100_30411Like all mothers when I was a child, my mom used to hang our laundry on a clothesline.  In the summer, spring, autumn, or winter brightly colored clothes could be seen dancing in the breeze on a windy day. My sister and I would play badminton over the clothesline full of clothes.  It was quite challenging as you could not see your opponent and you never knew quite where the shuttlecock was going.  We spent many a summer evening playing clothesline badminton.


 In those days there was no stigma to having a piece of rope stretched between two trees or posts with laundry drying in the back yard.  No one even thought for a moment that it would devalue their property. 


One of my first observations into the scientific world was related to our family’s laundry drying practices during the winter months.  My mom would trek outside in her winter coat and attach the wet laundry to the stiff clothesline in subfreezing temperatures.  When it was below zero the clothes would be frozen as stiff as a board within a half an hour.  At about age seven I noticed that the next day the clothes would be flapping on the clothesline, no longer rigid and icy.  I wondered, how could ice thaw and the water disappear in such cold temperatures? I asked a neighbor who worked at a chemical factory and he told me about sublimation.  This process allows frozen water to turn to gas without going through a liquid state.  The very cold air is so dry that it can accept tiny water particles in the form of ice.  What a great way to dry clothes!


To this day our family dries our clothes on a clothesline, although we often use a wooden clothes rack in the winter months because it is a way of adding moisture to the air in our dry, wood heated, home.


Drying clothes without the use of an electric or gas clothes dryer is one of the “greenest” activities and individual or family can do to combat global warming.  The federal government tells us that one of the single largest uses of energy in the home is for drying clothes.  Somewhere between 6% and 15% (depending upon which source you believe) of a family’s carbon footprint could be reduced by switching to this natural clothes drying method.  Think about it!  With one simple change we can individually reduce our carbon footprint by up to nearly one sixth!

If everyone in the “developed” world could take this action, imagine the positive environmental results.  It really is something that each person can do without government action.


There are great benefits as well; great smelling clothes (and fewer chemicals to make them smell better in a dryer), clothes last longer because driers actually wear fabrics with all that tumbling (lint comes from the wear and tear to the fabric), far few house fires (as many as 15,00 fewer structure fires in the US alone), sunlight naturally disinfects and bleaches clothes (which means, again, fewer chemicals in our water supply and our fabrics), and finally, bright beautiful back yards!


It is interesting to note that many consider clotheslines a sign of poverty, or a lower class neighborhood.  Thousands of homeowners associations actually prohibit the use of outside clothes lines for “the benefit of the neighborhood and property values”.  This is why several states have either passed or are considering bans on such prohibitions.  Vermont has recently passed such a law, and Maine and Colorado are considering similar legislation.  Personally I hope bans on outdoor clothes drying go in the same direction as cigarette smoking in public places.  With enough pressure from groups like Laundry List it is hoped that we call all enjoy the pleasure and freedom of the outdoor clothesline. 


There are many ways individuals can immediately reduce their individual carbon footprint.  Some are very expensive, like changing the car you drive, but others, like using an outdoor clothesline and turning off the dryer actually save us money.  Other cheap, environmentally friendly ways to save the planet include switching all your light bulbs to energy efficient lighting, changing lawns to gardens and mowing less frequently, buying local food products, and doing regular maintenance to our automobiles, including checking tire pressure.


The real issue here is our personal involvement with keeping our planet green.  It would be nice if in 50 years we could be seen as the generation that woke up and changed all of our bad environmental habits.  It would be real nice if our grandchildren had a nice, clean, natural place to live.  It would be fabulous if we could learn to live in a way that harmonized with all living and nonliving entities on the earth.


Alternatively, it would be terrible if 50 years from now people remembered us as a lazy generation that was willing to wreak havoc on the natural world because we preferred to drive our SUV’s, wouldn’t use energy efficient lights, and refused to dry our clothes in the great outdoors even when we knew the disastrous environmental impacts.  What a silly and horrendous legacy that would be.


Besides, wouldn’t a nice, summer evening of clothesline badminton be a lot of fun?


Written for in June 2009.

  • Doug Mcilvain

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