thin camas

Laundry soaps for the adventurous

First, thanks to everyone who responded to my soul-searching about the site. You may see some changes in the next while. But, rest assured, the feed (that's the emails to subscribers) will stay and all past content will be retained.

(N.B. if you are reading this but have not yet subscribed to the feed, please do so by clicking here. Never again will you miss one of my must-read posts.)

This contribution to your eco-journey is based on input by Cindy Scott, my chief laundry adviser (she wrote the guest post on dryer sheets).
washer
Cindy has been experimenting with homemade laundry soap…..and she assures me that it really works, even beating out commercial soaps when it comes to stinky running gear, which is certainly impressive. It is also very cheap to make.

Cindy used the laundry soap recipe from the Suzuki site. As long as you put in pure soap granules, you can pretty much guarantee that this is an eco-friendly concoction (see here for a discussion of the green credentials of soap).

By contrast, even some of the greener commercially available laundry soaps (including my favourite, Biovert) contain surfactants which are likely derived from petrochemicals and are certainly not naturally occurring (i.e. even if plant-derived, they require a grand amount of processing). So, for purists, making your own is a good bet. Once you have established your sources for borax and soda you are in business…you can even supply your friends.

Being a keen laundress, Cindy experimented with different ways to keep her whites sparkling. She found the best solution was to add 1 tablespoon of Nellie's all-natural oxygen brightener to the water first and let it soak for 30 minutes.

laundry_oxygenbleach_MED
Nellie's All Natural is a Vancouver-based soap company. I use the washing soda (which is really washing detergent) from time to time, though it is hard to find in the east (I actually got mine at HomeSense). I am not 100% convinced by the company's eco-credentials (their dryer balls are made out of the über-evil PVC which they proudly announce is `widely used in the healthcare sector, children's toys and food packaging'….), but their products generally seem pretty good and the packaging is attractive if you go for the retro laundry-room look.

The oxygen brightener is made from sodium carbonate, sodium percarbonate, primary linear alcohol ethoxylate (those surfactants again) and sodium sulphate. Pretty benign, in the scheme of things, and with no fragrances or dyes.

I did a bit of research to see how the Nellie's product stacks up compared to OxiClean, a more readily-available oxygen stain remover. It turns out that the active ingredients are the same (sodium carbonate and sodium percarbonate), but that OxiClean contains undisclosed fragrances and other ingredients (see here for a discussion of the pros and cons of OxiClean).

The purest product in this class seems to be Oxo Brite, made by the Earth Friendly Products company in the US. This contains nothing but the two active ingredients. I wonder whether it would work as well on Cindy's whites: do the surfactants make a difference?

Anyway, back to the point. The soaking step is fine if you have a top-loading washing machine (and a good memory) but not so good for folks like me with precision-engineered German front-loaders. I guess I could use a bucket to pre-soak, add some dilute solution to the drum before hand, or use the pre-wash function. I suspect, though, that I will just let my whites gently yellow so I look all natural and non-bleached….

Not to be outdone, I have been doing my own laundry experimentation, using soap nuts (literally seeds from the Chinese Soap Berry Tree) in my wash.
soap nuts
The Green Virgin products website (from where I was kindly sent my nuts) tells you all about what these are and how to use them.

So far they have done a pretty good job for me. I use them mostly on bed-linen and other fairly benign stuff. I recently conducted one of my scientific stain tests, pitting them against `my regular detergent' on red wine, tomato, olive oil and banana. They didn't do too badly, but they were definitely worse than Biovert. They are, however, self-evidently natural (usually you only find seed pods in your laundry when you have inquisitive kids who don't empty their pockets) and a very cheap option too (around 12 cents per wash).

So that's that on laundry adventures for now.

Finally, let me apologize both for this too-long post and the errant emails subscribers have received from time to time with old postings. I am doing my best to get to the bottom of that problem.
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Shiny silverware (with ease)

So as I was setting the table for Thanksgiving dinner last weekend I noticed - horror of horrors - that my cutlery was all dull and stained. Fortunately that gave me an immediate opportunity to engage in one of my favourite cleaning tasks: polishing my flatware. I find this supremely satisfying. Curious, but true.

flatware
My cleaning product of choice for this task is washing soda, sodium carbonate (Na2CO3). If you don't happen to have any washing soda on hand, you can substitute its close relative, baking soda, sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3 : shouldn't that be sodium hydrogen carbonate?).

eco pionerr
Washing soda is quite a bit more aggressive and more strongly alkaline than baking soda but it is a little hard to find in pure form. I get mine at a local eco-store called Arbour. It is also the major ingredient in water softener so you can, according to this article, use that instead. Or try on-line.

For basic cleaning jobs, washing soda does a fantastic job. Its main strength, as far as I am concerned, is in removing brown tea stains from mugs, teapot spouts and teaspoons. Just soak items in a hot washing soda solution (I am very casual about my dilutions) and the discolouration simply dissolves away. Stubborn stains might take a few hours, or require a bit of rubbing, but teaspoons and other cutlery come clean almost immediately.

The only thing you should not allow to touch washing soda is aluminium (tools and pans) as it will turn these black. However....if you want to clean your silverware, aluminium is just what you need.

Aluminium Foil small
Place a sheet of aluminium foil in the bottom of a large ceramic or glass bowl and put your silver knives and forks blade-down in the bowl (the handles don't tend to get that dirty anyway). For those who are keen on purchased inputs, you can actually buy aluminium plates to stick in the bottom of your bowl, but this seems a little crazy to me.

Next, sprinkle in some washing (or baking) soda. Then pour boiling water from your kettle into the bowl and, hey presto, your silver tarnish will dissolve away before your eyes. (after which you just need to rinse and dry the items). The solution suggested on-line is 1 cup soda to one gallon of water. Again, I am very approximate.

Obviously there is a clever chemical reaction going on when you do this (you will smell the gas produced, not an unpleasant odour). If you want to know more about what is happening, see this fact sheet.

This cleaning method is great for flatware, but also works for silver necklaces and other small items that you can fit in a bowl. The downside is that the chemical reaction does not put up any barrier to further tarnish (as I believe commercial silver cleaners do) so things do appear to get dirtier again a little sooner than they might if you were to rub away with chemicals. But I am actually happy not to be eating with flatware covered in anti-tarnish coatings.

And here's a bonus: crafts. If you always wanted to make a washing soda snowflake crystal, look no further.

To finish, I should extend my thanks to my mother who taught me this, and several other cleaning tips, when I was still quite young. It is such a simple solution, I am amazed that it is not more commonly known. A silver-cleaning-product-company conspiracy, no doubt.

If you like this, you might also like:

www.ecoproductsthatwork.com

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Make your windows sparkle!

When we need to clean something we usually reach for products designed (and marketed) for that purpose. Often, though, there are easier and cheaper solutions already close at hand.

This is a real bonus. I hate the proliferation of half-used bottles in my cleaning cupboard. Every year I swear I am going to pare down to a single multi-purpose (eco) product, then I get swept up by some new offering (which so often disappoints, hence the half bottles).

The two hands-down home cleaning winners are vinegar and baking soda.
vinegar
Both are cheap, non-toxic and versatile: there are entire web pages devoted to their many uses, which include, in the case of vinegar, cleaning windows.

I gave up on chemical window cleaners a while back and have since tried various `green’ glass cleaners. I have not found one that dazzles. So I reverted to the old vinegar and water in a spray bottle (in a ratio of about 1:4, though some argue for 1:1)…couple this with a lint-free cloth and all is good, no? Much as I would like this to be the solution, something seems to be missing. So here are my two key window-cleaning tips.

1. Add a drop – not a large squirt – of dishwashing soap to the spray bottle. The Biovert I reviewed a while back does a good job here. The addition of soap removes any existing films from past cleaners and generally gets rid of dirt better (in my view).

2. Get the right tools. Yes, the cloth should be lint free (a Mabu wood pulp cloth is always a good bet) and, yes, a squeegee can be a good idea (though don’t underestimate the skill it takes to wield one like a professional: for me I just end up with more drips and mess). But my tool of choice for window cleaning is an unconventional one: a Lee Valley flexible stainless steel spatula (a durable bargain at $9.95).
leevalleyspatula
I keep one of these spatulas in the kitchen for flipping food and another in the cleaning cupboard where its flexible, yet very true and somewhat sharp, edge comes in so handy. Spray a bit of vinegar/water/soap on the window, scrape with the spatula and all the caked-on insects and mysterious little splatters (including paint) are dislodged from your glass without the rubbing and sweating that might otherwise be required.

The spatula is also invaluable for removing bits of tape from floors and any other tasks that require precision scraping from hard, flat surfaces. It is safer than a razor and more versatile than a paint scraper. I could not live without it!

Last thing on the windows: some people swear that adding a dash of rubbing alcohol in addition to vinegar and dishsoap makes all the difference…I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

N. B. If you like this posting you might also like my reviews of stainless/copper cleaners and cleaning cloths.

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A better way to eliminate static

This is a guest review from Cindy Scott.

Once I found out that regular dryer sheets are laced with animal fat and a cocktail of toxic chemicals, I knew I had to find another way to get rid of the static in the dryer. I looked at a few options, but the one that caught my eye was Static Eliminator Dryer Sheets. Not only are these chemical-free, but they can be reused for 500 loads, so create very little waste. And the fact there is no animal testing is sort of nice too…

Regular dryer sheets eliminate static by coating all items - including the dryer itself - in the same waxy, chemical (and often very fragrant) substance.
staticeliminator
This prevents electron transfer and hence static build-up. Static Eliminator Dryer Sheets address the problem by conducting and equalizing any potential charge between different types of items in the dryer. (For more details on the science and the origins of the product, download an explanation here.)

The whole thing is a bit of a miracle as the `sheets' just look like two pieces of tube-like fabric. But they seem to do the trick.
static small
I have used them with jeans, t-shirts, running gear, towels and bedding and they work perfectly. The only exception I have found has been a pair of cotton Lululemon yoga pants, which came out clingy, even though the rest of the load was fine… (perhaps it is a reaction with the funky seaweed that Lululemon adds to its fabrics?).

The manufacturer suggests that you wash the sheets after the first 3 or 4 uses to remove the build up of “gunk” from years of chemical and animal fat-laced products. Thereafter, a wash is suggested every four months or so.

The sheets are sold at a number of retailers in Canada and the US. They are also available online, direct from the manufacturer at $16.95 for two. As with many eco products, the up-front cost is relatively high, but the savings occur over the product lifetime. Another piece of good news: they are made by a family firm in Canada. And, if you sign up on the website, they will send you an email reminder when you are likely to need to change your sheets!
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More green cleaning choices

I thought everyone out there had much more lofty concerns than me….but it seems that I am not alone in my search for good, green cleaning products.

My recommendation this week is a stainless and copper cleaner marketed under the Lagostina brandname in Canada and under Steel Glo (or sometimes Kleen King) in the US.

I bought this cleaner to clean my stainless saucepans (which it does extremely well), but I now use it more widely: it does a great job on cutlery but is also a stand-by as a mildly abrasive cleaner for pyrex, the cooktop and even my sink (which is Corian).
Just shake a little p
lagostina
owder into a damp pot, scrub with a brush or pad and, hey presto, it is all clean. Even stubborn burnt-on food stains and those strange white marks that appear on stainless are easily removed. I hate to admit it, but this is a cleaning task I secretly enjoy.

I have always had my concerns about what might be in this loose, white powder which is marketed as non-toxic and biodegradable. Is it just baking soda? Or something far more noxious? I did a little research and discovered that the main ingredient (80-90%) is a mysterious-sounding substance called nepheline syenite. This appears to be a benign volcanic rock (non-toxic, non-carcinogenous, etc.) that is mined in Canada, amongst other places. The fact that it is mined does give some cause for concern, but I have not been able to find anything really damning.
small_sg_powder


So, if you cook in stainless or copper, or simply like a shiny kitchen, do give it a try. And if you know anything that I don’t about nepheline syenite, do let me know.

The product is made in the USA. In Canada it is available at Sears, Canadian Tire (in the pots and pans section, rather than the cleaning section), the Bay and Home Outfitters at a price of between $4-5 (one can lasts a while). In the US, Steel Glo is available here (only $8.95 for 3 cans). The Amazon price for Kleen King is three times higher and the product is the same.

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The best all round cleaning cloth

I know that household cloths are not exactly a glamorous topic of conversation, and I can forgive you (perhaps I even envy you) if you have never given them much thought. However, if you do have a thing about cleaning, or just like good, long-lasting products, then I can hotly recommend Mabu cleaning cloths.
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These cloths are made out of 8 layers of woven wood fibres. They are tough, soft (after initial washing: they come stiffened with natural starch) and durable.

But the thing that I like best about them is that they are naturally resistant to odours. I also use traditional cotton dish cloths, which I like, until they get that nasty, rancid smell. To get rid of the smell requires either bleach or very high temperatures, neither of which sits well with my eco-conscience. My Mabu cloth, on the other hand, lives in the dark, in a closet where I hide it after washing my floor. Despite this lack of light and warmth, it never gets smelly.

I wash my Mabus in warm water, but they don't do well in the dryer (of course, you are not using a dryer, anyway....). Since they are made from wood pulp fibre, they can be composted when they eventually exceed their usefulness (which should be several years).

Mabu cloths are available on Amazon, at various health stores and, in the UK, at Waitrose and Lakeland. Home Hardware, here in Canada, sells an apparently identical product - the Natura wonder cloth. I have never been able to tell the difference so maybe these are just Mabu under another name.
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