Call it another example of the Law of Unintended Consequences coming back to bite us all in the a**...er...wallet.
What's caused this decline in their ability to get clothes clean? Three words:
Energy efficiency mandates.
So how much energy is being saved if we have to wash our clothes more than once to get them clean? How much is being saved if we have to wash smaller loads for the same reason? If I had to guess, I'd say not much, if at all. (We're fortunate here at The Manse as we have an 11-year old front-loader that does a great job cleaning clothes. We've thought about replacing it and our not-very-good clothes drier with new models that would allow us to stack them in the laundry nook, but now I'm not so sure.)
Front-loaders meet federal standards more easily than top-loaders. Because they don't fully immerse their laundry loads, they use less hot water and therefore less energy. But, as Americans are increasingly learning, front-loaders are expensive, often have mold problems, and don't let you toss in a wayward sock after they've started.
In 2007, after the more stringent rules had kicked in, Consumer Reports noted that some top-loaders were leaving its test swatches "nearly as dirty as they were before washing." "For the first time in years," CR said, "we can't call any washer a Best Buy." Contrast that with the magazine's 1996 report that, "given warm enough water and a good detergent, any washing machine will get clothes clean." Those were the good old days.
In 2007, only one conventional top-loader was rated "very good." Front-loaders did better, as did a new type of high-efficiency top-loader that lacks a central agitator. But even though these newer types of washers cost about twice as much as conventional top-loaders, overall they didn't clean as well as the 1996 models.
Remember, this is the same government that has mandated the elimination of incandescent light bulbs, use of low-water volume flush toilets, and a host of other energy 'saving' appliances. The problem is that most of these energy saving measures don't work very well and the savings are minuscule or non-existent, all while costing us more to buy.
One of my biggest pet peeves is the low-volume flush toilets. Sometimes it takes more than one flush for it to properly dispose of the effluvia deposited in them, and the low water volume sometimes prevents the aforementioned effluvia from making it all the way to the septic tank or sewer system, clogging the drain pipes. If the government really wants us to save water, then maybe they should spend time and money on more effective means like fixing the leaky public water systems that waste far more water than 'normal' toilets would during their entire lifetime.