Is idea of PLL hung out to dry?

Of all the environmental groups that have sprung up in New Hampshire over the past decade, the catchiest name and most intriguing angle definitely belongs to Concord-based Project Laundry List, which urges people to take a single step: Dry your washing on an airy clothesline rather than in a hot, power-sucking tub.

Dryers are inefficient devices, so bad that the government won’t give any of them an Energy Star rating, and they consume more electricity in most American homes than any other appliance except the refrigerator. Trimming their use could make a significant dent in residential power usage.

Concord resident Alexander Lee says he was inspired to start PLL, as it is often known, after hearing anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott say “If we all did things like hang out our clothes, we could shut down the nuclear industry.”

An exaggeration perhaps, but inspirational to Lee.

Lee, 36, a Massachusetts native who graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, started Project Laundry List as a website and kept it percolating on the side until national media attention in 2007, prompted by a New York Times article, made him decide to step it up. He left the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission, where he had come to work after getting a law degree, and became PLL’s full-time director.

Since then, Stephen Colbert’s show, ABC News and the Wall Street Journal have joined in, not to mention more regional media than you can shake a press release at, including The Telegraph.

The site has launched a national “right to dry” movement, resulting in state laws being passed from Massachusetts to Nova Scotia to Hawaii (but not New Hampshire) that keep community associations from forbidding outdoor clotheslines. Project Laundry List has also sold $100,000 of drying racks and clotheslines, and been a big part of getting people to realize that washing clothes in cold water works just fine. It’s even got a documentary coming out.

So it was something of a surprise this month when Lee announced that he was stepping down as PLL director in February, although he will stay on its board of directors. He’s going to the Chinese city of Changchun, north of North Korea, to teach English.

“I feel like I’ve done what I can with PLL,” he said in a recent interview.

Why go to China? Because its growth is going to affect the world for the rest of our lives, he said.

“The key to understanding the 21st century is understanding China,” he said.

In particular, Lee says he’d like to see if China can become developed while producing less pollution than we did as we became industrialized. His blog is called “waking green dragon,” a hopeful commentary about whether China can be “green” as it develops.

As for PLL, the board of directors say they’ll find a new executive director – the only paid full-time position – and keep going, but I’m a little dubious. Volunteer groups formed by charismatic individuals often have trouble surviving when that individual moves on, and Lee has been PLL’s heart and soul, and public face, since day one. But we’ll see.

Lee says he is happy with PLL’s accomplishments over the years, and I can see why. In many ways, it is a classic example of using an attention-getting angle to present a broader picture.

However, the inability to pass a “right to dry” law in its home state must rankle. New Hampshire legislators balked at the idea of getting in the way of contracts between homeowner associations and homeowners; if those agreements forbid outdoor clotheslines, they said, so be it.

And despite all the growth and attention, Lee admits PLL has barely put a dent in reversing the idea it’s always better to get machines do a job for us.

“Project Laundry List isn’t focused on telling people that they have to use clotheslines. We’re focused on celebrating that clothes last longer and smell better when hung out to dry … on making people realize the true cost of (dryers) and benefits of line drying,” he said.

He has also taken public stands in other environmental issues, most recently speaking out against a proposal to run a 1,200-megawatt power line through New Hampshire to bring down hydropower from Quebec. Lee thinks the environmental cost of large hydropower projects is under-estimated and that it would be vastly more effective to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars on energy-efficiency projects.

Lee has faced some big drawbacks, notably the November elections. The sweeping success of the GOP was a blow to Lee, who has long been involved in Democratic politics and ran unsuccessfully for the legislature. If he had any hope of getting New Hampshire lawmakers to adopt his thinking, those hopes have been dashed.

I suspect that if Democrats had held on in Concord, he might have thought twice about China. But perhaps I’m being cynical.

This is the point in the column where I bare my soul.

I confess that despite my willingness to spend time and money on home efficiency – including installing a solar water heater on the roof long before the state gave rebates for it, which has helped cut our electricity use in half over four years – my household is a PLL failure. We haven’t reduced our dryer use at all.

Hauling wet clothes downstairs and outdoors is such a hassle and hanging them on a line inside the (largely unheated) guest room next to the washroom dries them so slowly that I’ve occasionally had to rewash cotton T-shirts that started smelling musty.

Those are feeble excuses; after all, my little old grandmother dried clothes on a line all her life. Laziness has won out, I fear.

If Project Laundry List sticks around and gets stronger, though, maybe it will convince me.

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph, and online at www.granitegeek.org. David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.