Airing his laundry
By KEVIN O’CONNOR
Staff Writer | June 22,2008
Alexander Lee, a graduate of Middlebury College and Vermont Law School, is executive director of Project Laundry List, a nonprofit organization working to save energy and the environment by promoting clotheslines.
Alexander Lee is working to rope in out-of-control energy costs. So why does he think anyone can do that with a clothesline?
Back in 1995, Lee was student leader of Middlebury College's Environmental Quality club. Worried about the ecological impact of Vermont's two main electrical sources — Hydro-Quebec dams up in Canada and the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant down in Vernon — he invited anti-nuclear activist Dr. Helen Caldicott to give a speech that, to his surprise, would change his life.
"If we all did things like hang out our clothes," Caldicott said in one fateful sentence, "we could shut down the nuclear industry."
That got Lee thinking. One dryer, he knows today, eats up to $100 or more in power each year while emitting up to a ton of carbon dioxide. Collectively, America's more than 80 million dryers annually burn 6 to 10 percent of all residential electricity — second only to refrigerators and the equivalent of 30 million tons of coal or the output of the nation's 15 least productive nuclear reactors.
Lee, 33, sees clotheslines as the solution. But a growing number of housing complexes and communities, viewing them as eyesores that lower property values, have gone so far as to ban them.
Aiming to change attitudes and laws, Lee founded Project Laundry List. What began as a college campaign to promote clotheslines has grown into an internationally known nonprofit organization "to educate people," according to its mission statement, "about how simple lifestyle modifications, including air-drying one's clothes, reduce our dependence on environmentally and culturally costly energy sources."
Log onto www.laundrylist.org — 9,000 people do each week — and you'll find links to favorable press mentions ranging from the front page of the Wall Street Journal (under the headline "The Right to Dry: A Green Movement Is Roiling America") to Germany's most watched foreign affairs television program, "Weltspiegel."
The New York Times Magazine most recently pinned up its own praise, noting this spring that "Alexander Lee has what he calls an immediate, IMBY ('in my backyard') way to attack global climate change."
Phone world headquarters and you'll discover the project's definitely down home.
"It's just me here," Lee says in a Concord, N.H., apartment that doubles as his office, "and I don't get paid."
Even so, he knows his Vermont-inspired effort is paying off.
'On the line'
Ask Lee to sum up his life story and he starts with his mother hanging laundry outside his childhood home in Brookline, Mass.
"She called herself Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle," he recalls, "the Beatrix Potter character whose chief task is drying the clothes of all the animals."
Lee grew to care for wildlife, too. Going to high school at New Hampshire's Phillips Exeter Academy, he met Barbara James, director of student activities and an anti-nuclear activist. Traveling to Canada to canoe, he learned about Hydro-Quebec and how its dams could damage their surroundings. And back on campus, he heard about Caldicott, founder of U.S. Physicians for Social Responsibility, whose world network won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.
Moving on to college in 1993, Lee chose Middlebury for its landscape and its environmental studies program. But he soon grew concerned about Vermont's reliance on big-dam hydroelectric and nuclear power. The fall of his junior year, he made a cold call to Caldicott — "I'm not shy" — and invited her to speak.
Little did he know how her clothesline comment would snag him.
"I thought, 'Wow, this is really simple — people can connect with it.' That resonated with me."
The student helped launch National Hanging Out Day with signs like "Hang Your Pants, Stop the Nuke Plants" and "Put Yourself on the Line." In the spring of 1996, he went to a Green Corps environmental organizing semester at the University of Montana in Missoula and wrote a strategic plan for Project Laundry List.
Lee quickly lassoed in some prominent supporters. To raise money, his group raffled off clothesline art by Vermont printmaker and Middlebury alumnus Sabra Field. He went on to write a senior honors thesis focused in part on global warming author and activist Bill McKibben — and subsequently invited him to join the project.
Graduating in 1997, Lee apprenticed at Shelburne Farms, earned an environmental law degree from Vermont Law School and returned to New Hampshire to work on energy efficiency programs for the state's Public Utilities Commission, help chair the National Association of Regulatory Commissioners' Committee on Energy Resources and the Environment and open a field office for 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean.
All the while, he continued to hang on to his clothesline.
'Pennant of eco-chic'
Lee was in law school when he formally incorporated the campaign in 2000.
Project Laundry List has a board of advisors — Caldicott, Field, James, McKibben, Vermont state Sen. Richard McCormack and Canadian science broadcaster David Suzuki — and a separate citizen board of directors. But after Lee graduated from college to career, he mostly limited his effort to maintaining the Web site.
Then a year ago last spring, the New York Times ran a feature story, "To Fight Global Warming, Some Hang a Clothesline," that quoted Lee and called his site "an encyclopedia on the energy advantages of hanging laundry." That snagged the attention not only of the newspaper's 1 million readers but also countless reporters nationwide.
"All you guys started copying each other," Lee says half-jokingly. "You hope for more than a decade that maybe this thing will catch on, and it did."
Log onto the "newsroom" link of www.laundrylist.org and you'll find almost 60 international press accounts mentioning what the Christian Science Monitor calls "the first U.S. clothesline activist group."
A front-page story in the Wall Street Journal last September noted that about 60 million Americans live in "association governed" residential communities that restrict clotheslines. ("An Illegal Solar Device?" a headline said.) Lee used the story to call for change, telling the paper that his campaign is "an outgrowth of interest in what-can-I-do environmentalism."
Time magazine, in its own story last November, quoted Lee as saying that aesthetic concerns wilt with the threat of global warming.
"I understand the need for communities to legislate taste, but people always find a way around it," he told Time. "The clothesline is beautiful — gorgeous, sentimental and nostalgic for many."
Tell that to the Portland Oregonian, which last year reported that Lee sometimes has received complaints from overworked mothers.
"One woman said I was trying to reverse everything Betty Friedan had put in motion," he told the paper.
Instead, Lee just wants local and state officials to enact laws that allow the "right to dry" — something legislators in Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut tried and failed to do this year. In a recent Boston Globe story on New England efforts, Lee said that clotheslines, which some see as a "flag of poverty," need a new image.
"We want Martha (Stewart) and Oprah (Winfrey) to make the clothesline into a pennant of eco-chic."
Not that he isn't trying himself. Lee recently saw his project on an AOL Money & Finance Web page that hung clotheslines on its "Making a Comeback: 20 to Watch in 2008" list.
"That's the kind of stuff that's really neat," he says. "It makes me feel we're having an impact."
'Affordable and accessible'
So much free publicity — Lee spoke via phone this February to radio listeners in Perth, Australia — might seem intoxicating. But Lee sometimes finds it infuriating.
"You guys like conflict," he tells a reporter. "You like neighbor versus neighbor."
Although the press focuses on "right to dry" legislation, Lee spends more time responding to reporters than lobbying lawmakers.
"I get asked all the time, 'Do you hang your clothes out?' Of course I do. I go to the Laundromat, but I don't use the dryer. When I moved in to my apartment, my landlord installed a clothesline."
Lee prefers collaborating with individual homeowners and community associations. In a perfect world, he wouldn't face the media spin cycle but instead would speak person to person, place by place.
"I can't tell you how many e-mails I get — people like to talk about their laundry experiences, they want to get and give advice. It hijacks cocktail parties. Of course we'd like everyone to use clotheslines, but we're not telling people they have to. What we're trying to do is offer the opportunity. The reason we pursue the 'right to dry' strategy is because we're in a rush. Climate change is an immediate and pressing concern."
For all his worries about global warming, Lee works to stay positive. His pitch: Clothes hung to dry smell better and last longer. ("Where do you think lint comes from?") Pin them outside and the sun will bleach and disinfect. ("The sun basically does all the work for free.") Put them on racks inside and they'll add humidity in dry winter weather. ("The environmental message doesn't speak to everybody, so we speak about clothes-drying in a lot of different ways.")
Consider the fact, Lee continues, that dryers annually spark more than 15,000 U.S. structure fires, which in turn lead to an average of 15 deaths, 400 injuries and an estimated $99 million in damage.
"Dryers are dangerous machines. That makes me sound like a crazy person, but they're one of the leading causes of home fires. It's a tremendous amount of economic waste."
Lee has some knots to work out. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 83 percent of Americans deem dryers "a necessity." With the development of more energy-efficient refrigerators, "we're going to see the dryer become the largest energy user in the house," Lee predicts.
Compounding the challenge, Project Laundry List reaps more press than profit. The organization soon will sell environmentally friendly laundry products on its Web site and anticipates corporate contributions from several clothesline distributors. But Lee must dip into his savings and work out of his apartment to make ends meet.
"It has been a tremendous sacrifice — I've been doing this full-time since September with little pay, and I'm not trying to play the violins here — but it's a work of love. I can't walk away from this. What keeps me going is that I believe we cannot continue to build large dams and nuclear power plants. This is something affordable and accessible to all of us."
Contact Kevin O'Connor at firstname.lastname@example.org.