The Wonder of Soap Nuts

imgres-1I have a confession:  I get strangely excited about washing my laundry in an environmentally sound way.  I’ve been making my own natural laundry detergent (based on this easy recipe, but I buy soap flakes rather than grating my own soap – much easier and cheaper) for a couple of years and I know I won’t turn back.  The laundry is clean and green and I love it.

But I was also excited when I got some soap nut samples from Eco Nuts to try out.  I’d read all about soap nuts, and was fascinated, but not inspired to change my already satisfying eco-laundry routine.  Unless, of course, they were to fall into my lap, which they did.

What are soap nuts?   For starters, they’re not actually nuts, but the fruit from a tree, and they’re sometimes called soap berries.  They are used for various kinds of personal cleaning because they contain high amounts of saponin, which is a natural surfactant.  As a natural, bio-degradable item, their effects on the environment are benign. They’re quite new to North Americans, but are yesterday’s news in many parts of the world where they’ve been used for millenia.  Grown largely in Nepal and India (there are some efforts to see if they can be grown elsewhere), their importation carries a carbon footprint, but being small and light (the dried berries are about the size of a cherry) this imprint is fairly small.  Also, because they’re so small and the companies that distribute them tend to be eco-conscious, their packaging is minimal.

They’re also a cinch to use.  You just put 4 of 5 of the dried berries into the provided wash bag and throw it in the wash.  The laundry comes out fresh and clean, and it still quite amazes me that the naturally occurring saponin in these soap nuts is doing such a brilliant job on the clothes, including diapers.  You re-use the berries for several washings until they dry out, and then they go in your compost.    The only imperfection I can think of is that the little wash bag  can get hidden among a pile of wet clothes.  But even if you forget to retrieve the bag and it goes through the dryer, the soap nuts can still be used so it doesn’t really matter much.

They’re a wonder, basically.  And it’s not just me who thinks so – my husband loves them too.  He’d never heard of them before and asked, “Can we become a distributor?”  Conversion in a sentence, that’s what that is.

I liked the soap nuts enough to question whether I should switch over from my homemade laundry detergent which, remember, I really love.  To help me decide, I did what I have never done before, which is to do a costs comparison, throwing in a commercial detergent for fun.  The results from my homemade laundry detergent (made with soap flakes, washing soda, baking soda, and borax) may not be entirely accurate but is close enough for me (I measure my loads in cups while the ingredients are sold by weight, and I estimated how much the cups of ingredients weighed based on a conversion measure for flour).  This is what I discovered:

Eco Nuts, $12.99 for 100 loads: 12.8 cents/load

Homemade laundry detergent:  $5.17 for 40 loads (5 cups at 1/8 cup per load):  12.9 cents/load

Tide Ultra Powder Detergent:  $10.99 for 30 loads:  37 cents/load

Who knew, my friends, who knew?  Firstly, I always assumed that my eco-detergent cost more than leading commercial brands.  Wrong!  It costs only about a third as much.

Also, the homemade laundry detergent and the Eco Nuts come out basically neck-and-neck.  Whoa.  I had to steady myself against the table.  Not really, but still it was quite a surprise.  I love my detergent, but if it costs the same and is easier, I might just switch to soap nuts.  Eco Nuts are conveniently available at my local health store but they’re also available online (as are many other distributors of soap nuts, like this this company, which caught my attention for its fair trade and community giving practices).  Plus buying in large quantities (a no-brainer around here with 3 very active boys and 1 very active man in family) would lower the cost per load.

In the end, I can’t really think of many reasons not to switch.  Soap nuts aren’t local, but there is necessarily an environmental impact of my natural laundry powder too, especially because I use borax, which may have some negative impacts on health and the environment (minor compared to commercial cleaners).  I’m not sure how the impacts of the soap nuts weight out against the homemade powder.

I think I might just be reluctant to switch out of… laundry loyalty.  Now there’s something I never thought I’d see myself write or feel.  And so it goes.