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A New Shade of Green

By Sherry Listgarten

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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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An Easy Emissions Win

Uploaded: Sep 22, 2019
The media had some excellent coverage of climate change this past week. I hope you were able to read some of it. Among my favorites were the Chronicle’s coverage of local issues and this graph-heavy article from Nature on our lack of meaningful progress to date (Europe is a bright spot). More and more of us are worried about global warming and are looking for ways to reduce our emissions. But it can be frustrating. Take buses. We know they are a great way to save on gas, but they just don’t work well around here except for certain commutes. Since I’ve been writing a lot about buses, I thought for this blog post I’d switch it up and write about something that is easy for any of us to do.

First, some background. If you look at the greenhouse gas emissions that come from the mid-peninsula, most come from transportation, but a big chunk also comes from natural gas use. This chart is for the City of Palo Alto, but I expect nearby cities like Mountain View and Menlo Park are similar. (1)

2018 Palo Alto greenhouse-gas emissions (source: Appx B of the 2019 Earth Day Report)

The natural gas we residents use is largely for space and water heating, with about two-thirds used for space heating and one-third for water heating (see residential uses marked with (R) below).

Natural gas use in Palo Alto buildings (source: page 25 of Palo Alto’s 2016 S/CAP)

Unfortunately, our per capita gas use is going up rather than down in recent years. This must go down, and soon, if we are to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. How do we do that?

Palo Alto’s per capita utility consumption, in therms (source: 2019 Earth Day Report)

The two main ways to reduce our home gas use are (a) install heaters that use less gas (e.g., heat pumps) and (b) use less heat. Installing heat pumps is not quite “easy” yet, and it typically requires significant up front investment. Switching to heat pumps is important, but not the topic for today. On the other hand, “use less heat” is something we can all do today. I’m not advocating cold showers, though! For this post, I want to talk laundry.

I like emissions savings that I can implement and forget about. Cold-water washing has been one of those for our household. I’ve always washed with warm or hot water because I remembered learning that it cleans better. But it turns out there are detergents formulated specifically for cold-water washing, and one of them (Tide) gets very high marks. So I switched about a year ago, and we haven’t looked back, even with a teen in the house! We don’t notice the difference, and a nice side-effect is that it’s easier on the clothes.

According to one article I read, only 37% of laundry loads in the US are run with cold water. I highly encourage you to try out cold-water washing if you are washing with warm or hot water.

This would be a short and sweet blog post except it occurred to me that this is a great opportunity to talk about how complicated emissions-lite shopping can be. Here is a concrete example, followed by some tips.

The bottle of detergent shown above is very big and plastic. Tide promises only that 25% is from recycled materials. And the bottle is awfully heavy. Doesn’t that require a lot of emissions to package and transport? Would powder be better? But powder doesn’t work well in cold water. What about a brand that is formulated with environmental concerns in mind? The cold-water detergent in the review I cited above (ECover Zero) doesn’t seem to get things very clean, at least according to that reviewer. So I thought I’d troll the aisles at nearby stores to see what I could find. It turns out there is a huge selection of “eco detergents” at Target, but none of them is formulated for cold water.

“Eco-friendly” detergent selection at Target in Mountain View

I read some labels but didn’t understand what I was reading, so decided to keep looking. I headed over to Whole Foods next since it is near the Target. They had a smaller selection of detergents, but again no cold-water option. However, I saw something interesting and left the store with a “free & clear” detergent in a pressed cardboard bottle.

Which is the better option? I have no idea. How do you compare an “eco-friendly” detergent for warm water with a less “eco-friendly” detergent made for cold water? (2)

On the plus side, the Seventh Generation detergent is reported to clean pretty well. A 2017 USA Today review says “In our testing, the company's Free and Clear detergent provided a comparable clean to conventional detergents.” It also comes out well in this more recent review of eco-friendly detergents, ranking first overall and third in terms of cleaning, only slightly below the top choice.

The Seventh Generation packaging is objectively better than Tide. Made of 70% recycled cardboard and 30% recycled newspaper, with a plastic liner, it closes the recycling loop and uses only one-third the plastic of the Tide bottle. Just as important, the detergent is concentrated, so this bottle cleans 66 loads with only 50 fl oz of detergent. The Tide bottle, on the other hand, cleans 59 loads with 92 fl oz of detergent. Seventh Generation ships half the product for the same use. It also uses more biodegradable and fewer petroleum-based ingredients.

But it’s not a cold water detergent. Which detergent is best? The emissions math here is beyond me. A meaningful price on carbon would help -- at least some of this would be reflected in the detergent's cost. Short of that, here are some tips:

- “Better” is fine. Don’t worry about finding the best option, if that even exists. If you are washing in warm or hot water with a standard detergent, either one of these is an emissions improvement and will do the job. Make the switch, pat yourself on the back, and move on to the next thing.

- Don’t over-use detergent. It is easy to use too much detergent, but it doesn’t get your clothes cleaner and in fact can make them dirtier since the bubbles can deposit dirt back onto the clothes. Right-sizing your detergent use means less overall impact.

- Do less laundry. Aren’t those magical words? If you can find ways to wash (and dry) less often, you will save yourself time while reducing your impact on the planet. If you do this, it matters even less which detergent you buy, and your clothes last longer.

As with so many other things when it comes to climate change, there is no “right way” to do laundry, but there are plenty of better ways. Make an improvement that works for you, stick with it, then look for something else to change. Laundry is not the most important change you can make (3), but it is something, and it is very doable, so give it a shot and notch an easy win.

Notes and References

1. It’s important to understand that we are responsible for many emissions that don’t happen right here in our cities. For example, our diet and air travel are substantial contributors to global warming, but they are not accounted for by our cities because the emissions do not occur right here. See this early blog post for a better understanding of emissions that we are responsible for, even when they occur elsewhere. These are often referred to as “consumption-based emissions”.

2. I don’t know which aspects of “eco-friendly” are most meaningful. According to USA Today, for example, “the harvesting and processing of some plant-based ingredients has a greater overall carbon footprint than traditional, petroleum-derived alternatives.” So for the purposes of this post, I focus mostly on packaging.

3. Yes, that is getting out of your gas-powered car (or carpooling). After that: eating less beef, flying less, and using less gas for heat. I cannot wait for this world of cleaner air, quieter skies, healthier people, and more efficient buildings!

4. You can find a review of many other “eco-friendly” laundry detergents here.

5. Consumer Reports suggests it is still a good idea to use hot water in some cases. “When a family member is sick, use hot water mixed with chlorine bleach to reduce bacteria in the bed linens and towels. The same goes for cleaning dirty cloth diapers, or other messes.”

Current Climate Data (August 2019)

Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

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Posted by bedding, a resident of Blossom Valley,
on Sep 22, 2019 at 8:41 am

Did I miss a chart that shows how much energy goes into laundry?

I'm all for getting 'easy wins' in simple everyday reductions (just economically good sense) but this seems like we've drilled down past some more significant layers.

11% for water heating (r) - how much is for laundry?

fwiw - I've only recently started using warm water again for certain items (bedding, occasionally.)

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Sep 22, 2019 at 9:06 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@bedding. Thanks for the comment! To be clear, hot water represents about 1/3 of residential gas use, with the other 2/3 being space heating. Heat pumps are the best way to reduce your gas use, because they work invisibly, but short of that, using less is the way to go. Laundry is one of the ways to do that.

I don't have a chart showing the amount of energy that goes into laundry because that wasn't really the point, plus it depends on a lot of things. FWIW, nearly all of the energy for washing goes into heating the water, but more energy overall goes into drying, though it's often electric which is cleaner. (Ed note: Since gas dryers are much more efficient, they may well have lower emissions. So ignore "cleaner" for now.) Using cold water to wash is a lot easier than hanging up your clothes to dry, so I am writing about that for an easy win. Doing less laundry is bigger and arguably even easier, so I'd love to hear what works for people on that.

The larger point is that we should make big and small changes, and there is no reason not to make small and easy changes like this one, as long as you are looking at big changes as well. That's my 2c anyway...

Posted by bedding, a resident of Blossom Valley,
on Sep 22, 2019 at 8:49 pm

Thanks. Agreed with taking the W where you can get it (the easy changes, low hanging fruit, etc..)

> but more energy overall goes into drying, though it's often electric which is cleaner.

Not that we often have a choice - renters do not. Homeowners only have a choice when they replace.

Is it cleaner though? I always assumed gas drying was cheaper, but never did the math. More climate friendly?

Posted by MP Resident, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Sep 23, 2019 at 7:23 am

I'd really like to see clearer evidence on your assertions about heating.

Heating mostly happens on cool, cloudy days where solar production is lower.

This means you need to compare the marginal power (which is likely from gas), not the overall power mix. Can you show that electrically powering a heart pump by burning gas and dealing with generation losses (modern combined cycle plants are 60% efficient), transmission losses, distribution losses, etc is actually better than just burning the gas (modern furnaces are easily >90% efficient) for heat (and some newer designs are >95%)?

Or can you show that the marginal power mix is something better than gas?

For that matter, if a home that was not previously air conditioned goes to a heat pump which doubles as an A/C, how does that impact the overall picture?

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Sep 23, 2019 at 11:06 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Great, great questions.

@bedding. On the dryers, I was talking about emissions, but I think I may be wrong. Electric may not be cleaner (lower-emission) for dryers yet, even in California. I’ll have to do some research. I’ll update that comment for now from the post. Thanks!

@MP Resident. I think you are asking about heat pumps? That will be a whole blog post. One thing to keep in mind, which is weird, is that they generate more energy than they consume (by pulling it out of the air). So a modern condensing boiler might be 95% efficient, which seems almost unbeatable until you look at a heat pump that is 300% efficient. But I don’t know what they achieve in practice in this area yet. I’ll try to get real-world data when I do the post.

Very interesting question about whether heat pumps are creating new demand for A/C vs replacing existing AC. And, yeah, the grid is not as clean in fall and winter, when the days are shorter. Efficient seasonal storage is going to make someone a lot of money… The gas distribution system (to get gas to your house) is leaky, but modern gas turbines in power plants are only 60% efficient... To your point, a thorough analysis of heat pumps would include all of this. My head hurts just thinking about it. You may not find something that thorough in this blog, but we'll see what I can find.

Thanks for the great comments.

Posted by Fr0hickey, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Sep 23, 2019 at 11:30 am

Fr0hickey is a registered user.

From your chart of energy usage:
Water Heating commercial 24%
Space Heating residential 22%
Space Heating commercial 18%
Cooking commercial 16%
Water Heating residential 11% <--

I think you are solving for 11% and instead of working on the higher impact uses. How about banning Cooking commercial/restaurants? That's 16% right there. How about all the food trucks that cook and drive all over town? That is a lot of energy/green house gasses used.

Posted by Ben, a resident of Greenmeadow,
on Sep 23, 2019 at 12:43 pm

Ben is a registered user.

Hi Sherry,

Thanks for another interesting and thoughtful post. I have also been only using cold water for laundry for some years. The detergent I'm now using is Cadia Free and Clear, which I recommend. I buy it at Piazza's Market.

Plant based
100 oz does 100 loads
For cold water
No animal testing
Plastic container is 50% post consumer recylcled material

No kids in the house to really challenge the detergent, but it cleans well.

Posted by Jake, a resident of Downtown North,
on Sep 23, 2019 at 4:45 pm

@Ben, just googled your recommendation and appears not to be as green as advertised as EWG gives it a F:

Web Link

We use Ecos from Costco and looks like they get a C overall. Now just need to switch to cold water. However, one thing to mention is when we lived in a former house, we had an electric dryer and had solar on the roof, which means during middle of the day the dryer was just an indirect way of using an old fashioned clothes line!

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Sep 24, 2019 at 10:38 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@fr0 -- Yeah, I was only referring to residential use. I am not supposing that a lot of commercial businesses read my blog, but who knows! There are certainly opportunities on the commercial side as well, and it looks like Palo Alto has an incentive program…

@Jake -- Midday electric drying with solar panels -- that’s pretty good! I hope you try cold water and see how it goes. The rating site you shared is interesting. The Tide gets a “low concern” on environment, while the Seventh Generation gets a “moderate concern”! From what I can tell, they are not including emissions impacts (e.g., packaging). And then how would you compare those impacts with the other things EWG measures? These ratings are a tricky business…

BTW, I see that Tide is investing in new packaging with more concentrated detergent. Not yet for the cold water version, but that seems like good progress.

All, thanks for the comments.

Posted by Dave, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park,
on Sep 25, 2019 at 6:28 pm

After two extended wilderness expeditions, I came to understand the foolishness of wearing fresh clothes every day.

I wash clothes on a schedule of maybe once every two or three months �" in cold water and using a Whole Foods 365 detergent. I have never come close to using my allotted amount of water per month, and in some months my bill showed zero CCFs. (Cal Water's system didn't know how to address water usage below 1 CCF.)

Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 26, 2019 at 11:14 pm

A bit of special pleading here. Tide Coldwater may indeed work better for cold water washing than others, but, assuming it still smells like other Tide, it smells bad to me. For those of us who find the smell of Tide, Gain, and Wisk actually nauseating, unscented products are far superior. I tend to use All Free and Clear, and, it works well in cold water washing. I can add that, generally, front-loader washers problems have been solved. Front loaders can be very efficient compared to tub washers and work well with the new concentrated detergents even with cold water only. Water efficient -and- clean better than old tub style washers. I'll try Seventh Generation Concentrated Free and Clear if I can find the concentrated version (required by new front-loading washers).

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Sep 27, 2019 at 6:41 pm

These bold statements about what to do about climate change strike me
as being bossy and condescending. Not saying you are intentionally doing
this, it is just how to strikes me by the tone and words used. The global
warming problem is not the USA. We are heading naturally in the right direction
and lowering our emissions, which I am certainly not against. What is going
to tip the scale is the stories and protests at the national level to change our

The wins are in major changes countrywide not in these minute personal
changes. When we sidetrack our efforts like this we get a lot of people
who want to do good doing things like recycling or driving less and taking
their bikes, and we focus on their (hate this term, but) "virtue signaling"
and the bickering that comes about that adds to the culture wars, but
it does not really accomplish anything significant. For example, recycling
is good, but now everyone pretty much recycles a little bit, but industry
eschews the use of the recycled materials. Perhaps the thing to do would
be to boycott companies that mine new materials and send them a message
that consumers demand that they begin to hook themselves into the
recycled loop. You have to institutionalize new behaviors and that is
never easy, even when you have a superior idea. People are finicky.

The suggestion of switching from gas to electricity is right-headed but
insignificant. Using broad concepts to promote individual changes in
behavior practically does very little and can delude people into thinking
they are making a difference. Wanna make a difference go to China and
protest coal burning power plants. Wanna make a difference, challenge
what you think you know and try to look at and read as much about what
studies of different power generations methods really say, for example,
check out nuclear again and try to restrain your prejudices and keep and
open mind.

Like the mention of the heat pump technology. I want to know more about
that and learn what products are available ... this has the potential to
make a huge dent in energy usage.

For example, if all the people who read this instead of changing over from
gas to electricity were to become political involved and write letters and
make calls to their political representatives, and vote for the right candidates
I think it would make a bigger differences. The differences is that I am
not claiming I know the truth, I am expressing an opinion, which is what is
here on this article, but presented as fact.

The prevalence of gas cooking in commercial establishments tells us
something ... like gas is a superior option for cooking for most situations.
What SIGNIFICANT difference does it make if the gas is burned in a remote
power plant, or in our own kitchens since the pollutants released are almost
all CO2 and water.

I agree with cold water washing, if enough people did that it could be a
measurable gain ... but globally still almost insignificant. But, over time
we will be naturally moving to these new methods. I used to use warm
water as well, but in the last 20 years or so I have had so little problems
with clothes washing ... detergents are much better these days they can
get out almost any stain. Still, pushing that forward a few years is not a big
deal. Write your government representative and suggest that they find ways
to influence China and India to cut down on coal use ... now, that would make
a huge difference.

One thing I notice is that the waste of energy and water when one used hot
water. It takes almost a minute for the hot water to appear at my kitchen faucet
when I want to wash my hands or do the dishes. I noticed in the new Edgewood
Market restroom they have a quick on-location, under the sink, water heater,
that heats water instantaneously saving both energy and water. Now, does the
energy involved in the production of such a device make the usage of such a
device a win or a loss or mostly insignificant? I don't know, but i do like the idea.
If we found out that we save water and power by putting point of use heaters
in every kitchen and bathroom in our houses ... why not put that in the building
code? The thing is we cannot just assume these technologies are big wins
for the sake of helping people feel good.

All the virtuous people doing the right thing simply creates a backlash against
"political correctness" and allows the clueless to continue their profligate ways.

Finally, I just think it would be a lot more effective to ask, dream, push, coerce
people to learn to be polite and positive when they discuss issues, and to shut
down trolls, and people who try to run discussions off-track. Problems almost
always resolve down to human cultural and social issues, and we have a situation
now between people and in the media where real information and good examples
of debate rarely get publicized. Model good behavior and reward it, put the
incentives right, and people will generally do the right thing. Trying to run against
the wind is a waste of energy and a provocation for argument and division.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Sep 27, 2019 at 8:53 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@dave. Hmm. I guess I won’t ask about your showering :) That is kind of incredible about your water use, though.

@CPA. Ha, I read your comment about “bossy and condescending” to my teenage daughter, and she vehemently agreed with you, though she did add “But not your blog, Mom”. At any rate, I could not agree more about the importance of policy and voting. Is there a blog topic in there? Same with the need for positive and constructive discourse that you mention. It is so important. I was reading an Economist article about the climate future the other day, and it said that despite all the uncertainties around the science, the biggest uncertainty is around the people and how they will respond. I agree.

Posted by Luma, a resident of Ventura,
on Sep 28, 2019 at 7:19 am

Good on ya, Sherry for taking on other opinion and even the loose representation of fact. As opposed to Dougie, who censors and even vanishes posts that spanked him on his falsehoods and hiding behind specious fallacies.

Removing the list of top ten warmest years because it destroyed his Appeal to Authority argument? Silly. But it's his sandbox.

It makes your blog much more enjoyable. And the numbers support your blogs.

Posted by OutOfProportion, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Sep 28, 2019 at 9:27 am

Dear Ms Lustgarten,

While you were writing your article and doing all this research about our little Palo Alto, any same-size city in CHINA has blown out 20 x the gases, garbage, and sewage.

Maybe your energy would be spent better if you focus it on the main polluters in the world, not people who already avoid showers during draughts and refuse turning on their A/C in heat waves.

And while you're at it, take the boy with you who wanted to collect the great ocean garbage patch the other day and show him the streams of plastic bottles running down the creeks of Southeast Asia!

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Sep 28, 2019 at 10:16 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

For people who advocate that we focus on China rather than ourselves, please include references to your claims (e.g., I don't believe the 20x). Check out this comment for some relevant data.

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Sep 29, 2019 at 4:06 am

Sherry, I happened to notice the previous comment.

You used those reference charts in a reply to my comment on the US use of
fossil fuels, to argue against me on this issue, but apparently you are still not
taking into account what "per capita" means. Per Capita, meaning for each
person, In relation to each person taken individually.

Yes, the per-capita emissions of the US are greater than China, but China has
almost 4 times the number of people the US does, and their use of fossil fuels
in increasing. The rest of the charts do not seem to say what you think they

I stand by my comment earlier that the US could completely disappear, go
away or shut down and global greenhouse gas production would not
substantially be reduced from the dangerous levels it is at now.

Also, the arguments about the past production of greenhouse gas deserves
discussion and some qualification. What is says to me is that the US has
legacy greenhouse gas production going back centuries, but that chart is an
estimate and also does not really tell the full story. Honestly it seems to say
that the US has a responsibility to help with or to offset the CO2 production
of the developed world coming online - but these are GLOBAL concerns and
negotiations. Have you seen what China is doing to its environment and its
people? Is there any discussion of global warming or greenhouse gases in
China, and the people of China protesting their government's use of greenhouse
gases. That is really more than half the problem, and of course we still have
to take into account Indian and Brazil and what is going on in Africa.

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Sep 29, 2019 at 4:10 am

Hope I am wrong but it looks as through you might have deleted my replies to that other comment?
Is that correct?

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Sep 29, 2019 at 7:47 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@CPA: I did not delete any of your replies. I mainly delete just spam (people trying to sell random things), and I double-checked the record of deletions and didn't see anything. Maybe "submit" didn't work or something?

Also, I agree, this problem is vexing because there's no one thing that will fix it, and no one country that can fix it. We all have to get our acts together, and ideally work together on that. Even when you see charts of the "top ten" countries wrt emissions, there is a fat long tail that contributes a large amount.

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Sep 29, 2019 at 8:27 am

No one thing will fix it .... true ... but ONLY BIG GLOBAL AGREEMENTS AND ACTIONS WILL FIX IT.
Everything else, at least to my way of thinking, is a waste of time and a distraction, and in some cases
when exaggerations or white lies to promote one position or the other are used the whole framework
for rational discussion goes up in smoke and nothing can be done due to paralysis of no way to do
any analysis. This is what every subject has turned into now on the Internet, because there is simply
the predominance of words, and anyone can say anything and liars are legion now because it is the
main thing that gets clicks.

As a sidebar, this and the inability of any big problem to even be approached democratically are
byproducts of making everything about profit, and the end result of massive inequality.

I do recall a reply somewhere that I remarked on your misinterpreting the "per capita" numbers
as absolutes ... big difference there. Also mentioning that Richard Muller's book was published in
2013, to which you replied further. Maybe it was on another blog post. It is also not so straightforward
to call out the history of carbon production going back to the 1700's? At least without some kind
of discussion or qualification. We look at that entirely differently than China and India and economies
just coming online today.

I think you really need to come to terms with or rebut the interpretation of those per capita numbers
and how they change the complexion of this issue.

Anyway, I appreciate that your policy is not to delete relevant posts and hope that my comments
as such would stand. Thanks.

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