Getting laundry clean and fresh smelling in an environmentally sound way can be a challenge.
For the past several decades, commercial laundry detergent primarily came either powdered in a cardboard box or in liquid form in a hard plastic jug. Now, there are pods — liquid soap sealed into a plastic rind that dissolves in the wash. The pods can be purchased in a resealable plastic bag.
There are do-it-yourself laundry soap recipes, like Mark Wilson’s frugal mix that incorporates shredded Fels-Naptha soap and Borax, which he keeps in a mason jar. Greener Things brand soap nuts, available at the Fresh Food Hub in Auburn, can be reused and come in a cardboard box.
With the typical brands most shoppers encounter, both liquid and the pods incorporate plastic packaging. The powder in cardboard would be the environmentally responsible choice, as paper is more recyclable than plastic, which in general can be recycled only one time before it is doomed for a landfill.
A drawback of powdered detergent is the residue can leave stains on fabric and aggravate sensitive skin.
“Liquid detergent most often comes in plastic bottles. Even if there may not be any residue on your clothing, the insides of these bottles are a different story. If leftover detergent isn’t rinsed from the bottles, it may contaminate the other materials in your recycling bin — or worse, a whole truckload of recyclables,” says a Feb. 26 report at Earth911. “Detergent pods that are individually wrapped in plastic and detergent in plastic zip-top bags can be problematic. Plastic films commonly cause problems with recycling equipment, so they may not be accepted in curbside recycling.”
The Northeast Indiana Solid Waste Management District accepts plastics No. 1 through No. 7, though it does not take plastic film grocery bags at its recycling centers across northeastern Indiana.
An Aug. 29, 2019 study by the Flexible Packaging Association found that production of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic containers uses 660% more water than the flexible pod pouch with a plastic zipper top, from the beginning to the end of their life cycles. In addition, the PET container emits 726% more greenhouse gases and uses 504% more fossil fuels from production to retirement, according to the study.
“The U.S. EPA Waste Hierarchy cites source reduction, or using less resources to produce and reuse, as the preferred method to reduce overall waste. The stand-up flexible pouch uses less water and energy to produce and it is lighter and more efficient for shipping purposes. This helps to reduce waste before it even has the chance to start,” says the report.
Obviously, one must take into consideration the organization sponsoring the study. Of course, the Flexible Packaging Association would do its best to highlight its own benefits over the competition.
“After many years of declining demand, paper-based flexible packaging is growing in popularity with the general public as end-consumers demand more sustainable packaging solutions,” says an Aug. 24 report in Forbes, which compares paper to plastic flexible packaging.
“Paper is far more biodegradable than plastic and very easily recycled. But it often ends up in landfill, where its degradation rate slows — while it takes up more space than the same weight of plastic. Additionally, paper-based flexible packaging is often laminated with plastic/aluminium or coated with resin, therefore becoming non-recyclable,” says the article, provided by Wood Mackenzie, a global energy, chemicals, renewables, metals and mining research and consultancy group. “Plastic’s properties make plastic packaging ideally suited for efficiently containing and protecting products during shipment and delivery to customers. However, despite its advantages, plastic is made of a non-renewable resource, whereas paper is made of trees. Furthermore, plastic can be recycled but it is currently difficult to achieve high levels of post-consumer recycled content in plastics due to post-consumer waste contamination.”
Paper can be re-pulped without chemical reactions and is less sensitive to contamination. This has led to some brands replacing plastic packaging with paper.
“Packaging producers and governments need to accept the nuance of sustainability in packaged goods and push for new priorities across different packaging types in order to create the best solution for the environment. Whether paper or plastic is the most sustainable substrate for flexible packaging will largely depend on the application,” says the Forbes article. “However, the real focus should be on reducing all single-use packaging, regardless of the substrate. The way forward for the flexible packaging industry is to introduce better recycling systems, more recycling-friendly flexible packaging solutions, smaller amounts of substrate per package and a stricter focus on creating a circular economy.”
Collaboration between brands, resin producers, recycling companies and converters is key to accelerating progress towards more sustainable flexible packaging solutions, says the article.
When consumers become disillusioned by the shortfalls of commercial brands when it comes to environmental efficiency, they may try other options, like making their own detergents.
Greener Things soap nuts are an organic alternative. Soap nuts are a dried berry from the Sapindus Mukorrosi tree which is found in tropical and sub-tropical areas of Nepal. They have been used for centuries as a soap. When agitated in water, the berries produce saponin which acts as a natural cleanser.
Ten nuts are sold in a reusable fabric bag within the cardboard box. Directions call for four to five nuts in the closed bag placed inside the washer’s soap dispenser. They can be reused up to 10 times, says the packaging; set out to dry when the washer is not in use. When the nuts are brittle or the shell is paper thin, it is time to replace them.
The box of 10 costs around $4.
The nuts seem like a very good choice, and one of many reasons to protect the natural ecosystem of South Asia.