The Economics of the Laundry Line

If you are a dedicated environmentalist, but you still find yourself buying back your own time by using convenience foods and labour-saving devices, this is an article for you. I find myself making these choices almost every day: I currently have a frozen lasagna in the oven so that I can have back the 2 hours of not-cooking for writing and a swimming lesson. (A swimming lesson for me, not my children!) I also have a soup stock on the back burner, and a homemade squash and sweet potato soup waiting for the stock, so I’m not a purist either way. It’s a calculus of convenience. Today, the question is, “Is it worth it to hang out that load of laundry?”

I hear “saving money” as an argument for hanging out the clothes, but I don’t think that it is particularly convincing. Even if I hung a load every day, it would only save me about $240 over the course of the year. It would take me about 120 hours to save that money, working out to approximately $2 an hour. “Oho!” you may say, “But if you were completely faithful, you could give up the dryer entirely, and subtract that expense from your savings!” I know people who do that, even around here. So let us subtract the dryer as well… After my old cheap dryer destroyed about $400 worth of clothes by burning them, I decided to go for a fancy-schmancy set, so we can knock off $800 for the dryer. Spread that over 10 years, and add in a couple of hundred dollars for repairs. Now we can claim an extra $100 a year, bringing our hourly rate for hanging laundry to $2.67. This is after tax money, so it is the equivalent of “earning” about $4 an hour. It’s not completely ridiculous, since I do lots of other things “for free”, but it would make more economic sense to just ante up for the electricity and spend that time “making money”.

What is worse, I can only hang things out for fewer than half the days in the year… which means that one of the rooms inside my house would have to be converted to laundry hanging, since laundry is a daily task around here. I’m not even going to bother with the economics of adding in part of the house as an expense, because that just gets ridiculous. Suffice it to say, I don’t save enough money by hanging out my laundry for that to be the primary justification: I am doing this to give back to the earth, and I happen to enjoy hanging laundry, but the way things are currently priced makes it one of those tasks that I doubt, especially when my fingers go numb from the cold. I’m trying to find scalable solutions… that is, if something is actually the right thing to do, I’d like other people to do it too.

If the “saving money” argument is not going to convince most people, let me try the “saving carbon” argument instead. I hear that I generate an extra 1.7 kg of CO2 every time I run the dryer. At my house (where we share the laundry facilities with the family who lives next door) we are doing laundry for 9, which means at least one load every day. Let’s say 1-1/2 loads per day. If we could dry all of them on the line (which we can’t), we would save 930 kg of CO2 emissions in a year. My own calculations are a little different: The dryer is 5400 watts, and runs for just under an hour, using approximately 5.1 kWh. Since our electricity in NS is essentially coal, we generate close to a kg of CO2 for each kWh, or something like… 2800 kg per year. I don’t even know how to begin to figure out emissions made on behalf of the neighbours, so lets just discount those and say that my family’s emissions could be reduced by 2 tonnes just by hanging out the clothes. That’s not nothing. In fact, it’s something like 1/6 th of our total household power consumption, and we heat with electricity. That is starting to sound convincing.

And then, after I write a post about hanging out the laundry, I come home and see this:


On the plus side, the line was back up within 20 minutes. Nobody had to call a repair guy, and the only spare part we needed was a piece of rope from the garage.

BTW, the SolarPowered tag is an indication that the post was written on a laptop powered by the sun, not that the post itself is about solar power.

8 responses to “The Economics of the Laundry Line”

  1. What are you using for solar laptop power? I’m now spending enough time camping in the summers that a solar power source would be very useful.

  2. Another factor to count is the prolonged life of textiles that aren’t being constantly subjected to the rough and tumble of the dryer.

    We have racks inside that we use year-round, but we have a dryer too. Hopefully one of these years we’ll install an umbrella-style rack outside.

  3. Oh, this is so familiar! I like hanging my laundry out, I like the way laundry smells when it’s dried outside (even in the winter), I like to think I am saving money and saving the planet. But oh, the calculations! And hanging out cloth diapers when it’s minus 15 Celsius. Yup, I did that. Lots. Now I’m a working single mother with two teenaged athetes for whom to process laundry. I buy the quick drying soccer etc clothes – at least they don’t NEED to be dried in the dryer. But I have to wonder, what goes into manufacturing those technical fabrics, and who makes them and where?? You will drive yourself crazy with these calculations. I’ve finally decided I will do my best to find a balance for myself and for the planet, and practice “moderation in all things, including moderation” (thanks, Michelle for that great quote!)

  4. Too true. It’s astounding, if not a bit irritating that it cost more to eat healthy than it does to eat junk.

    Check out future of food. There was a family on there that was eating off the $1 menu at McD’s because they could get a meal for about what say a bell pepper would cost. Craziness.

    • That’s exactly the sort of economics I’m concerned about. It is almost impossible to attain a sustainable life without an incredible amount of self-sufficiency, since there is no parallel sustainable system in existence. There are a wide range of options that are “greener”, but sustainable is a binary situation: either you can keep doing it indefinitely, or you can’t. More on this in a soon-coming post, because it is the essence of what this whole blog has become about.