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Archive for August, 2010

Why is it that the folks who want us to air-dry our laundry (rather than tossing it in an energy-slurping machine) have their own movement? There are, for example, no equivalent advocacy groups telling us to inflate our car tires to the proper levels, or drive the speed limit. Those simple steps would arguably save much more energy, yet they just don’t generate the same passion.

Project Laundry List, with the sole mission of promoting the air-drying and cold-water washing of clothing, has even waged battle in the courts to protect the right of Americans everywhere to hang out their nighties. The result is that a number of states, including Maine, have Right to Dry laws prohibiting the passage of anti-clothesline regulations.

What is it about clotheslines that generates all this intense activity?

For starters, hanging the laundry is, for many of us, a truly delightful task. And, like all devotees of this or that, we are convinced that others would love it too, if they would only give it a chance.

What, afterall, could be more fun than pinning reds, oranges, and purples side by side against a summer sky? Air drying laundry is an excuse to step outside for a moment, engage in an enjoyably physical, but not overly onerous activity, save money, help the environment, and get the chores done all at the same time. This is something people can get excited about.

In contrast, dumping the clothes in the basement dryer, is just another random bit of time-slurping, money-slurping daily drudgery.

Of course there will be some particularly hard-hearted among us that will fail to be moved by the virtuous sunny glow emanating from air-dried clothes. For them, I must cite the facts.

Clothes dryers use more energy than any other appliance in a typical house, save the refrigerator and clothes washer. When the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant was supplying our grid, its full output would just meet the energy needed for everyone in the state to run their dryers at the same time. In the words of a friend, “Imagine that: we can dry our clothes with a nuclear power plant, or with the free energy already in our homes!”

In addition to using lots of electricity, the dryer also, in a sneaky back-handed sort of way, raises your winter heating bills. When dryers blow hot air out of your house, cold air is pulled in to replace it. The effect is the equivalent of leaving a window wide open for the entire time the dryer is running.

Speaking of winter, you can still air dry your clothes on a folding drying rack placed pretty much anywhere in your house. We hang our laundry in the basement near the oil burner. My parents hang laundry in their bedroom, which, they say, humidifies the dry, skin-cracking winter air so perfectly, that when they are all caught up on laundry they wet clean towels and hang them instead.

The average Mainer spends about $145 per year running the clothes dryer (assuming 5 loads per week dried in an electric dryer at a cost of $0.15 per kWh)–not a trivial amount of extra cash to have on hand at the end of the year. On top of that, dryers significantly shorten the longevity of clothing by stripping away fibers with every cycle, essentially nibbling fabrics to death.

But the passions stirred by laundry lines are not all positive. For many, laundry lines are not just unsightly, but they invoke the impoverished past in which folks hung out their laundry, for all to see, because they had no other choice. Clotheslines are a highly visible reminder of the harder, darker world from which our grandparents toiled their way out.

This anti-clothesline bias is so pervasive that laws prohibiting laundry lines (and often solar panels as well) appear as standard boilerplate content in many housing development contracts. That is, without anyone lifting a finger, or even necessarily caring about the issue, the default setting is to prohibit laundry lines.

As a culture we’re always balancing conflicts between individual rights and collective rights, otherwise known as the public good. We’re all familiar with discussions such as whether the right to play loud music infringes on the rights of neighbors to have peace.

But now we’re on slightly new ground. Does there exist some collective right to protect the climate? Might the environmental benefits of air drying laundry in the backyard, or installing solar panels on the roof, trump the rights of others to live in a community where these are not allowed?

The debate in the Maine legislature revolved around just these issues. On the one hand, it was argued, why shouldn’t someone be allowed to buy into a development that prohibits clotheslines? What gives the legislature the authority to tell a homeowners association that they can’t ban laundry lines?

The counter-arguments were largely environmental. Legislators focused on the pressing need for us to reduce our energy use. One legislator commented that our dirtiest power plants come on line only to meet peak electricity demand on the hottest summer days — something that might be avoided by allowing more people to line dry clothes and install solar panels.

Negative attitudes about clotheslines are cultural; only 4% of Italians own clothes dryers. There is nothing inherently noxious about clean laundry flapping in the breeze. It doesn’t stay up late singing show tunes, it doesn’t smell bad, it doesn’t blow onto your property like the fumey growl from a nearby lawn mower or the toxic mist from a pesticide application.

Drying clothes outside is also one of the tiny actions that keep us tied directly to the natural world. When it’s raining my laundry piles up. When it’s sunny, I put in a load before I sit down to breakfast and it’s ready to hang before I head out.

We sever these lines at our peril.

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