My first impression of the GreenWashBall was that its manufacturer some chutzpah to market a eco-friendly product under a name synonymous overstated green marketing claims.
But it was the sort of pitch I look for: a modestly priced green product which could potentially save consumers some cash. It arrived in my inbox, as dozens do each week, with an offer of product for testing. I shot back a reply, and found my GreenWashBall was sitting on the front porch a week later. Would it live up to its claims?
Farewell to laundry detergent?
The GreenWashBall is presented as a replacement for laundry detergents. This seems like a good thing, given that the petroleum products, perfumes, and optical brighteners in conventional laundry detergents are sometimes irritating to people with chemical sensitivities. We already have enough unpronounceable substances in our daily lives — and who wouldn’t want to cross laundry soap off their weekly shopping list?
The ball itself is made of an unmarked, somewhat rubbery smelling green plastic. Rattling around inside are a handful of small round and cylindrical doodads the box describes as “powerful ceramics” designed to “break water into smaller pieces increasing its speed and penetration factor.” They are visible through a system of slots in the GreenWashBall’s sides.
The product literature goes on to make some fairly vague references to ions, pH levels, and eliminating chlorine in the wash water. These all sounded like something for more objective consideration. But first — let’s wash some laundry!
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. Claims which seem too good to be true usually are, but I had several loads of dirty clothes on hand and nothing to lose. I picked a few particularly nasty towels, some socks, and my Golden Retriever’s favorite binky; set the water to warm; and tossed the GreenWashBall on top. I often line dry laundry. But it was raining, so I ran everything through the dryer and brought them to the kitchen table for a sniff test.
The laundry was clean. Not just clean, in fact, but remarkably so. Everything smelled fresh without the benefit of perfumes or fabric softeners. The socks were a bit dull — we’re all used to whites with the benefits of artificial brighteners — but fit for wear. Ubu’s dog blanket was fur-free and ready for fresh slobber.
I was particularly taken by the towels. They were dramatically softer and fluffier than after a conventional wash. Perhaps the GreenWashBall wasn’t greenwash, after all.
Over the next several days, I did more loads: jeans, t-shirts, underwear, and a set of all-cotton sheets. In every case, the fabrics were clean and good-smelling, with superior loft.
Twitter weighs in
At Lighter Footstep, we’re fortunate to maintain an active Twitter stream with almost two thousand eco-conscious followers. At the beginning of the GreenWashBall test, i thought it might be fun to conduct our experiment “live” and pass along the results in real time.
As my skepticism yielded to surprise, the questions started rolling in: What kind of plastic is the GreenWashBall made from? What’s inside? How does it really work? It was time to become more objective about what could be happening here.
Examining GreenWashBall’s key claims
We’ll start with GreenWashBall’s stated benefits, as listed on a small pamphlet which accompanies each unit:
- [By eliminating detergents] You elimate allergic risks linked to detergent residues on your clothes and linen.
- GreenWashBall safeguards your linen from bleaching and oxidization caused by chlorine diluted water. Fabric remains elastic.
- GreenWashBall has an anti-bacterial effect.
- Due to its efficiency, there is no need to add any bleaching or other additive to your detergent.
Yes, eliminating detergent improves the lot of those irritated by commercial laundry ingredients. There’s certainly no downside in reducing chemical exposure, even for those of us who tolerate cleaning products.
The amount of chlorine in tap water is generally minute, and it’s difficult to imagine it has much effect on modern fabric dyes. Since GreenWashBall doesn’t list its active ingredients, it’s tough to judge how it removes chlorine from water — if it does so at all.
GreenWashBall’s claim of anti-bacterial action is more troubling. While the product website hints of “remote infared rays emitted by GreenWashBall” (whatever those might be), the company’s lack of specifics make it impossible to verify disinfectant action short of lab testing. That isn’t to say it’s not happening: silver, for instance, has true antimicrobial properties. It is at least within the realm of possibility that silver might be contained somewhere in GreenWashBall’s mysterious contents. But the company should do a much better job of substantiating its benefit in this area, particularly in view of a specific health claim made on the GreenWashBall website:
[The] GREENWASHBALL eliminates pathogen germs in the water of your washing machine, giving clean and healthy linen. GREENWASHBALL has an antibacterial effect and eliminates bad odors.
Customers expecting GreenWashBall to contribute to the reduction of things such as fecal coliforms deserve a more detailed explanation of how this product is effective.
So why was the laundry clean?
My testing was unscientific, so I’m not saying that GreenWashBall doesn’t work. But I can think of at least one reason my clothes came out clean: I washed them. In detergent.
While we generally think of detergents in terms of the stuff we buy at the store, any compound used for cleaning is a detergent. That includes water — it suspends dirt until it can be rinsed away. Warm water introduces a surfactant effect, dissolving dirt and oils. We’re strongly conditioned by advertising to believe laundry cannot be cleaned except through the introduction of soaps and foaming agents.
We’re also accustomed to baking commercial detergents into our fabrics as they dry. That’s why our clothing smells of perfume after the wash, and how optical brighteners are still able to do their job. The added loft and softness I noticed in my laundry was probably due to the absence of detergent residue.
Just for fun, I did a final load of laundry similar to that of the first batch. Using nothing but warm water, the results seemed identical to those with the GreenWashBall. Lesson learned. We can probably save money and turn out better quality laundry by reducing the amount of detergents we use.
And the GreenWashBall has a way to go if it intends to live down its name.
NOTE: The wording attributed here to the GreeWashBall’s marketing reflects that current at the time of the article’s original publication (November, 2008).