Saturday, May 14, 2011

Soap Nuts

I love doing laundry. I enjoy sorting the clothes by color and fabric, choosing the water temperature and pushing all the machine's buttons. (For many years, we washed clothes by hand. I did not enjoy that. Nothing like a washing machine for reducing drudge work. Every home should have one.)

I especially love hanging clothes to dry. What a satisfying feeling, to give each piece an expert f-l-i-p, and place it neatly on the rack to flutter in the warm breeze. We hang ours on the roof-terrace, where all the neighbors can see what I'm up to as they do theirs. I am not an early riser, as they all are, so my status was somewhat pathetic as our clothes never appeared on the racks until long after theirs were done and folded. Then I discovered a little trick. I do a few loads late at night (when my neighbors are all no doubt sleeping - SO LAZY!) and now emerge proud and industrious almost as early as they do.

We do a ton of laundry in our house. Moy Moy produces most of it, but a household of five, plus Vikram's family, plus frequent guests means we use a lot of water, a lot of electricity and a LOT of laundry detergent.

I love washing machines. Like Gandhiji and the Singer Sewing Machine, I believe the washing machine is one of the greatest inventions of our time. But laundry detergent? I cannot stand it. It's wildly expensive, for one thing and the strain on our budget given the amount of it we require, strikes me as criminal.

But even worse (she says nobly) is the damage it does to the environment. In what seems a counter-intuitive process, the very substance which produces clean clothes also causes lasting and extensive filth in our environment. The European Parliament's Environment Committee has just called for a complete ban on phosphates (the worst offenders in the chemical makeup of laundry powders) in detergents.

The reason is simple: "Phosphates released into water cause algae to grow at the expense of other aquatic life. This phenomenon, known as "eutrophication", can cause "red tides" or "green tides". The leading sources of phosphate discharge into surface waters are agriculture and sewage. Detergents come third."

The European Parliament wants this ban to come into effect from 2013.

But here in India, we don't need to wait so long.

Who remembers REETHA? Also known as soap-nuts. Soap-nuts! Such a charming name for what is actually an almost miraculous little product. I was first introduced to them by Priyanka, a friend who is trying to market healthy, environmentally safe products. Soap Nuts is her first venture, and she's already got me sold.

When she first told me about them - a totally natural soap which grows on trees - I couldn't believe it. Turns out everyone's grandmother knows about them, and has used them for generations. You can buy them in an old-fashioned grocery if you have to, but if you are lucky enough to live in Dehradun, you can just walk down to the tea gardens and pick them up off the ground.

I was even luckier. Priyanka gave me a box of my own. Each box comes with a sweet little white cloth pouch with a drawstring closure. You put four or five nuts in the pouch, tie it shut, and toss it into the machine. No need for detergent. Even better? You can use them again. And again. Priyanka's experiments indicate that one pouch full will last three or four loads if you use cold water. (In hot water, you can only use it once.)

Priyanka was a font of information. She told me that Soap Nuts are actually not nuts at all, but berries and that they come in two varieties: sapindus trifoliatus (Small Soap Nut) and sapindus mukorossi (Large Soap Nut). The Large Soap Nut is the most commonly used in cleaning (probably due to its size & ease of harvesting), but both varieties are effective.

Soap Nuts contain large quantities of saponin in their shells, which acts as a natural, gentle detergent when it comes into contact with water. Without added chemicals, fragrances or dyes, Soap Nuts are safe and gentle for handwashing delicates, yet tough enough for regular laundry. They will leave your laundry soft, clean and fragrance free, without the use of fabric softeners. They are also good for people with soap allergies as they contain no artificial dyes or fragrances - the usual source of allergies for people with sensitive skin.

All excited, I showed the nuts to Padma, who helps in the house and who often does the laundry. "Can you believe this?" I asked her. "They're free! We don't have to buy Surf anymore."

"Oh, reetha," she said, dismissively. "We get them from the tea gardens all the time."

I could see she wasn't impressed. "Let's try it," I insisted. And for a few days, she dutifully filled the little white bag and tossed them in.

Finally one morning she said - a bit urgently - that we really HAD to go back to Surf. "Moy's clothes aren't coming out clean," she said accusingly.

This was very amusing because just a few months earlier, I had said the same thing to her. Moy drools a lot and saliva, surprisingly, leaves stains which are quite difficult to remove. When I had pointed it out to Padma, she had explained that even with hand-scrubbing (with Surf), she wasn't able to get them clean. That, somehow, was acceptable. Not getting them clean with reetha was not.

So the lesson? If you pay for something and it doesn't work, at least you've tried your best. If you get it for free and it doesn't work, well, what else can you expect?

I am a convert. I'm all for reetha. But I've still got to work on Padma. She's a tough nut to crack.

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