A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. I took my first step a long time ago. But the thing with taking such a step is that you may very well decide to walk the distance. I’m now coming a full circle. After decades of discarding indigenous methods as old-school I’m gradually returning to them in an effort to reduce my environmental footprint.
We were quick to adopt the convenience of industrial cleaners – soaps and detergents, shampoos and kitchen cleaners. The herbal cleaners fell by the side as we were convinced about the superior cleaning abilities of chemicals. All of these were marketed subtly to us as progress. We progressed to using the blue Vim detergent bar instead of that crude yellow cube of 555 (panch-sau-pachpan, remember?) which, by the way, continues to be manufactured and sold. You have to marvel at the incredible dichotomy that is our country. We then took the next logical step to foaming detergent powders. And then we got ourselves washing machines. Some of us with fancier machines now needed special low-foaming detergents which are more expensive. Machines that require these low-foaming detergents cost more; those who can afford to buy expensive machines might as well pay more for the detergent. Because they can. The burden of reducing the environmental footprint ought squarely to be on those of us who (can afford to) consume more.
For quite some time now I had been seeking a less damaging alternative to laundry detergent which ends up as a pollutant in our waterways. Soapnut or reetha (Sapindus detergens) has been in continuous use in India as a fabric-cleaner and is also an ingredient in natural shampoos. Most of us might recall from our childhood that concoction prepared by our mothers (or grandmothers) for that weekly “hair-bath” which included soapnut, shikakai, and sometimes also amla (Indian gooseberry). Even today my mother trusts hand-washing with reetha over dry-cleaning for her delicate and expensive silks and pashminas.
As we switched to machines for doing laundry these natural products lost their shine. I tried using soapnuts tied in a bag in the washer but, used as we are to measuring out a given quantity of detergent, I felt unsure about getting a consistent clean with every subsequent wash cycle. Some berries would escape from the bag and the residue would stick to clothes and be visible on dark fabrics. It wasn’t exact enough for the urban(e) me and I fell back on the detergent while the soapnut berries sat in a bowl atop the washer as part of the decor, a remnant of my resolve to do better.
Then last month, in a frenzy of kitchen activity over the long Holi weekend, I tried something rather simple. Much like the natural shampoo liquid that we have all used at some point of time, I decided to make a liquid cleaner from the soapnuts. One I could measure and test, and make adjustments to if needed.
I was very happy with the results of this experiment. For Batch #2 I weighed out the ingredients so that I could share a proper recipe for all of us to try. The liquid is good for all fabrics including your woollens and delicates. This spring I machine-washed all our woolens using this cleaner before storing them away for the summer. Bye-bye Genteel and Surf Excel, my zero waste all-purpose cleaner is here.
Zero-waste Natural Laundry Cleaner
Yield 450-500ml, enough for 5 wash loads*
1 cup (150g) reetha (dry soapnut berries)
Soak the soapnut berries overnight in 1 litre of water. Next morning place them on the stove to boil. When the water starts to boil, turn the heat down to a simmer and boil till the berries are softened, about 30 minutes. Allow them to cool before squeezing and mashing them to separate pulp from seeds. Add 500ml water to the mix and boil for an additional 20 minutes.
Alternatively, you may cook them in a pressure cooker.
Cool and mash again. Remove the seeds. Sieve; don’t discard the residue just yet. Adjust water as needed to end with 450-500 ml of liquid cleaner. Use 90-100ml for each washing load (5-6kg dry weight of clothes). Keep refrigerated. Shake before use.
* This ratio gave me excellent cleaning. I haven’t yet tested if using less cleaner per load will also do the job.
Rinse the residue obtained from the recipe above in a cup of warm water. Sieve and transfer to a bottle that is convenient to dispense from. Add a tablespoon of vinegar to this. Use this liquid as an all purpose cleaner for the kitchen (dishes as well as counters), or add into mopping water for cleaning floors. This can be stored at room temperature.