Yesterday, Earth Day, was a beautiful sunny day with all the
magnolias, cherry and other flowering trees and bushes in full
bloom. Thanks to the nice lady we’ve hired to spell me from my
Tuesday care giving duties, I spent part of the day attending an
Old Guard meeting and then golfing with some Old Guard
colleagues at our local 9-hole par 3 course. Long time readers
will know that I take any excuse to mention my hole-in-one some
years ago. Yesterday was almost as pleasurable as that hole-in-
one. After scoring 42 and 40 the two previous weeks, I managed
a 32 yesterday, carding 4 pars and a birdie achieved by sinking a
52-foot putt from off the green (I paced it off).
Lest you think that golfing doesn’t qualify as an appropriate way
to celebrate Earth Day, rest assured that I have in the past
contributed in a positive manner to the spirit of the day. For
several years when I was at Bell Labs I was chairman of the
environmental activity of our chapter of the Telephone Pioneers
at Bell Labs at Murray Hill, New Jersey. One year, with my
colleagues, we planted a tree at a school in nearby Plainfield.
Another year, we lugged in and installed culverts on Patriots
Path, a walking/hiking trail in the Morristown area. That was the
year I sat down to rest, in my shorts, on a bed of poison ivy!
You can fill in the rest.
That was in the days before global warming was an overriding
environmental concern. Sunday’s New York Times magazine
section had a very good article by Michael Pollan entitled “Why
Bother?” He addressed the view that individual acts of
“greenery” will have no significant effect on global warming –
it’s too late. Pollan’s thesis is that if enough people started to
take even one or two actions to reduce the carbon footprint,
others would take note and eventually whole societies would
become involved. Pollan’s suggestion for a good first step –
make a garden; dig up some lawn if necessary, and grow some of
your own food.
His suggestion brought to mind my gardening days at Bell Labs
when I had a plot in a communal garden that we gardeners would
tend after work. Earlier, during World War II, I more reluctantly
worked as a young lad in my mother’s two-plot victory garden,
from which we supplied vegetables to ourselves and to a number
of our neighbors. I was surprised to read that Pollan said as
much as 40 percent of the produce Americans ate during the war
came from victory gardens.
The other day, my wife suggested I uncollapse the more or less
circular clothesline structure in our backyard. Certainly hanging
out clothes to dry is a greener approach than sticking them in an
electric or gas dryer. Unfortunately, my care giving duties make
it much more efficient to stick the clothes in the dryer and
tending a garden takes an appreciable amount of time and effort.
If I can find the time, I may just put in a tomato plant and hang
out an occasional load of wash.
All this is a disjointed segue into a subject with which I had no
experience until becoming a fulltime launderer. The subject is
those sheets of paper that I was told to place in the dryer.
Although initially skeptical, I found that adding the sheets did
result in softer, better smelling laundry and less static cling.
Then I ran across an article in the April 14 issue of Chemical and
Engineering News by Linda Wang titled “Dryer Sheets”.
Being a relative newcomer to serious laundering, I must admit
that fabric softening was not my bag. It’s only been recently that
I began using dryer sheets without having any idea as to why
they worked. I hadn’t realized that in the old days the launderer
had to catch the laundry in or before the final rinse cycle and add
liquid fabric softener to obtain the desired softness. Well,
Conrad Gaiser and his wife lived on the upper two floors of a 4-
story building and the laundry room was on the ground floor.
She would have to run up and down the stairs to dump in the
fabric softener at the right time in the laundry cycle.
Gaiser, being a considerate husband and also being in the soap
and detergent business, came up with the idea of adding some
liquid softener to a piece of cloth that could be used in the dryer.
In 1969 he got a patent and sold it to Procter & Gamble. P&G
modified the idea after some early difficulties and started
marketing Bounce dryer sheets. By 1975 the bugs were taken
care of and the product was launched on a national basis.
Today, there are many different dryer sheets on the market with
various chemicals being used in the different products. Most
dryer sheets these days are made from a polyester sheet (not
really paper) coated with a softening agent. (For you chemists
out there, fatty acids, fatty alcohols and alcohol ethoxylates and
their derivatives are among the softening agents used.) In the
dryer, the softening agent melts and gets transferred onto the
item of laundry. The softening agent gives the item a slippery
feel that our brains interpret as softness.
What about static cling? Apparently, these softening agents also
lubricate and increase the surface conductivity of the fibers in the
fabric. I’m assuming that if the surface is conductive, static
charges won’t build up at a point but will be conducted away.
The softening agent has to have a fairly high melting point so it
doesn’t come off the sheet onto the fabric too quickly. This
would cause streaking of softener on some parts of the fabric.
Dryer sheets today come with all sorts of fragrances, fragrance
molecules being another component of the sheet. Since
fragrance molecules are more volatile, it’s a bit touchy getting
them to stick on the sheet since the softening agent is in essence
melted onto or into the sheet at relatively high temperatures.
Thus the fragrance molecules are either sprayed on after the
softening agents are embedded in the sheet or, alternatively, the
fragrance molecules are encapsulated in a compound such as
cyclodextrin. In the dryer, the water molecules coming off the
wet laundry go after the cyclodextrin capsules and release the
fragrance molecules. I wouldn’t have thought there would be so
much chemistry going on in my laundry.
Finally, some good and bad medical news. My wife fell again
last Friday but the good news is that she didn’t break anything
and was back home after only a few hours in the ER. The next
day I opened an e-mail from a very good friend, Dan in Hawaii.
The e-mail said he had some broken ribs and wrist problems.
When I called to find out what happened (he was kneeling and
fell), his wife Jeanne answered and it turned out she also had
been in the ER the same day as my wife. Best wishes to both for
speedy recoveries from their respective maladies.
I’ve probably noted earlier that this year we’ve missed going on
our annual trip to Marco Island in Florida. However, all is not
lost. I looked at the box of dryer sheets I’ve been using and
they’re Publix dryer sheets purchased in our favorite Publix
supermarket on Marco. When I handle that soft, pleasantly
scented laundry, I picture myself walking on the beach, gazing at
a glorious sunrise with a full moon setting behind me.
Allen F. Bortrum