The last time I wrote about doing laundry without plastic was June 17, 2009. Obama was our new president, and Michael Jackson was still alive (he died a week later). It’s time for an update.
Plastic-Free Soap Nuts Laundry Soap
Back in the day, we used powdered Ecover laundry detergent, in part because it came in a recyclable cardboard box and was the only brand I’d ever found that came with a cardboard scoop instead of a plastic one. Those days are over. Ecover switched to a plastic scoop (why does anyone need a new scoop with every box anyway?), and I no longer recommend it.
There are lots of recipes online for making your own laundry detergent with combinations of various ingredients, but the one that I’ve found to be the simplest to make and work the best in cold water is a liquid soap that requires only 2 ingredients: soap nuts and water. You can also add essential oil(s), but that’s totally optional.
What are soap nuts?
Soap nuts are not actually nuts. They are the berry of a tree called Sapindus mukorossi (Chinese Soapberry) and contain saponin, a natural surfactant which foams just like soap. Although they have to be imported (Eco Nuts brand soap nuts are wild-harvested in Nepal), they are minimally-processed (sorted, de-seeded, and sun-dried) and contain only one ingredient: soap nuts. Soap nuts are biodegradable and safe for septic tanks and front-load washers. I’ve been told they are great for washing baby diapers. And because Eco Nuts hand packs them in the United States, they are able to avoid the inner plastic liner that would otherwise be required by customs.
How to Use Soap Nuts
Eco Nuts come with a cotton pouch you can use to wash clothes in warm or hot water. Just put the soap nuts in the pouch and toss the pouch in the washer with your clothes. You can reuse those soap nuts up to ten times before they need to be composted.
But in our home, we mostly wash in cold water, which is not so good at activating the saponin. So instead of using the dried berries, I make liquid soap nut laundry soap. Honestly, it’s almost as easy as making tea! (Eco Nuts sells their own version of liquid soap, but I’d rather avoid the expense and the aluminum and plastic packaging and make it myself.)
Step 1: Boil 8 cups of water.
(Feel free to decrease or increase this recipe as needed for the amount and frequency of laundry loads in your home.)
Step 2: Turn off the heat and add about 15 soap nuts.
Step 3: Cover and let the soap nuts steep in the pot over night.
Step 4: In the morning, strain the soap nuts liquid into a bowl.
You’ll see the change in color and consistency of the liquid.
Step 4: Compost the used up soap nuts.
Step 5: (Optional) Add essential oil(s) of your choice.
Only add a tiny amount! I use peppermint because it reminds me of Dr. Bronner’s. The essential oil doesn’t really add any scent to the clothes, but I like it because soap nuts smell kind of weird on their own.
Step 6: Stir up the mixture well and pour into glass jars.
Step 7: Store your soap nuts liquid in the refrigerator.
Soap nuts are natural products like food, and the liquid can spoil or grow mold if not refrigerated. Honestly, it’s not a big deal to grab your laundry soap from the refrigerator rather than the laundry room shelf. You just have to get used to a new habit.
(This amount lasts about a month for us, at our rate of laundry doing. If you think you would use it up slower, you can cut down the recipe and make less.)
It’s a good idea to label the jars so no one mistakes soap nuts liquid for yummy broth. The two kind of look the same.
Step 8: Add 1/2 to 1 cup to each laundry load, depending on the size and dirtiness of the load.
I fill the washer part way and add the soap nuts liquid before putting in the clothes.
Don’t believe it will really suds up like soap? I agitated the washer a bit to give you a demo. Check this out.
That’s it for the laundry soap portion of our plastic-free laundry procedure. But we’re not done yet!
Use White Vinegar in the Rinse Cycle
A few years ago, our washing machine developed a really funky odor. (Don’t blame the soap nuts. I think this was back when we were still using Ecover.) After spending two weeks trying to take the washer apart, I discovered some pretty nasty built up soap sludge. (You can read the entire saga with instructions for taking apart a Kenmore washer here.) Ever since that ordeal, we have dutifully added 1/2 cup of white vinegar to the fabric softener compartment for each load.
White vinegar not only helps to rinse out any soap residue from the machine, it also helps to thoroughly rinse the clothes and make them soft. (No, clothes do not come out smelling like vinegar.)
DO NOT add the vinegar to the tub! It will cancel out the soap! You only want it to be released during the rinse cycle.
BTW, the washing machine in these pictures is not our old Kenmore that I heroically took apart and put back together. That one lasted a few more years and then died completely. (It was born in 1992. Not bad!) Last year, ironically during my year of buying nothing new, we replaced it with a brand new Speed Queen, which I absolutely adore and which should last at least as long as the previous machine. If you’re interested in learning why I chose that one, and not one of the new High Efficiency electronic washers, leave a comment. Maybe I’ll write a blog post about it.
Use Borax to Pretreat Stained Clothing
I keep a box of borax on hand to treat the occasional stain. For lightly stained clothes, I soak for 30 minutes in a solution of 1/2 cup of borax to 1 gallon of warm water. For more stubborn stains, I make a paste and rub into stains with an old toothbrush. I’ve had great success cleaning coffee stains this way. In fact, it’s supposed to be great for any acidic or protein-based stains. Here’s how the 20 Mule Team company explains the science behind how Borax works.
I’ve seen some scary warnings on the web claiming that borax is toxic. Crunchy Betty discusses those concerns in a recent post. It’s an interesting read. I feel pretty comfortable using Borax to fight stains on clothing, but I wouldn’t recommend eating it or inhaling it or shoving a bunch in your eye. And of course, keep it away from pets and children. The same should be said for washing soda as well.
Use Washing Soda & Boiling Water to Clean Rancid Oily Nasty Smelling Fabrics
A few months ago, I noticed that many of our cotton produce bags had developed a funky smell that would not go away no matter how many times I washed them. It turned out the odor was from baked goods Michael had stored in them, and the oils from those foods had infused the bags and turned rancid. I soaked them in baking soda. I soaked them in vinegar. Nothing would remove the stink. I Googled and Googled to find a solution and finally pieced together different ideas into a procedure that worked!
(I wish I had taken pictures of this process while I was doing it, but sadly, I did not.)
What I did was to boil those cloth bags with washing soda in a big pot on the stove. I boiled them for probably an hour. That might have been too long, but I was serious. When I was done, all of the oily nastiness was in the water and none of it was in the cloth bags. They smelled new again!
You can purchase Washing Soda, or you can actually make it yourself from baking soda. That’s what I did because I had baking soda on hand and did not have washing soda and it was night and I was impatient and didn’t want to wait until stores were open the next morning. Note: washing soda and baking soda are not the same things. But by adding heat to baking soda, you can create washing soda. I followed Karen Lee’s instructions.
Here’s the chemistry:
Baking soda is Sodium Bicarbonate, which is NaHCO3.
Washing Soda is Sodium carbonate, which is Na2CO3.
When heat is added to baking soda, for every two molecules of baking soda, you get (H2O) (Water) + CO2 (Carbon dioxide) + Na2CO3 (Washing Soda). The water and carbon dioxide evaporate, leaving behind only the washing soda. (BTW, the released carbon dioxide is what makes baked goods rise.)
What Do You Use?
This post is by no means a comprehensive list of all of the plastic-free laundry ideas out there. These are just the things we use in our house. What do you use to clean clothes?