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The sustainable laundry company harnessing space-age technology

When we consider how to combat climate change, our laundry pile may not be the first thing that comes to mind. Yet as we know from recycling, reducing food waste in our kitchens and making everyday smarter purchasing decisions, it’s often the seemingly mundane lifestyle choices we make which collectively determine our individual impact on the planet.

When we reframe a chore such as laundry in this way, and take into account that the average household uses their washing machine 4.7 times a week, with each wash requiring around 50 litres of water, perhaps it doesn’t seem so trivial after all. Whether washing our clothes at home or taking special care items to be professionally cleaned, creating some impact on the environment is inevitable.

Launched in 2017, Oxwash is a sustainable, ultra-hygienic and on-demand laundry and drycleaning company founded by former NASA engineer Dr Kyle Grant while he was completing a PhD at Oxford University. 

“I fell into the laundry space completely by accident after getting frustrated doing my sports teams kit one day and finding all the machines out of order. I started a student laundry service that very quickly grew due to the demand from small businesses. When I took my first look under the hood of a commercial laundry I was horrified at the waste being produced and the inefficiencies that were often plugged by below minimum wage workers.” Kyle was inspired to re-engineer the process, making it more planet friendly. “I have always wanted to build a business that has a positive impact for every single customer from day one” he says.

The commercial laundry industry is both wasteful and pollutive throughout much of the process. Traditional laundries are renowned for high energy usage from their washing and drying machines. There’s also the issue of microfibre pollution, caused by inadequate filtration systems which are unable to prevent microplastics from entering our water systems. Then the type of detergent used, or the packaging it comes in; most laundries use whichever detergent is most cost-effective, and these tend to have high levels of toxicity, such as the chemical PERC which is a known health and environmental hazard. Finally, the effect of transportation; most laundries that offer collections and deliveries use vans as transport, contributing to GHG emissions and CO2 pollution.

From collection through washing and back to delivery, Oxwash aims to maintain net zero carbon emissions – something which has never been done before. Kyle’s career as a scientist for NASA informed the process greatly, by bringing a systems engineering mindset to the problem: 

“My time working in the aerospace industry has etched in my mind the importance of viewing a ‘system’ as a whole as well as the sum of the parts and analysing our service completely end-to-end. To that end, Oxwash owns the entire value chain from collection, washing and delivery to the tech development and washing research and development. Like launching a rocket it’s only when you build and launch the whole vehicle can you see how all the parts function together in the most efficient way.”

Cutting down on energy consumption, the company uses solar panels to power their washing machines. They use biodegradable detergents and emulsifiers that are automatically dosed depending on the weight of each wash which prevents up to 25% excess chemistry being used. As for the water, where each 8kg wash cycle typically uses 50 litres of water per wash, Oxwash uses 18 litres. Using ozone technology for disinfection, washes are done at low temperatures while still destroying bacteria, viruses and allergens and more recently, dissolvable laundry bags have been introduced to eliminate coronavirus transmission through fabric and clothing. As for the transportations, Oxwash uses e-cargo bikes which save 6,700 KG of CO2 emissions per year.

Oxwash’s model is simple; customers place an order online, choose a collection and drop off time and place, and have their items collected, washed and delivered, all with zero net carbon emissions. The eco-friendly dry cleaning service isn’t just available for individuals, Oxwash has also partnered with companies including Marriott and Airbnb too; both heavyweights in the hospitality industry which is notorious for its huge impact on the environment through laundering, particularly towels and bedding. 

Kyle hopes that disrupting the laundry industry will have a knock-on effect on other adjacent industries. “Laundry is one of the oldest circular economies out there. You don’t sleep in your bed sheets once then throw them away! We believe that this mindset and model can be extrapolated.” Here’s hoping!

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5 ways to be an eco-conscious gardener

“We may think we are nurturing the garden, but of course it’s our garden that is really nurturing us” Jenny Uglow.
Gardening is good for our mental health and physical wellbeing so as we continue to seek natural havens to escape the stresses of day-to-day life, it is not surprising that gardening has become a huge trend. While adding more green to our world is helpful and great for the environment, it is essential to do it well in a way. We have put together some tips for your to become a conscious gardener.

 

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Understanding the environmental impact of cut flowers

The COVID 19 pandemic has had a plethora of unexpected consequences, from a rise in domestic violence cases to massive reductions in global carbon emissions. When it comes to cut flowers, the pandemic has had both expected and unexpected impacts.

Initially, lockdowns crashed the EU cut flower market, which lost €1bn in the first six weeks of lockdown. This impacted not just retailers, but also growers and suppliers alike. However, unexpectedly, after the initial lockdown, the online floriculture market started to appeal to younger consumers looking to brighten up their homes, send gifts remotely and benefit from having a little slice of nature at home. This causes e-commerce flower sales to boom, and also forced retailers to look at their supply chains in order to develop resilience for the future.

Unfortunately, however, there are many considerations to take into account when it comes to buying flowers, as with any globally produced product. The UK is a major market for cut flowers in Europe, with annual consumption exceeding €2.5 billion. Between 2011 and 2015, the annual import of roses alone increased from €161bn to €182bn, making up around 25% of all imported flowers sold. Most of these come in from the Netherlands, but increasingly flowers are grown in less economically developed countries (LEDCs), such as Kenya and Ethiopia, thanks to climatic conditions allowing for year-round production, and cheaper labour costs.

SO WHAT ARE THE ISSUES?

There are many variables that affect the environmental and ethical impact of cut flowers, such as growing conditions, pesticide use, import distance and method and working conditions.

Since cut flowers are not edible, they do not have the same regulatory controls as crops, meaning that pesticide use is rampant, and pesticide residue is much higher than allowed on foodstuffs. It is estimated that one fifth of the chemicals used in the floricultural industry in LEDCs is banned or untested in the US. For example, methyl bromide, a toxic chemical used as a pesticide, was banned and ceased to be used in the US by 2005 due to its harmful effect on the ozone layer and potency as a greenhouse gas. However, it took until 2015 for it to be phased out elsewhere, leading to numerous potential issues, both environmentally and ethically – methyl bromide is highly toxic to humans and may affect the nervous system after long-term use. In the same way that factory workers in the fashion industry are often exposed to harmful chemicals through their work, floriculture workers have similar issues. A study of female workers in Ecuador showed that pregnant women exposed to everyday pesticides were more likely to have children with a neurological impairment and high blood pressure.

Another issue of note when it comes to growing conditions is water usage. The water footprint of one rose flower is estimated to be 7–13 litres, and the market for cut flowers could eat into the water availability for other industries, such as food production. Virtual water refers to the amount of water required to produce an amount of product, e.g. on average it takes 1,340 cubic meters of water to produce one metric tonne of wheat. Floriculture accounts for 45% of the virtual water exports from Kenya, i.e. of all exported goods, the floriculture industry requires 45% of total water usage. This can place added strain on water-poor countries, and further regulation is needed to ensure a fair distribution of water throughout vital industries.

Emissions are the most obvious difference between imported and cut flowers. According to one study, emission savings are the greatest when purchasing British-grown bouquets, followed by those with a longer vase-life (as fewer will need to be bought). Imported stems produce at least 3x as many emissions as British-grown, maxing out at a whopping 67x the emissions for the most polluting, when considering transportation, heating and electricity for growing. 

Ethically, the conditions on some flower farms have significant room for improvement. Floriculture provides vital work and income to many, many people – in Kenya alone, it provides over 2 million jobs and over $500 million a year for the country. However, floriculture often uses a workforce of poor, less educated, primarily female workers, meaning that the industry is ripe for exploitation. This can come in the form of low pay, poor and dangerous working conditions and repression of vital trade unions, especially in LEDCs. The issues aren’t constrained to poorer countries, however – pesticide use in the Netherlands still has harmful effects on workers, and the industry is being encouraged to clean up its act, after a report showed that pesticide use was six times higher than other forms of intensive agriculture in the same regions. 

Thankfully, the market share of locally produced UK flowers has been increasing steadily, thanks in part due to the more rigorous ethical and social standards, such as the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) and Fairtrade.

HOW CAN WE HELP?
  • Regardless of flower origin, if you’re looking to buy fresh cut flowers, search for certifications such as FairtradeFlorverde or ETI to ensure certain baseline standards have been adhered to. 
  • Look for organic flowers, as excessive fertiliser and pesticide use can harm local wildlife and waterways, as well as workers. This is a problem both in the UK and abroad.
  • Look for companies that have committed to reducing their packaging. Most flowers are transported in plastic and then packaged in non-recyclable cellophane, which never biodegrades. If you require packaging, check that the company provides recyclable wrapping, or better still, no packaging at all. 
  • For the most-part, opting for long-lasting potted plants bought from independent sellers who can verify their origins is significantly better than looking for the cheapest supermarket cut flowers or potted plant of unknown origin. Not only are you likely to get a better-quality product, you’re also helping to support small businesses and local growers, if you choose well. If you’re looking to trade cut flowers for pot plants, ensure they’re not imported from the other side of the world. China currently provides 18.6% of the world’s cut and potted plants and plans to become the largest flower exporter in Asia and second globally after the Netherlands, meaning that even more environmentally sound potted plants could come with a sizeable carbon footprint. 
  • Look for other gifts. There are many ways to tell someone they mean something to you without buying flowers. Shop small and local where possible – that way you’re supporting not only the gift recipient, but also an individual who truly appreciates your custom.

Article written by Hattie Webb, research assistant.