Groups Advocate 'Right to Dry' Laundry

Environmental activists want their "right to dry."


July 25, 2008— -- Clotheslines are making a comeback as part of the latest "green" initiative to save energy.

Steve and Mimi White, homeowners in Rye, N.H., hope to cut their carbon footprint by hanging their laundry out to dry. "One of the things that you can do easily is, you can hang your laundry out," Mimi White said.

"And it smells good," her husband chimed in. "Smells better than anything coming out of the dryer."

The Whites even like the feeling of line-dried clothes.

"I think there is nothing more satisfying than when it's really coarse and rough," Steve White said.

Families spend at least $100 a year drying clothes. Electric dryers account for 6 percent of home electricity use, so hanging out your clothes saves both energy and money. But millions of Americans can't pin up their pants outside.

Amelia McKenny's Rye condominium association, like thousands of others across the country, bans clothesline use, because they are "unattractive." Condo associations say that the sight of underwear, pants and shirts outside the building is a threat to property values.

She has to hide to hang her laundry. "I am discreet," McKenny said, laughing.

Mary Lou Sayer, who lives in a condo in Concord, N.H., won't break the rules set by her association. Instead, she hangs her wash inside her bedroom, behind the door, on the light fixtures and in her dining room. When Sayer walked through her house, she dodged her laundry. Guests have joked that laundry is her decoration.

"I'd love to hang it out. If it were outside, it would be fresh and clean, sunshiny," Sayer said. "But we can't do that. The rules say no."

While Sayer thinks the association is old-fashioned and too rigid in its policy, Richard Jacques, Sayer's homeowners' association president defends the clothesline ban as a serious eyesore.

"There isn't enough room to put a place up without really infringing upon my ability to look out the door or the window and not be faced with somebody's laundry," Jacques said. "I want to look at what you see here now -- flowers and plants and trees."

Jacques said that a majority of association members supported the ban -- 4 to 1 -- which represents how most residents feel about it. There are 300,000 homeowner associations in the U.S. Clothesline supporters estimate that as many as 30 million Americans are not allowed to hang out their laundry.

However, clothesline supporters have begun to ban together to change the established rules. They hope that states will give their associations the right to allow their residents to dry outdoors.

Alexander Lee, a 33-year-old environmental lawyer in Concord, began Project Laundry List, to empower those who want to hang out their laundry. So far, Florida, Utah and Colorado have developed laws supporting citizens' right to dry. Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland, North Carolina, Oregon and California are considering laws.

But Lee and others who are passionate about energy conservation have continued to advocate and fight for their right.

Government statistics say that 5.8 percent of residential electricity comes from dryer use, but Lee claims that that number does not encompass 17 percent of people who use gas dryers. Instead, he said, it is more representative to look at the median family household, which spends about a quarter of their electricity bill on dryer costs alone.

"It's a tremendous amount of energy," Lee said. "It's several power plants that we could shut down if everybody were to make the switch."

Project Laundry List has initiated action on the local level, attempting to spark change from the bottom up.

"I'm trying to point out to folks that we can take matters into our own hands and we don't have to wait for the leaders to lead," Lee said.

Mimi and Steven White in Rye have taken a step toward this goal, attempting to use art to change people's behaviors, their perceptions and make an environmental statement. Mimi White, a member of the town's energy committee, linked up local artists with fellow laundry-hanging citizens to paint their clotheslines.

In November, the artists will hold an exhibit in Portsmouth, N.H., displaying clothesline art.

"I think if people come and see these clotheslines, even if they haven't painted them, even if they haven't hung their laundry out, they might begin to think, 'Look how beautiful,'" Mimi White said.

The major obstacle clothesline advocates face is to convince Americans that hanging out laundry is a beautiful way to help save the planet.

In the meantime, residents like Amelia McKenny are willing to keep drying outdoors.

"When you break rules, you have to do it slowly, so that people get used to knowing that it is a good thing," McKenny said. "Hanging out laundry is chic now."