Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Washing-up with soapods

One of the, so-far unwritten, rules of our Transition House experiment is, if you run out of something find out if there is a better alternative before mindlessly rushing to buy the same thing again.

On Saturday, we ran out of washing-up liquid.

We usually buy a biodegradeable product in a 1 litre plastic bottle and recycle the bottle in the fortnightly bin collection. When the washing-up liquid started to run out, I investigated alternatives.

We've been using soapods in the washing machine to clean our clothes for over a year. They do a good job.

(Soapods (or soap nuts) are the pods from a tropical tree native to India and southern China the Sapindus Mukorossi. The pods contain a high level of saponin - a natural detergent).

So we decided to find out what soapods are like when made into a washing-up liquid. There are full instructions on www.soapods.com.

The results

Not as many bubbles as I'm used to (actually hardly any - which was surprising, as when used in the washing machine there are plenty of bubbles), but then most products add "foam boosters" which have nothing to do with cleaning power (although my original brand claimed not to add them).

I'm reserving judgment on the cleaning power, it cleans, but then so does water on it's own, perhaps I need to just get used to the lack of bubbles. In any case, I need to do more experiments to see how it compares to just water.

I'm not sure I simmered the pods for long enough, I suspect a stronger liquid can be obtained as the soapods felt quite soapy after the second simmer.

On the plus side, after washing up my hands are less dry and the expired pods have been composted.

Must remember to check thoroughly for soapod seeds before boiling. I found a seed. My wife has planted it anyway to see if it grows.


  1. I ordered a small quantity of soap nuts to try, last week. They do seem to wash the clothes OK, but I'm wondering about their carbon foot print. Then again, maybe my washing liquid contains palm oil or some other ingredient from far away. I know that on the plus side they are compostable and presumably they are only processed by human hand.

  2. Hi Karin, I am currently studying part time for an MSc in Environmental Architecture at the Centre of Alternative Technology www.cat.org.uk and have recently completed a module which incorporated study of waste water and sewage. Most liquids that avoid the use of phosphate, use zeolite. Phosphate based powders were traditionally the environmental villain because of euthrophication of river and ultimately ocean water (though the mining of the sea bed off Morocco) is another cause of concern. But zeolite in phosphate-free powders may be the cause of algal sea scums and is mined in open cast mines in Australia. It comes from Bauxite - the stuff you make aluminium with. Soapods avoid both of these issues. Buying soapods results in tree crops being planted and protected in India with some benefits going to the community. Check out the soap pod lady's site for more benefits - http://www.soapods.com/about.html

  3. Thank you, Craig. I understand there are many benefits in using soap pods, but I'm wondering if zeolites are found in detergents made from natural ingredients, such as the ubiquitous Ecover or Bio D. If they are not, then I'm wondering if there is any overall benefit in using soap pods when their airmiles or seamiles are taken into consideration. In my experience these things are never straight forward.

  4. I haven't checked about zeolites in Ecover or Bio D. I do think there are benefits in using soapods. The tree planting in mountain slopes suffering soil erosion and the empowerment of local people to farm a tree crop instead of a crop that could lead to more soil stripping both sequester carbon from the air. Also, there is no embodied energy in the production of soapods. Even if you refill your plastic bottle of washing up liquid, it still needs to manufactured in the first place. As does the liquid itself. This involves factories and mechanised production lines and CO2 emissions.

  5. Ecover contains zeolite - http://www.ecover.com/gb/en/Products/Laundry/Non+Bio+Integrated+Washing+Powder.htm

    Don't know about bioD - check the website.

  6. Thank you, Craig. That's interesting. Perhaps soapnuts are the way forward. I appreciate all the plastic in the bottles and the manufacturing process for the liquid must use petroleum and produce CO2 and other pollutants. It's just so complicated weighing up all the pros and cons.

  7. I've just checked ingredients for Bio D washing liquid and it doesn't contain zeolite.

    The ingredients are Vegetable Oil Soap, Aqua, Glucose-derived Detergent, Ethanol, Natural Anionic Detergents, Citrates, Citric Acid.

    I also checked the Ecover site and the laundry liquid doesn't either, it's only the powder that has zeolite. The ingredients for the liquid are

    * Water
    * Ethoxylated Rapeseed Methyl Esters
    * Potassium Soap of coco and olein fatty acids
    * Sodium Citrate
    * Ethanol
    * Alkyl Poly Glycoside C10-16
    * Fatty Alcohol Sulfate C10-16
    * Citric Acid
    * Perfume
    * Linalool
    * Limonene
    * Citronellol

    I actually switched from Ecover to Bio D because I prefer the smell and I knew some people who prefered their ethics. Plus it's a British company, and I think fairly small.

    However, there may still be good reasons to use sop nuts.