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Ask The Green Mama: Can I use grey water on a garden?

My brother-in-law asked me if the used water from the washing machine could be used in the yard as a conservation effort w/o harming the plants.  He’s an engineer so if this water is okay for that reuse, he wants to create a routing system from the utility sink to their yard.  He has a high-efficiency washer and uses eco-friendly detergents.

Deb, Turning Grey Water into Green, the Sister-in-Law

Dear Grey to Green:

That is great that your brother-in-law is thinking so creatively about saving water.  With that kind of thinking and skill, he will come up with an awesome plan. However, using your laundry water on the plants isn’t it.  I wish it were!  He is already thinking about some of the issues: laundry detergents (even if they don’t contain phosphates) do often contain fragrances, oils, or soaps that are NOT healthy for plants. Even if you used no detergent at all, however, it still wouldn’t be advisable because of the chemicals in clothes. Flame retardants, heavy metals from dyes, formaldehyde, and even dioxin residue from bleach have all been found in clothing and it all ends up in some amounts in the water in which we wash our clothes. It is unfortunate that all these chemicals into our sewer system, and it could be disastrous for your backyard ecology.

Instead, he might consider using that water or the water from his sinks to flush his toilets (probably a more complicated routing).  Having a front-load washer greatly reduces water use.  If he takes showers instead of baths, uses aerators and low-flow heads on sinks and faucets, and gets a rainbarrel to water his lawn, he will see a great deal of water savings without harming his backyard ecosystem.