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Laundry Detergent, Part 2: Homemade versus Commercial (Biokleen)

In the last post, I took a look at laundry detergent pods, concluding that they are a step backwards in terms of environmental impact. I believe that there are a few detergents that deserve a high Green Stars rating and that supporting one of these is a happy medium between the extremes of buying one of the bestselling brands (from P&G, Unilever, etc.) and making your own.

Is it worth making your own laundry detergent?

After writing my first Daily Footprint post on toothpaste, I started brushing my teeth with a little baking soda to avoid toothpaste tube waste (it also creates a healthier alkaline oral pH). In the case of laundry detergent, I’m not sure that there’s such a strong case for making your own. Here are a few thoughts on the idea:

Ingredients. Of course, if you make your own you should consider the impact of the ingredients you use. To take one example, if you use the Arm and Hammer baking soda or washing soda  to make your own laundry detergent then you’re supporting a company (Church and Dwight) that still contracts animal testing.

Packaging and Transport. A box of highly concentrated laundry powder is likely to have a pretty small footprint – perhaps smaller than the ingredients for a homemade version. A commercial powder that contains microbial enzymes and an efficient surfactant requires a very small amount per laundry load.

Energy use. Homemade detergent usually requires warm water washes, while many commercial detergents work well in cold water. As mentioned in the post on calculating the carbon footprint of home appliances, a water heater is often the biggest energy hog at home. A detergent that allows you to do cold water washes can make a big difference to your footprint.

Performance. If your homemade laundry detergent doesn’t work so well as commercial detergent then you should consider that your clothes (which have a high social and environmental impact relative to detergent) may not last as long.

Having said all of that, if you feel that you can make a detergent from ethical ingredients that works well in your machine using cold water, then go for it! 😉

Soapnuts: a good alternative to making your own?

Soapnuts may be a more promising option for addressing the issues above (except, perhaps, performance). They don’t work so well in cold water, but you can immerse them in a little bowl of warm water to release some of the natural detergent (saponins) and then throw it all in with your laundry.

Soapberries from Sapindus trees, commonly known as soapnuts, are rich in a natural detergent and can be used for laundry (Image source).

Review of Biokleen laundry detergent.

If you want to buy laundry detergent in minimal packaging from an ethically-minded company, there are several to choose from, including Biokleen, Ecover, and Seventh Generation. I’ve written a review of the Biokleen laundry powder that I use, and will go through some of the factors that I considered.

Laundry detergent ingredients

Unlike some of the mainstream brands, the ingredients for Biokleen are fairly minimal and also low impact. An eco-friendly brand should be transparent on their ingredients, listing all components and providing some information on sourcing and downstream impact. As mentioned in my last post, you can usually find basic information on ingredient safety by doing a quick search on Wikipedia. Also, a key idea of the Green Stars project is that we share information (product critiques) from our area of expertise. So if you have a science background you might share your opinion on ingredients. Quote from my Green Stars review of Biokleen:

The proteases are produced by fermentation (of yeast or bacteria) and are not harmful to the environment. The oxygen bleach is sodium percarbonate, which is made by combining sodium carbonate and hydrogen peroxide. The sodium carbonate is made from salt and limestone and is environmentally safe, while hydrogen peroxide is manufactured from water and air using a catalyst (which is recycled) and then breaks down into water during your wash.

Laundry detergent footprints

Packaging and Transport Footprint. The Biokleen powder comes in a bag inside a small recycled cardboard box. Because it’s highly concentrated, the 5 lbs (2.3 kg) box contains enough powder for 108 washes, or about a year of use. So there is the downside of a plastic bag, but one bag per year is not a huge impact. If you’d rather avoid it, then soapnuts may be your best option, depending on the packaging used for the variety you buy.  

Energy Use and Performance. As mentioned above, choosing detergent that can work in cold water is one of the most significant things you can do to reduce your laundry impact. The microbial enzymes, surfactant, etc., make this possible.

Company Operations. As mentioned in the previous post, some of the larger detergent manufacturers have shady track records on various aspects of company operations, ranging from animal testing practices and toxic ingredients to price-fixing scandals. Biokleen is a smaller, family-run company that was an early pioneer in responsible manufacturing of concentrated detergents. Here’s a quote from the Green Stars review:

Biokleen is one of the most socially and environmentally responsible laundry detergents out there. They purchase wind power credits to offset their energy usage and use cold water for their manufacturing process in Washington State. They also contribute to a water restoration project and their ingredients and final products are not tested on animals.

Overall, I thought that Biokleen laundry powder deserves 5/5 Green Stars. You can read the full review here. Also, in case you’re ever tempted to buy laundry detergent pods, take a look at this post!

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