By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
For centuries, the hanging of clothes outside to dry in the sun was a common practice. That changed, at least in the United States, in the 1950s with the arrival of the suburban ideal of modern living.
Wet, flapping clothes soon became an aesthetic issue. Homeowners associations began claiming clotheslines lowered neighborhood property values by 15 percent to 20 percent. Opponents quickly began repeating the same claim: “Modern homeowners don’t like seeing people’s underwear in public. It’s just unsightly.”
Community covenants, landlord prohibitions and municipal zoning laws began fining those who flew their “flags of poverty” from outdoor clotheslines and drying racks.
“It’s social classism, nothing more,” said Betsy Cazden, a board member of Rhode Island Interfaith Power and Light, a Providence-based nonprofit working to prohibit such restrictions in the breezy Ocean State. “Nice people don’t hang clothes outside. Old immigrant ladies do — that’s what people think.”
Of course, the alternative to outdoor air drying is electric and gas dryers that burn dirty fossil fuels. On an annual basis, electric dryers alone in the United States consume the equivalent of about 30 million tons of coal, according to studies.
Cazden was turned onto the “Right to Dry” movement about two years ago, at the First Baptist Church on North Main Street in Providence, during an Interfaith Power and Light Cool Congregation gathering. These gatherings feature PowerPoint presentations about environmental issues.
“We mostly talk about the little things people can do to make a difference. We help people calculate their carbon footprints and encourage them to reduce that number by ten percent,” Cazden said. “At this meeting, a woman raises her hand and says, ‘I’m not allowed to dry my clothes outside.’ I couldn’t believe it.”
The aforementioned Rhode Island woman is one of about 60 million Americans living in roughly 300,000 “communities” governed by home/condo associations that ban or restrict the use of clotheslines. These associations and apartment complexes prohibit the drying of laundry outdoors, claiming that clotheslines obstruct views and are an eyesore.
Supporters of “Right to Dry” laws are encouraging local, state and federal legislators to introduce “Right to Dry” legislation to curb what they call a narrow-minded practice.
“We encourage people to use energy more efficiently,” said Ray Frackelton, board president of Interfaith Power and Light. “What’s more efficient than drying clothes outside in the sun?”
Interfaith Power and Light worked with several representatives to introduce “Right to Dry” legislation last February in the General Assembly. The bill (H-7504) never came to a vote before the legislature adjourned.
The Environmental Council of Rhode Island, in its 2010 Green Report Card for the General Assembly, wrote, “Regrettably, provisions that would have given Rhode Islanders the ‘right to dry’ and eased restrictive covenants that exist for some residential scale renewable energy resources were removed from the (Climate Risk Reduction Act) bill.”
“It got rolled into some stuff that got glomped into a study committee,” Cazden said. “Apparently, it was too controversial. Local ordinances and homeowner restrictions shouldn’t be trumpeting individual rights.”
Frackelton said he was led to believe the bill would be introduced again this legislative session.
Interfaith Power and Light, like most organizations and individuals who support the “Right to Dry” movement, do so for reasons pertaining to energy efficiency, promotion of renewable energy and curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
In fact, during the past several years six states — Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Utah and Vermont — with a mindful eye on energy consumption have passed “Right to Dry” legislation restricting the rights of associations and housing authorities to stop residents from using outdoor clotheslines.
Several other states, including Connecticut, Maryland, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Virginia, are considering similar bills or have passed water-downed versions.
According to Project Laundry List, a Vermont-based organization that promotes the right to use outdoor clotheslines, 2.7 million out of the 111 million households in the United States dry 15 or more loads of wash weekly, with the average home drying eight loads a week.
Dryers use 10 percent to 15 percent of the domestic energy in the country, according to Project Laundry List. In fact, the second-biggest household energy user, after the refrigerator, is the clothes dryer. This energy consumption is expensive, as estimates suggest that it costs the average household more than $100 a year to use a dryer.
“Opponents argue that people can hang-dry their clothes inside,” Cazden said. “That only works some of the time and not as well. Indoor drying in the summer … you don’t need that added humidity.”