Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Lightening the Laundry Load Part One: Soap Nuts

As a family of five, three of whom are young children, we do a great deal of laundry. Currently we do on average about five loads per week. When my children were infants, and when I used cloth diapers (which I will discuss in a future post), we did perhaps three loads over two days. There are periods when we do more, such as when the stomach 'flu hits our home or when we have nighttime accidents.

Just one or two of the of the many, many loads we do per week.

Because of the frequency with which we use our washing machine and dryer, I have sought ways to lighten our environmental load when doing the laundry. The first step is using the cold cycle to wash and rinse, which many people do now, so this is a no-brainer. Energy star appliances are another step.

I think most people upgrade to energy 
star appliances when they need to replace older models.

My husband has asthma and both of us have sensitivities to scents and additives, so we have always used unscented laundry detergent. For years I thought this was enough. I am amazed at the impact that scents in detergent can have on me. If we stay with someone who uses scented detergent I immediately have problems breathing and sometimes even get a headache. My husband has an even stronger reaction than I do. So far our children don't seem as sensitive, but then again we don't have strong scents around them on a regular basis. I don't think people realize how toxic synthetic scents can be, and after careful label reading I have noticed that even "unscented" products contain perfume!

Note the "unscented" label on this antiperspirant. But is it really?

Sorry for the quality of the photo, but on the second to last line of 
ingredients listed is "parfum", a fancy word for fragrance or scent, 

When both my husband and I still noticed sensitivities to laundry detergent, and after doing research into the ingredients of conventional detergents, I sought alternatives. I've tried various "green" detergents, and while I have not noticed sensitivities, I do not like the cost. I also do not like the pseudo green products on the market that can dupe the consumer into thinking they are green with clever marketing tactics, a problem that is now called greenwashing. It takes so much energy when shopping to read labels after doing extensive internet research into ingredients to determine if they are toxic (as I am not a chemist- never took chemistry past grade 10 actually). It really doesn't seem fair that the onus is on the consumer to be aware of this. Don't get me started on the government lacking the political will to regulate companies and have them be honest about what goes into their products.

I can't remember how I discovered soap nuts. After some research into the pros and cons, and discovering some friends who use soap nuts, I decided to give them a try. I haven't been able to purchase soap nut in its whole form (throw them in the wash in a mesh bag) locally. I purchased some at a local store that are ground up in a filter-like bag that you throw into the wash and then toss when finished. When our current box is gone I plan on ordering whole soap nuts from an on line company I have found (the dried nuts, which are actually berries, go into the wash in a mesh or cloth baggie).

This is a box of 30 individual packets of ground soap nuts.

The packets are single use. Soap nuts are compostable, although I'm 
not sure if the packet material can be recycled or composted 
(they seem to be similar to coffee filters so I assume they can be).

So do they work? Yes. We have not noticed any difference in our laundry - clothes come out just as clean (caveat: see thoughts on stains below) and there have been no sensitivity reactions. Some people have complained about an odd smell when the clothes are wet, which we have not noticed. I think that perhaps those that notice an odd odour are not used to washing their clothes without scented detergent to mask the smell (?) of wet cloth. I am not sure if this is related to the soap nuts or the nature of my messy kids, but I have found that stains require more pre-treatment lately, which I am not very good at remembering to do. If you see a child walking around with a visible record of what they have eaten on their clean clothing (tomato sauce, anyone?), they may be mine. However, in a future post I will discuss my stain remover secret.

I have read some criticisms of soap nuts from a sustainable point of view. As they are a crop grown overseas in developing countries and land must be used to grow them, it may contribute to destruction of natural habitat (although this does not seem to be the case with the minimal research I have done) or reduction in other crops for the communities that grow soap nuts (again, I'm not sure about this). Also, it is important to keep in mind how far soap nuts must travel to reach our homes. I suppose you could research where the soap nuts you purchase are grown and how the farmers and their communities are treated by the companies, but once again, unless the company is direct about this information the onus is on the consumer. Sigh.

In the end, I like using soap nuts. They are completely compostable when they are fully used (whole nuts can be used several times). They are "natural" and involve minimal processing with hopefully a low environmental impact (not sure how they harvest or what process they use to dry the berries). They are safe for use in my high efficiency washing machine. I don't have to do anything different when I do laundry, so there is no change in my routine, and which is important when trying to make an environmental change. A win for us.

Do you have sensitivities to laundry detergents? Have you tried soap nuts or other "green" laundry detergents? What works for you?

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