The company was recently in the news when a worker from a plant in China suffered from aplastic anaemia after working in a toxic environment.
Campaigners Good Electronics reported that a man whose job “involved handling toxic chemicals such as benzene, toluene and xylene” fell ill but the company refused to accept that he was suffering from an occupational disease.
According to campaigners:
“He was told to continue painting DVD cases until further tests revealed that his platelet count was dangerously low; so low in fact that a minor bump could have triggered a fatal brain or visceral haemorrhage. At that point was he hospitalised with severe aplastic anaemia.”
See detailed company information, ethical ratings and issues for all companies mentioned in this guide, by clicking on a brand name in the Score table.
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1 How Bad are Bananas? By Mike Berners-Lee, Profile Books 2010
2 How to Live a Low-Carbon Life by Chris Goodall, Earthscan 2010
3 The Guardian: Eco appliances: energy-saving hints for washing machines, 29th April 2014
4 Mintel Washers and Dryers - UK - June 2013
5 The elephant in the living room: how our appliances and gadgets are trampling the green dream, Energy Saving Trust, September 2011
6 Good Electronics, 14th May 2014
This product guide is part of a Special Report on Home Appliances. See what's in the rest of the report.