Water and electricity use cause the biggest environmental impacts from washing machines.

Photograph by Gabi Moisa/Shutterstock

Environmental Impact

Water Issues

Washing machines are second only to toilets as the largest water users in the home, accounting for 14 percent of household water use. Household water consumption has a significant impact on aquatic life, especially when water supplies come from freshwater lakes and streams. The Rio Grande, recently named one of the World Wildlife Fund's Top 10 Rivers at Risk, has been so overextracted that saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico has begun moving upstream and endangering native species. So far, 32 of the river's 121 native species have been displaced as a result of increased salinity.

Just like the Rio Grande, city water supplies are succumbing to saltwater intrusion, which occurs when increased pumping of groundwater allows saltwater pools to infiltrate freshwater supplies, making water unfit for human use. In response, cities are installing energy-intensive desalination plants, which require more fossil-fuel-derived power that, in turn, contributes to global warming. To date, desalination plants can be found in a few states and several countries.

Energy Issues

Keeping washing machines running also requires a great deal of fossil-fuel-supplied energy that, in turn, emits about 160 pounds of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO₂) per year per machine. Just supplying the water for washing machines consumes a considerable amount of energy. In total, water supply and treatment facilities use about 50 billion kilowatt-hours per year. If 1 out of every 100 U.S. homes switched to water-efficient appliances, the energy savings could reach 100 million kWh per year and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75,000 tons.

According to recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency statistics, at least 36 states are anticipating local, regional or statewide water shortages by 2013. Out West, water conflicts have raged for decades, mainly among farmers, who need water for their crops, and city water consumers. Cities are gradually taking more water, which could mean a long-term struggle for small farmers.

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