Washing Green

A few months ago, thanks to a few of the blogs I follow, I came across an interesting discovery in the form of something called “Soap Nuts.”  I reblogged the post, but wanted to try them out for myself for a while before I recommended them to you or not.  I’ve been using these things since October 2012 now, and I’ll share my findings with you.

Firstly, a little bit about what these things are.  They aren’t actually nuts at all, but rather the dried fruit of the tree Sapindus saponaria, which is in the same family as the Lychee trees that grow the fruit popular for boba drinks.  These fruits contain natural saponins, or soap chemicals.  They aren’t particularly expensive: $25 USD or so will get you a bag that will last at least a few months, depending on how frequently you do laundry.  Most firms that you can purchase them from also offer a kind of cloth-zipper bag to use in the wash, so that plant particles don’t come off and get in your clothing.

As a laundry detergent, these things are fantastic.  I won’t say that they’re better than other detergents, but they are just as good for certain. My clothes come out clean and smelling fresh every time.  It only takes about 6 or so of the pods in the bag for enough soap, and you can use the same 6 pods for up to 3 loads of laundry.  The results speak for themselves: clean clothes = good detergent.  But since I won’t go so far as to say that they’re better at washing, let’s look at the value for money and eco-consciousness.


You can buy a bag of soap nuts for between $15-$25 depending on where you shop.  I bought a 12oz bag for $17.99 + s&h, for a total of $23.95.  This bag claims to be good for 72 loads of laundry, but that number is flexible depending on your wash habits.  They are organically grown and are free of harsh chemicals, so they are incredibly gentle. (This makes them especially great for those with sensitive skin — including babies and those that suffer from allergies, eczema, and psoriasis). They’re totally biodegradeable, so they’re better for the environment than regular detergent.


By contrast, 3 litres (approx. 100 FlOz) of a name-brand detergent in a plastic bottle costs slightly less (approx. $13 before tax at your local discount store), but promises only 60 loads, and that’s if you only use a wee-bit per load.  The eco-conscious consumer will be forced to make a decision, at this point, between wasting detergent to produce the same effect (thereby also costing more money), or to do smaller loads and make the detergent live up to its promise, but consuming a great deal more water in the process.  Also, we must remember that a portion of the pricetag on the name-brand is corporate advertising and marketing.

Let’s do some maths here, so you won’t think I’m just some hippie beating his recycled organic drum.  My goal is to save you money while I save the planet.

The typical American household does nearly 400 loads of laundry per year, using about 40 gallons of water per full load with a conventional washer.  I’m going to assume that, if you’re reading my eco-rants here, you’re probably not the average American consumer, so let’s give this situation the benefit of the doubt and say we use only 30 gallons per load.  Perhaps you’ve taken steps in your home to reduce your water and energy consumption when you wash – bear with me, then.

In Santa Ana, CA where EZPC Recycle is, water costs $2.673 per hundred cubic feet (about 750 gallons).  This means at the baseline rate, water costs $0.00357 per gallon.  So, using our example assumptions of 400 30-gal loads per year, the average Santa Ana resident pays about $42.88 per year for laundry water.

So, the difference will be in the cost of detergent.  400 loads equates to about 6 bags of soap nuts (assuming regular and steady use), so, roughly $134.00 (about $40 of which is shipping charges, so let’s just say $100, all told, in detergent cost.

The bottle of Tide above claims to have 60 loads of laundry in 100 floz.  Making sure to read the fine print on the back, that’s 60 loads if and only if you fill the measuring cup only to the first line.  The problem with that promise is that the first line is usually about 2.5floz, but if we divide 100(floz) by 60(loads), we come up with 1.67floz per load. If we were to fill the cup to the line, we’d get 40 loads instead of the promised 60.  If that’s the case, using a name-brand liquid detergent bought in-store would cost roughly $130.00 annually in detergent costs (excluding shipping if bought online).

The savings here is a noticeable one, but not a staggering one.  However, when we factor the detergent savings in, it makes a great deal more sense to wash with the soap nuts, that will excrete a concentration of saponin proportionate to the water used.  Doing numerous, smaller loads (the sort that would be necessary to get the value out of the name-brand liquid) is simply smarter, as most washers and dryers use about the same amount of energy running a small load of laundry as they do running the larger ones. Given that, it stands to reason that you can save money on energy by consistently combining small loads into one larger load or waiting until you have a large load to run. I’ve done this for as long as I can remember out of sheer laziness, so I am glad it helps save us money too.

The greatest thing about the soap nuts, though, is their versatility.  Once you’ve spent all your soap nuts and have to reorder, don’t throw the spent ones away — they’re not done working yet!  In addition to using them for laundry detergent, you can boil the spent ones and use the remaining saponin to make an all-purpose cleaning solution.

  • To make dishwashing liquid boil 1 cup of fresh soap nuts, uncovered, in 4 cups of water for about an hour. This soap nut dishwashing detergent will be a thick concentrate. Use the amount recommended by your dishwasher manufacturer.
  • Drop two or three soap nuts in a sink of hot water to clean dishes or in a bucket to wash floors.
  • Add some olive oil to a small amount of soap nut liquid for a natural insect repellent.

So, soap nuts have numerous uses, and are cheaper in the long run.  But just like your supermarket has a per-ounce cost, let’s do a per-wash analysis:

400 loads with 30gal of water using soap nuts = $142.88 per year or $0.36 per wash.

400 loads with 30gal of water using liquid detergent = $172.88 per year or $0.43 per wash.

But given the extra versatility from soap nuts, we can account for savings in dishwasher detergent, hand soap, mop soap, and others around our homes.

In the end, it isn’t only more conscientious to use soap nuts: it just makes more sense.  They’re cheaper and have more uses than brand detergent.  And the containers aren’t made from plastic.

Save the earth, hold onto your savings.

+N. Jacobs, EZPC Recycle’s “conscientious guy”


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