Friday, February 01, 2008

Basket case

Six weeks ago the washing machine broke. To a family that processes one load of dirty washing and sometimes two almost day of the week, this was quite an inconvenience, especially as a call to Indesit established the repairman couldn’t come for a fortnight. When small mountains of washing started appearing throughout the house, I braced myself to brave the launderette. Did they still exist outside of Eastenders? I was reliably informed there’s a good one opposite the chippy in Carnforth. Perfect.

I took six huge bin bags of washing. Lugging them into the launderette gave me backache, but otherwise it wasn’t an unpleasant experience. I loaded up three big washers, bunged in nine quid and a bit of powder, and sloped off for coffee at a local cafe. Half an hour later it was all over and I bought chips to surprise the family with on my triumphant return home as the whiter, brighter Washing Queen of Carnforth.

The washing machine man showed up after two weeks and diagnosed the fault but didn’t have the right part to repair it. After he left I assessed the overflowing washing basket and decided it was time for another chip and laundry run. But here’s the thing. This time I went with less washing.

On Christmas Eve he showed up with the right part. But it was faulty. So in the new year I was back to the laundrette. But my six bags had now become two. As the weeks progressed the sheer effort of lugging loads of laundry in the winter weather from house to launderette and back again discouraged unnecessary washing and drying. The Carbonbaby was able to wear her skirt three days on the run if I prevented her from smearing jelly and ice cream into the denim fabric. I began inspecting the Carboncopies clothes to see if they could be recycled for another day. I employed Carbonlite’s legendary sniff test on his clothes, (much to his delight,) and put them back in the wardrobe if they passed. Everything from tea towels to sheets started to have a longer shelf life. As a result the laundry decreased by about a third and I rediscovered a life without being chained to the washing machine. I had more free time, and I didn’t need Carbonlite to point out the maths; we saved money on electricity and washing powder, but more importantly the planet benefited from my reduced use of my domestic machine.

But why did it take a defunct washing machine to change my habits? I’ve been trying to be environmentally conscious for the last two years so why hadn’t I tackled this issue before now? The simple answer is the washing machine is too convenient to resist. If loading the machine was as difficult as in my mother’s day where the unreliable twin tub blocked the kitchen for the day, with it’s overflow pipes filling the sink and everyone sweating over the steaming piles of laundry, then I might think again about dropping clean washing into the laundry basket. On a trip to Samoa a few years ago we discovered room service laundry meant the maids took the washing down to the river and beat it with sticks. If this was our only method of doing the laundry, I suspect we might wear our socks for one more day.

I tried to research just how ungreen our washing habit is. But the facts weren’t easy to find. The best estimate I found was that about £800 million of electricity is needed to pass 500 billion litres of water through UK washing machines, tumbledryers and dishwashers every year. 90% of UK households have a washing machine and each one averages 274 cycles a year, (so Im not alone in my daily wash) with each cycle using 50–120 litres of water (14% of household water use). But the main figure I was after was carbon emissions. Assuming the lifespan of an average washing machine is 11 years, apparently 1.6 pounds of carbon dioxide are emitted for every kWh of energy consumed. If that sounds a lot, that’s because it is.

The man from Indesit eventually returned with a part that worked. He was overjoyed to sort us out; more happy than I was. The white dalek in the corner of the utilities room sprang into life, exterminating stains and nasty niffs as efficiently as ever. The Carboncopies miss the chips. I miss coffee time in Carnforth. But laundry rationing and sniff tests continue.