Growing up in North America, a washer isn’t complete without a dryer. Though I clearly remember our large next door neighbour’s flowered mu-mus and underwear fluttering on the line, even my hippie mother mostly used the dryer. And now, hanging clothes out to dry is no longer considered normal in most places, nor even allowed in many housing development rules.
I hadn’t ever lived without a dryer until I lived in South Korea, where dryers were considered an unthinkable luxury. I was introduced to hanging everything to dry on the enclosed balcony that ran the length of our apartment. I disliked it as only a child of a dryer culture can: scratchy stiff towels, planklike underwear, jeans that took weeks to dry in the winter and the dreary monotony of hanging up every sock. I was very happy to go back to the warm fluffiness of clothing in North America, where almost every label instructs: “tumble dry low.”
Then I moved to the Netherlands, where most clothing labels have a line through the EU-approved dryer symbol, and where washers also seem to be quite happy without dryers. For the first three years, through two apartments and our first child, we didn’t have one. Sure, I wanted one, but between the costs of getting one, feeding it energy and persuading my Dutch husband that it was needed (not to mention the knowledge that doing without was better sustainably speaking), I managed to make do with hanging the laundry on the variety of ingenious hanging devices available here. I still hated the scratchy towels and all the rest, but it wasn’t quite enough to overcome those other barriers. But when a friend offered me the dryer they could no longer use in their new house, I couldn’t say no. We were moving into our new house and we’d just had our second kid and the extra amount of laundry was proving daunting to my hanging system, especially in the winter. I was especially ecstatic to have fluffy towels again.
And so I went back to my North American dryer loving ways. Sure I sorted out all the European no-dryer tags and hung them, but used the dryer for everything that I could. That is, until this spring, when a coin got jammed in the dryer works. We thought it was broken, and adjusted to hanging everything again. I had mixed feelings by then – I knew that it was “better” not to have one and our energy use did seem to go down, but our hanging system was overwhelmed as the weather got cooler and, of course, I missed my fluffy towels. So we finally fixed the dryer.
It was as I was doing the first round of laundry afterwards that I had my epiphany. Instead of my default of using the dryer for everything that could be dried, why didn’t I just use it for the things that I especially wanted dried and hang the rest? I was already sorting out dryer and non-dryer loads, but why not just change the default? Just because something could be dried, didn’t mean it had to be. It worked. I got to dry the things that bother me to hang and our hanging system wasn’t overwhelmed, plus our dryer use for the week was cut in about half. This changing my default also made me happy to find a solution that let me have it both ways.
There are lots of other ways that changing the default can help, even if you don’t want to completely stop the behaviour. For example, you can make the default mode of transport public or bike and save the car for when it’s really needed, or eat vegetarian by default and save meat-eating for special/ritual occasions. Changing the default this way can help you resolve the dissonance between what you’d like to do and what you want to do and help make your actions considered instead of habitual until new habits set in.