GeneralHow toRecipesWaste Water

Chores by Design

When the concept of sustainability moves past buying things labeled “green” into personal action, the cold hard truth is that our lifestyles need to change as much as the products we buy. Part of living sustainably is adjusting how we do things so that we are less consumptive and reliant on unsustainable systems. Performing everyday tasks — cleaning the floor, washing the dishes, drying clothes, opening a can, making coffee — has been transformed by the seemingly limitless power of the grid. Chores that used to be done by hand have become almost indistinguishably linked with “convenience” gadgets.

In terms of electricity, that puts households striving for sustainability in a bit of a pickle: Power from the grid likely utilizes nonrenewable sources, or coming from off the grid severely decreases the amount available. Sure, it’s possible to invest thousands of dollars to have a personal solar array and battery bank that’ll handle fridges, dishwashers, vacuums, coffee makers, entertainment systems, and all the works of the modern home, but isn’t that just somewhat redesigning the problem? When we have to make/buy more products to maintain the same “standards of living”, have we not just added to the future waste and continued taking too much?

Without making the future look too grim, the point I’m getting to is that, in the quest for cleaner living, we have to find meaningful ways of stepping back into doing things for ourselves. That requires us to cut down on the amount of energy we consume and to possibly return to more rudimentary ways of accomplishing rudimentary tasks. In permaculture, as much as we design passive solar heated homes or Zone 1 gardens, it is equally as important that we design our habits to fit the new surroundings we are imagining.

None of this means we have to rid ourselves of all comforts, but it might mean being truly more mindful of how we do things. Often seemingly antiquated methodologies make the most sense when we are looking after the planet. It wasn’t so long ago that people didn’t have electricity, plastic and a bevy of chemical products for every mundane task, yet they managed to have clean homes and a much cleaner planet. It is with this in mind that I wish to reimagine household chores.



A typical approach to laundry these days involves wearing an outfit once, more often than not for a task that doesn’t necessarily involve much in the way of manual labor, and afterwards, the clothing gets put into the laundry basket. From there, it goes into a washer, where it’s cleaned with detergents heavy on phosphates and packaging, and often it’s in a small batch rather than a full load. More than likely, the washer will be set to heat the water. Then, once washed, those clothes are loaded into a dryer, an energy-hungry device if there ever was one. Even worse, some items might go to the dry cleaners.

Without being accusatory or claiming we all live the same way, we might be able to do our laundry more energy-efficient and ecologically friendly than this if we redesign our approach to this chore. We could…

* Wear outfits more than once.

* Only wash clothing that has become dirty enough to warrant it.

* Buy biodegradable detergents, or better yet.

* Make our own laundry detergents.

* Avoid having our default setting be warm and hot water. Heating the water accounts for about 90% of the electricity a washing machine uses.

* Fill the washer all the way up before using it or wash individual items by hand.

* Dry clothing on a clothesline or drying rack.

* Stop buying clothes that “require” dry-cleaning and hand-washing those that do. Dry-cleaning is horribly pollutive and a health risk for everyone involved. Look up perchloroethylene.

* Reuse the greywater produced in washing clothes. Freshwater will increasingly become more and more precious in the coming years, so the sooner we start to value it, the better off we’ll be.



Dishes are washed even more often than clothes, and the modern system has really become more dishwasher friendly than environmentally aware. Some argue that Energy Star dishwashers are more efficient and “greener” than hand-washing, but this is typically qualified with using dishwashers as efficiently as possible and exaggerating the handwashing situation to be at its most challenging. In reality, people often run the dishwasher when it isn’t to complete capacity because rarely, when we wash dishes, is there a full dishwasher load on the go.

Whatever the case is, most of us—me, certainly—can do a few things to improve the way we accomplish this task. We could…

* Use the cold water tap for things that don’t require hot water to clean, i.e. rinsing glasses or dry crumbs from a dish. Again, hot water is an energy hog.

* Make an effort (if things actually need hot or warm water) to use the residual heat from stove burners or ovens: While we are eating, these items could be soaking.

* Soak and wash separately. At the end of load, greasy and crusty pots and pans can be addressed without fouling the water for everything else.

* Wash first in a container of soapy water and rinse everything as a group.

* Buy biodegradable dishwashing soap, or better yet,

* Make our own dishwashing soap.

* Skip the pre-washing step when loading dishwashers. That’s essentially washing the dishes twice and requires close to double the amount of energy and resources.

* Allow things to air-dry in a rack. It’s actually cleaner than using a dishtowel and more energy efficient than using the dry settings on the dishwasher.

* Reuse the greywater produced in washing dishes. Even if food particles seem an issue, this could be tossed onto compost heaps or mulch piles.



Cleaning surfaces—countertops, floors, windows, tubs, and furniture—is a huge part of keeping a house tidy. Dust collects on everything, grime builds up in sinks and tubs, and floors see their share of mucky shoes and feet. Where sweeping and mopping used to be fairly standard practice, and dusting and scrubbing was done adequately with a piece of old cloth, we now necessitate vacuums (even for hard surfaces), steam mops, and DustBusters. What’s more is that there is an entire assortment of specialized, chemical-based sprays to go with each chore.

While our surfaces do occasionally need a clean, we hardly have to rely petroleum-based products and energy-dependent gadgetry to have sparkling tubs and tiles. We could…

* Buy biodegradable all-purpose cleaning products, or better yet,

* Make our own cleaning products. It only requires a handful of ingredients, particularly baking soda and vinegar.

* Go back to the old broom and dustpan method of sweeping. A vacuum for hard surfaces hardly seems necessary.

* Use power free sweepers for carpets and rugs. And, rugs can just be taken outside and beaten every so often to knock the dust out of them.

* Laugh off the notion of steam mops for cleaning the floors. This wasn’t invented until 1998. We survived without steam-cleaned floors for centuries, and again, heating water sucks up a lot of energy.

* Use a rag, a touch of vinegar, and a bit of water to dust. The task doesn’t require a special spray, nor do we need a DustBuster or special hose from our vacuum cleaner.

* Think of less energy- and resource- intensive methods than pressure washers for cleaning outdoor surfaces.

Obviously, none of these changes in and of themselves will make a massive difference in the grand scheme of things, but it’s the idea of designing our habits thoughtfully that will impact everything. If we approach these three household chores this way, the mindset will bleed over

into other tasks. Then, we aren’t buying into a trendy product or an ineffectual “quick fix”, but we are living with conscious intention beyond the immediacy of our daily tasks.

When we put our permaculture design sensibilities into our lives as much as our projects, we become more and more self-reliant, as well as less and less destructive.

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. A great reminder of all the things that I have always done. I do not make my own dishwashing nor clothes washing soap. I do not know how to save gray water. Rinsing dishes before putting in the dishwasher makes the dishwasher live many more years. I do the rest of the things mentioned and always have. Being a camper, boater, and gardener helps make one aware. I actually was not aware of how the rest of the country takes for granted their need for all of these energy-demanding products. This is a great article pointing out these little changes we can all make. Sharing showers. Taking shorter showers. New toilets that use less water. Native plants. Watering less often. Warmer summer and cooler winter thermostats. Sharing the planet’s resources. It’s the only one we have, and we need to leave it a better place than we found it.

  2. I’ve gone back to washing dishes by hand–it gives me time for reflection, avoids polluting our ears with noise (even “quiet” dishwashers produce a background noise which is harmful for hearing.)
    Sometimes I listen to music while washing dishes, or memorize music I’m working on (violin, viola, piano); also it is easy to, incorporate balance exercises and stretching into the chore. I have a habit now of doing sink push-ups and squats at intervals during the chore.. And I dry the dishes on a reusable mat or a kitchen towel. Baking soda and vinegar are my basic cleaners all over the house I always soak any pots/pans or heavily soiled dishes immediately after use, , which greatly reduces the time I spend actually scrubbing them. Using a dishpan to wash, another to rinse also cuts down on running the water. I have not been using the grey water yet, but I think watering houseplants or plants just outside the door would make sense.

    On similar theme, we have stopped tossing kitchen scraps into the trash, including any paper towels (which we now minimize by having rags and cloth hand towels available. ) Our scraps now are collected in a bucket and taken downstairs once a day to be added to the composting bins. Now I’m looking into sheet composting (lasagna gardens) as a way to take the scraps directly from kitchen to becoming mulch and compost. Anytime I can eliminate a step in this process, it is a win-win.
    I look forward to each of these Permaculture articles.

  3. And, how do purpose we reuse the greywater from washing clothes? And, how to keep it without stinking.

    I have delicate tops that I’d rather not wash by hand because my bras never get fully cleaned, from dead skin cells, without scrubbing, and even then it still don’t work to get all the skin off.
    I hand wash a knitted hat and gloves every so often to keep them from getting extremely dirty to the point of no return. And, I’d rather not wash those tops with other clothes.
    We used to line-dry clothes even when having a dryer, but that was in the summer time and when we had trees in the front yard to tie the clothesline to. Of course, there was also one in the basement, but that had to be removed because the basement got loaded up on ceramic molds, and there’s a problem with moisture and ceramics not setting up in the molds.

  4. There were a few other things I forgot to mention in my previous post: I always use booms and mops, or squat down and scrub the floor, but I always hated getting down to clean around the toilet, so I use a mop.

    I was reading one thing about hot water destroying the fabrics in clothes, and elastic bands, so I do try not to use hot or warm, but the warm water isn’t as bad, it’s tepid.
    I always turn all my clothes inside out, as it protects the design and gets the skin cells out. And, cleans it all the more better. I also wash towels by themselves, underpants by themselves, socks by themselves, or it’s all the more energy wasted having to rewash those that fall onto the dirty basement floor. I hate my socks looping themselves in the pant leg of the underwear, or heavy sopping wet towels wringing clothes that shouldn’t be wrung. I know it’s a waste, but I don’t wash clothes that often to begin with… so there’s another win!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Back to top button