The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

June 17, 2009

Plastic-Free Stain Remover and other Laundry ideas

Lunch at Oliveto with my friend Simone last Saturday was great fun. Too much fun. I laughed so hard, I spilled coffee all over the table and all over my sleeve. Normally, I’d just take it home and “Shout it Out.” But not this time. This past week, I ran out of the plastic bottle of Shout I’d been using for the last two years and was determined to find a plastic-free alternative.

But the plastic bottle was not my only concern. Do you know what chemicals are in Shout? Terrible nasty ones or perfectly benign? Unless you work for S.C. Johnson, you’re as clueless as I am because the company doesn’t reveal it’s ingredients. Here’s the FAQ from the Shout web site:

Q. What are the ingredients in Shout®?
A. We can’t give away our “trade secrets,” but we can say that Shout® Laundry Stain Removers are detergent based with powerful cleaning agents. Shout® does not contain any phosphates or bleach.

Can’t? Or won’t? This is the problem with so many chemicals that we use on a daily basis. Not only are they not tested for safety before entering the market, but manufacturers don’t even have to tell us what they are in the first place! No thanks.

Here are the plastic-free, less toxic laundry products I’m currently using:

1) Ecover laundry powder comes in a recycled cardboard box and contains a recycled cardboard scoop, unlike most powder detergents that come with a plastic scoop. And the company lists its ingredients on the box as well as the web site: Sodium carbonate, Zeolite, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Fatty Acid Methyl Esters Ethoxylates, Sodium Bicarbonate, Sodium Sulfate, Sodium Carbonate Peroxide, Sodium Poly Asparaginate, Sodium Disilicate, Sodium Citrate, Cellulose Gum, Trisodium Ethylenediamine Disuccinate, Subtilisin. Now, I’m not a chemist and this does seem like a lot of ingredients, regardless of the fact that they are plant based and not tested on animals. So we have been alternating with the next item.

2)  Soapnuts contain one natural ingredient: soap nuts. The only reason we don’t use them exclusively is that we stocked up on Ecover a while back and are still using it up. Also, I think the Ecover does a better job on seriously dirty gym clothes.

3) Borax turns out to be a great stain remover! I like that it comes in a cardboard box and also that it also contains only one ingredient: borax. Of course, it’s not without its environmental impact, as it’s a mineral that has to be mined from the earth. That’s why we use it sparingly only for tough stains.

To clean my jacket sleeve, I used the instructions from The Naturally Clean Home, a little book I picked up a while back from our local bookstore (If you purchase via the link on this blog, My Plastic-Free Life receives a small percentage.) While I do a lot of research on the Internet, sometimes it’s nice to have a book handy to grab for solutions, and this is a good one. Here’s what the author says to do for coffee and tea stains: Immediately flush with cool water. Then soak in a borax and water solution before laundering.

Not having soaked my jacket immediately, I thought maybe something a little more intense was in order. So I actually made a paste of borax and water (stored now in a glass jar for future stain-removal needs) and and rubbed it into the stains with an old toothbrush. Several hours later, I rinsed off the borax, and the stains were gone!

Of course, there are other ways to get rid of stains, depending on what kind they are. Carbonated water (free of plastic bottle waste with my Soda Club soda maker) is another alternative. And The Naturally Clean Home lists more.

But lest you think our laundry room is completely plastic-free, think again. We still have a few more plastic bottles, acquired before I gave up buying new plastic, that we are very, very slowly working our way through:

WIN detergent for athletic wear, Seventh Generation oxygen bleach, and a can of spray starch with a plastic cap. At some point, these too will end up in the plastic tally, unless I finally just decide to give them away on Freecycle. (I’m not even sure if we use the spray starch. Maybe Michael uses it on his collars. Hmmm…)

What are your favorite non-toxic and plastic-free ways to clean clothes?

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30 Comments on "Plastic-Free Stain Remover and other Laundry ideas"

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I have read the majority of these responses but nobody speaks of what to use with cold water. I never wash my clothes in hot water because I like to save on propane. I have avoided laundry powders because my experience with them is that they do not dissolve in our super cold water. Does anyone know what I can use with cold water?

I use Fels Naptha Soap bar to clean laundry stains. My grandmother and mother both used this product and it works well. The wrapper may be plastic lined, but it is better than using Shout and those other products.

I recently switched to a powdered detergent and was happy to open it and not find a scoop at all. Then I got half way through the box and found a plastic scoop. I will definitely be getting myself some ecover when I need more. I love their products but they aren’t easy to find in the stores in my area. I will have to order them online but it is well worth it to not have the unnecessary plastic scoops.

It seems like bamboo or hemp clothing might be really good for athletic clothes, possibly blended with cotton. Personally, I’d look at what the best cloth diapers are made of, since they’re absorbent, durable, and have to be cleaned well, and base your athletic apparel off of that knowledge. But I usually try to repurpose old clothes (or my husband’s, lol) for the gym to save on space and money. One cleaner that I sometimes use on laundry is hydrogen peroxide. Yes, it comes in plastic (I think partly because it needs that dark/opaque brown container so sunlight can’t destroy… Read more »

Hi Donny. The trouble with the MSDS is that is does not require manufacturers to list the actual ingredients in their products. I don't want them to just tell me their ingredients are safe. I want to know what they are so I can decide for myself.

A very nice way to get around corporate secretiveness is a nice document required by OSHA at all workplaces. They are called MSDSs (Material Safety Data Sheets), and they are required to be supplied by employers, for things from soap to industrial solvents. Since these documents are required to be registered as well, they are publicly available for many household products. A decent database of them is available here. I would love to hear how useful this is for you.

I've been refilling the same 4 plastic containers for dish soap, laundry soap, oxygen bleach, and baking soda for at least 10 years, thanks to the extensive bulk options available at my local food co-op. I also use distilled vinegar for fabric softener (sadly not available in self-serve bulk so I have to recycle the 5-gallon plastic jug).

Hey Cat. You've got it. Before I stopped buying new plastic, I bought a ton of polyester "technical" athletic wear. What a racket. Those things stink really fast, and then they sell you a "special" detergent made especially to get odors out of these kinds of garments. Obviously, I'm not buying more of these kinds of clothes. But before I switch over to cotton, I really need to do some research and find out what natural fiber clothing has the best water wicking ability. Cotton is terrible for distance running because it just absorbs sweat, which leads to chafing and… Read more »

Beth, I wonder about your stinky gym clothes vs soap nuts. My gym clothes (which consist of cotton shorts and cotton t-shirt) get a thorough soaking during my kickboxing class. I hang them to dry when I get home but then just toss them into my laundry with soap nuts. I don't have any problem. But as I'm typing this I wonder if that because they are cotton. Are your gym clothes some kind of polyester/spandex performance clothes? Perhaps that's the difference.

We also use Charlie's. I decided to get the 5 gallon bucket. Once you switch over to Charlie's, it's best to avoid using other detergents anyway because of the whole residue stripping issue. Once we had used it for a couple of months and were reasonably satisfied we went in big. It does come in a plastic bucket but that bucket will last us for years and could be reused for other storage after that. I felt that the decrease in fossil fuel transport use from needing 1 delivery per 2-3 years vs a delivery every few months evened out… Read more »
Another commenter posted about using the sun, and I've gotta say THE SUN ROCKS! It has yet to fail to get out a stain for me, and I've got a sweaty husband and a messy 13 month old (who uses cloth diapers). It gets out stains of unknown origin, always to my surprise. It even gets out stains that have stayed on the clothes through several washes. If anything ever needs a little extra help, lemon juice is pretty fab. I also love vinegar. Yes, it comes in plastic, but I bigger bottles and dilute. My main cleaning agent for… Read more »
Emily, so glad to know another busy mom just washes the cloth diapers with the rest of the laundry. Heck, we don't even have a diaper pail. Just prewash with some premixed Dr. Bronners' and water before tossing them in the washer until the next load. Our 40 year septic system means that one can only wash one load a day, so we don't have a "laundry day" because we wash a load a day. I have a slightly different laundry powder recipe. 2 bars castille soap (we use locally made soap) 3 cups baking soda 1 cup borax (I… Read more »

Terrible Person,

Argo Laundry Starch is ganular and comes in a cardboard box. I haven't used it but have seen it for sale at Lehmans .

Lehmans is store that carries a massive amount of old fashioned non electric goods in Ohio Amish country. They even have special horse parking for the Amish who shop there. It's a fun place to poke around if you're in the area.

yes, Michael does sometimes use the starch on his shirts. He's had that can since about 1990, though, so it might be a while before he uses it up. Can you make starch for clothes out of dissolved cornstarch or something?

I use Country Save for everything. It's sold in bulk at the local co-op so you don't have to get the scoop (I've already got one, thanks!). I've been thinking about buying a whole bag of it. I tried Charlie's, but thought that it was a hassle to have to order it. Sometimes I add 1/2 cup of baking soda to a load. I really like oxygen bleach for stain removal, but now I'd like to try Borax! I've been trying to remember to add 1/2 cup of vinegar to the rinse cycle for the diapers. I've read that it… Read more »

I'm a big fan of the Countrysave nonchlorine powder bleach- i keep bugging our coop to start carrying it again. It's like oxyclean without weird color crystals or smells added, and it comes in a cardboard box.

AUGH. I just ordered, and received, a container of OxiClean Free from, because no one around here seems to carry anything but the stuff that's scented. If only I'd known that Borax works as a stain remover. ;_;

I have been using the castille soap + borax + super washing soda laundry detergent for a number of months. I find it to be working really well for us. I even *gasp* use it to launder cloth diapers along with the rest of our laundry. Everything comes out nice and clean of course.

I'll have to check out the book you read. I just finished reading 'Organic Housekeeping' (Ellen Sandbeck).


Anarres Natural Health

Awesome entry!

I make my own laundry detergent using the Women's Voices for the Earth recipe:
2 parts soap flakes (I use my leftovers from soap making)
1 part borax
1 part washing soda

My sodas and borax come in paper bags.

When out of soap scraps, I revert to my local soapworks bag.

I make stain remover with equal parts water, vinegar (bulk!) and soap (organic liquid soap, not SLS or other detergent). Thanks again to WVE, an awesome resource for safer products:

Love & RRRevolution, Tracey

I make my own powdered HE laundry detergent If you use a bar soap that comes packaged in a paper/no wrapper it's plastic free! I store it in the empty cardboard container from my last box of detergent and reuse its plastic scoop to measure it. Inexpensive, gets my clothes clean, environmentally friendly, and best of all doesn't make me itch last the store brand I tried when I first bought my washer!

For stains on cloth diapers I line-dry them in the sun. Not only does it reduce energy use, but sunlight is a natural disinfectant and will sun bleach clothes. It saves me from having to use a lot of extra products that don't work so well. And line-dried clothes smell great to boot. :)


I used to use Charlie's Soap as well. It comes in a paper bag, which I love, and it works great.

Now I make my own concoction. I grate up about an ounce of Dr. Bronner's castile bar soap, add a cup of washing soda and a cup of borax. I store it in an old glass jar and use about tablespoon for each load. For stains, you can mix the powder with a little bit of water until it's a thick paste.

There's a little known company called Charlie's Soap that the cloth diapering mamas know about b/c the cloth diaper companies recommend them on their website. (We got some of ours at It is an old fashioned laundry powder. Non toxic. Biodegradable. etc. etc. It used to come in a brown paper bag. Now they use cloth. They left out the plastic scoop per my request, but they do attach a little plastic tag with info that states it's recyclable. But who will recycle it? I want to get them to removed it and the plastic tie at the top!… Read more »
How Green Is My Valley
I've found that adding baking soda to my regular laundry detergent does as good or better a job with stinky gym clothes than Win detergent. I'm having trouble getting rid of plastics in the laundry area for two reasons: powders clump very badly where we are, which means that I'm using liquid detergent, and the hands-down best thing I've found for…well, let's call them biological stains is OxiClean in its spray form. I also have the powdered OxiClean (clumptastic!), so if someone can tell me the proportions needed to get that into liquid form, great. If not, I'm going to… Read more »

Eventually, I spill coffee on all my clothes. So glad to know that Borax works that well and I have a box! I will be checking that book from the library as well.

My most recent post details my trash and recycling for a two week period. I'm making great progress. Take a peek if you have a chance. You continue to be an inspiration. Thanks.

I recently read some interesting stuff about how they attempt to put the desert back the way it was as the Borax is mined. They have scientists doing trials with different grades(steepness, different plant species, etc.

One interesting debate they had was about watering. I think they decided that since there is a 5% chance that the desert will get a good soaking in any given year it's not 'unnatural' to water newly planted trees once.

I find that most stains can be taken care of by squirting ordinary dish detergent on them. It works particularly well on greasy stains.

Sadly, though, the detergents that work the best still come in plastic bottles :-( However, one bottle lasts us several months.

I made the switch a couple of months ago to adding nothing but a 1/2 cup of baking soda to each load of laundry and I have never had softer, cleaner clothes. It works even on stinky gym clothes, in my experience. In April I had an awful experience involving a suitcase full of clothes and a bottle of red wine. I used Google from my cell phone to determine that salt and cold water was the best way to get out the stains, bought a container of table salt from the local minimart, and soaked/scrubbed everything in the hotel… Read more »