Soapberries : The eco-friendly cleaning solution

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Reading Time: 6 minutes

(This is an extensive article on soapberries that we had written recently for Eco Walk The Talk, an Asia focussed online green community)

If you think that detergents are found only on supermarket shelves, then be prepared for a clean, green surprise. It grows on trees and has been cleaning clothes (and people) since the time of the Buddha! In fact, some sources also add the Buddha to its list of satisfied consumers.

Say hello to the Sapindus – a group of around 10 species of trees whose fruits can be used as foaming cleaners or surfactants to use a more technical term. The unique surfactant property of the Sapindus fruit makes it an all purpose cleaner – for skin, hair, laundry, dishes and pretty much anything else that requires cleaning.

The name Sapindus is derived from the Latin words Saponis, meaning soap andIndicus, meaning from India. The part of the Sapindus tree used as a surfactant is the fruit and it is commonly known as soapnut. Since it is a fruit We prefer to call it the soapberry which is more accurate.

The Soapberry tree

India is home to several species of Sapindus. The two most well known of these are the South Indian Sapindus trifoliatus and the Himalayan Sapindus Mukorossi. In India, soapberries have a long recorded history of usage. Ayurvedic texts prescribe it as a gentle cleansing agent in shampoos and body cleansers and also as a treatment in dermatitis, and eczema.

In China the soapberry pericarp is called wu-huan-zi or the non illness fruit. In Japan, the soapberry pericarp is called the enmei-hi or the life prolonging pericarp.

The Soapberry

Fresh soapberry fruits look like grapes or gooseberry fruits and grow in clusters on the trees.

A well cared for soapberry tree can produce 250 kg of soapberry fruits every year, after attaining maturity which takes about ten years.

What makes the soapberry a soap?

The magic ingredient which gives the soapberry its halo is saponin, found in the fleshy outer part of the fruit.

The pericarp of the soapberries (the outer fleshy part of the fruit) contains saponins, which are the plants “immune system”. Saponins are a class of compounds, found in abundance in the plant world, and produce foaming solutions in water which can used for cleaning.

How can I use the soapberry in my home?

The soapberry is an excellent natural cleanser that can be used to substitute most synthetic cleansers in your home.

You can use the soapberry shells , soapberry powder, or extract soapberry liquid by making a concentrated tea with water and use this as a substitute for almost all your cleaning needs.

It can be used in the following ways:

1.    As a mild shampoo substitute

2.    As safe and effective detergent

3.    As a hypoallergenic baby fabric detergent

4.    As a food safe dish wash product

5.    As an excellent antibacterial / anti-fungal floor and surface cleanser

What are other uses of the Soapberry ?

Plants are wonderfully complex systems that are beyond complete human understanding. All along we have only talked about the surfactant property but the soapberry does so much more than just clean.

1. Pesticide removal action: fruits and vegetables

Soapberry powder works wonders on removing surface level pesticides in fruits and vegetables as well. Research done on tomatoes, aubergines, cabbage and grapes, which have a thin membrane and are prone to absorbing a large quantity of pesticides, indicates a 76% reduction in deadly pesticides like Monocrotophos, when these fruits and vegetables are soaked for 20 minutes in a solution of water and soapberry powder.

2.    Pesticide removal action: on cotton

Cotton is one of the most sprayed crops in the world. In India, cotton crop is sprayed with a deadly cocktail of chemicals including Lindane, Heptachlor, and DDT.

A simple test measuring the surface level pesticides on cotton yarn before and after treatment with soapberry, showed nearly a 70% reduction in the surface levels of Lindane.

3. Anti-bacterial and anti-fungal action

Soapberries have strong anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties. They have been prescribed in small quantities in oral medications in traditional Chinese medicine.

Extracts of Sapindus mukorossi were shown to inhibit the bacterium Helicobacter pylori which causes GERD, peptic ulcers, cancers of the oesophagus and stomach

Preliminary studies on Sapindus mukorossi and Sapindus saponaria show active action against many disease causing fungi like Candida albicans, and bacteria likePseudomonas Aeruginosa and Staphylococcus Aureus

How do I start using the soapberry?

Fresh soapberry fruits need to be dried well to be used. Once dried, they become a rich dark brown colour, depending on the species and look like this:

Once dried, they need to be de-seeded before they are ready for use.

Soapberries are extremely hygroscopic in nature, meaning that they absorb moisture from the atmosphere, so they need to be stored in a dry place.

1.Use whole soapberries

It  is  really easy to use soapberries for washing. If you’re using a washing machine, you may place 5– 6  shells in an old, clean sock or muslin bag firmly tied on top, so that the soapberries don’t escape. Toss this into the washing machine and let it work through both the wash and rinse cycles, but do remove before you use the dryer.

You can use the soapberries for upto 4 wash cycles, but remember to let them dry before the next wash.  You can use the soapberries until they turn grey in colour (indicating that there are no more saponins left). Best of all, as soapberries are completely natural and biodegradable, they can be composted.

2. Making soapberry powder from dried soapberries

For even better results and greater convenience, soapberry powder can be made by grinding dried, de-seeded soapberries.  They can be ground in a coffee grinder, and should be ground into large sized particles when used as a detergent or a dish wash product. The finer soapberries are ground, the faster they absorb moistures, so grinding them into large sized particles helps you store them for longer.

Soapberry powder can be used as a substitute to detergents and dish wash applications. Keep in mind that they do not dissolve completely like synthetic surfactants, so when using them in a washing machine or a dish washer, put the powder into a sock or muslin bag, to keep the residue from sticking onto laundry or dishes.

The residue after use as a detergent or dish wash makes for great plant food so do remember to compost the residue  after use.

3. Extracting Soapberry liquid

You can also extract soapberry liquid for use as a detergent or a floor cleanser. Soapberry liquid needs to be refrigerated and does not keep for more than a month.

It is prepared by soaking soapberries overnight in cold water or soaking them in hot water for 15 minutes to an hour and squeezing out the saponins mechanically until the berries turn grey in colour.

Let the soapberry liquid cool slightly before filtering out the soapberry residue. The residue can be dried and re-used again to make more floor cleanser (the cleanser made with this residue will be more dilute, so reduce the water the second time around) or to do the laundry. The soapberry powder / residue can be re-used until the residue turns grey, indicating the absence of saponins.

Do I have to work very hard to use the soapberry?

The soapberry is making a strong comeback into popular use especially in countries like USA, Australia, Singapore, India and other places.  A lot of the work done on the soapberry in recent times has been directed to making it readily usable so that you do not have to go through the process of buying the fruit and making a powder or extract.

Our company, Krya Consumer Products has just launched a washing machine ready soapberry detergent powder for the Indian market. Do search for options in your market in case you want a ready to use product and you will be rewarded with a unique experience in tasks like laundry which are getting done on autopilot mode now.

Why are we talking about the soapberry now?

We do many daily tasks like the laundry on autopilot now and understandably so. However several drastic concerns for the environment and human health are lurking behind many of these “autopilot” routines.

For example the synthetic detergent industry is red flagged for pollution by many governments. The red flags arise out of pollution concerns during manufacture and severe harm to water bodies and marine ecosystems by detergent residue post consumer use.

Apart from detergents many personal care products like shampoo, body wash, toothpaste use a synthetic surfactant as a foaming agent. Look for either sodium lauryl sulphate or sodium laureth sulphate (referred shortly as SLS) in the ingredient list the next time you are in the supermarket and you will be surprised by the number of times these two surfactants appear. There are many studies that point to these synthetic surfactants as carcinogens so much so that “SLS free “is an important new category of products.

Moving from autopilot to manual mode can throw up interesting natural alternatives to most of the products we use on ourselves and in the home. Every time you choose a natural alternative like the soapberry, you choose better health for your family and a cleaner planet.

(P.S. The link to the original article on Eco Walk the Talk is  http://www.ecowalkthetalk.com/blog/2011/07/14/soapberries-the-eco-friendly-cleaning-solution/)

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Keeping the fruit that’s a detergent dry

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Reading Time: 2 minutes

Our fruit that is a detergent loves water – the geek term for that is that it is hygroscopic.

When it comes in contact with water, it starts to release saponins (the stuff that makes it foam). This is great in the machine or during a wash, because it means that with a little bit of agitation in the water, you get creamy foam that makes your clothes clean.

But it is not great if water enters the pack while transporting it to you. Because water tends to cake the powder.

Over the last year we have done several experiments with our product to keep it safe from water

We realised that we could prevent atmospheric water from entering the powder in 3 ways

By:

  1. Creating a physical barrier through the packaging
  2. Adding a drying material in the powder (called desiccant)
  3. Both of the above

Creating a barrier in the packaging

Aluminium foil is used extensively in food, pharmaceutical and cosmetic products. It acts as a complete barrier to light and oxygen, bacteria and moisture.

Aluminium was a no-no for us at Krya for many reasons:

  1. It is strip mined from the soil leading to top soil erosion and deforestation
  2. Mining aluminium consumes vast amounts of fossil fuel. The process of extracting aluminium from is estimated to be responsible for 1% of global human induces greenhouse gas emissions.
  3. While it is extremely recyclable, it often ends up in landfills where it can sit around for 400 years.
  4. Aluminium creates occupational health hazards for those who mine it and is a suspected health hazard for those who use it.

This of course left us with plastic as the alternative for creating a moisture barrier layer

We thought long and hard before adding a plastic layer to the fruit’s packaging. We spoke to experts from the R&D department of plastics manufacturers, and NGOs in the business of recycling, and decided to use HDPE as a barrier layer. If you saw our quick guide to recycling you would notice that HDPE is one of the better plastics that can be used today. It recycles very well, and becomes more re-usable the higher the thickness of the material used.

We have used 400 gauge HDPE as the primary package for the fruit that’s a detergent – it keeps moisture away from the fruit, and is very recycle-friendly.

We also have a layer of corrugated paper over the HDPE – it acts as a second barrier, and helps us print necessaries – like how to use the fruit that’s a detergent, and where we work, in case you want to drop in and say hello.

Adding a desiccant to the powder

We added a small amount of Calcium Carbonate (3%) to the fruit that’s a detergent. This absorbs moisture and keeps the fruit that’s a detergent dry. This is helpful because once the fruit that’s a detergent reaches you, the HDPE will be cut open and the detergent transferred to a container. So it is necessary to have the calcium carbonate working hard to absorb moisture.

We are working on alternatives to Calcium Carbonate, because it is also mined. While it is not as resource intensive or harmful to people and the environment as aluminium, we would prefer to tread as lightly on earth as possible.

We are looking for ways to make the fruit that is a detergent even more awesome.

Do you have any other ideas or experiences that could help us reduce / replace our plastic and Calcium carbonate with?

All ideas are welcome – and every one, however kooky, will be explored.

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Sustainable by Design – To liquid or not to liquid

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At Krya, sustainability, usability and beauty are the three core principles of product design.

Sustainability forces constraints, as many cheap & easily available materials and processes are ruled out. But that’s okay, because it is difficult to design it into a product retrospectively.

At Krya we think about sustainable design at 6 stages

  1. Product design: ingredients, format, packaging.
  2. Raw material sources and their transport
  3. Manufacturing process
  4. Transport to consumer
  5. Consumer in use method
  6. Post consumer use disposal

At every stage of a product’s life cycle no decision is too small to be ignored. And each decision has to balance sustainability with usability for the consumers. Take for instance, the choice of product format.

Product format: To liquid or not to liquid?

Whether a product is a solid, liquid or somewhere in the continuum between plays an important role in determining a product’s sustainability.

It turns out that liquid products and sustainability just don’t mix.

Here’s why:

  1. Liquids = complex, resource intensive manufacturing
  2. Liquids often imply effluents
  3. The addition of water into a product requires a clean , antiseptic environment
  4. The addition of water also means possible bacterial contamination so preservatives are a must in the end product
  5. Liquids need tough containers – So hello plastic, goodbye paper
  6. Liquids are expensive to transport – they are voluminous, need special storage, & can be easily damaged

At Krya, we have made the decision to choose a solid format over a liquid format every time.

This commitment extends to our personal life as well. We have eliminated many liquid products like face wash, shampoo and conditioners. We have created organic, natural, fantastic powder alternatives to these categories.

Choosing a solid format over a liquid format can make a huge difference to the environment.

All it needs is an open mind.

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Sapindus Trifoliatus: or how the fruit became a detergent – Part 2

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The Ministry of Environment & Forest classifies industries as Red, Orange and Green, depending on how polluting they can be to the environment. Red industries are defined as heavily polluting industries, whose clearances are renewed every year.

Synthetic detergents and soaps fall into the Red classification.

Detergent manufacturing is usually a resource intensive, potentially heavy polluting activity.

How Krya manufactures the fruit that’s a detergent

We ‘manufacture’ our detergent by getting the friendly neighbourhood village ladies to pluck the ripe Sapindus trifoliatus from the tree at Harvest time.

The magic lies in deciding when a fruit is ripe enough to become a detergent – The experienced eyes of Mr.Anki Reddy, our resident soapnut & all things organic expert, help us decide that.

After removing the seed (the seed is stored carefully for re-planting), our friendly crew take the fruit or the pericarps to a giant stone platform which has been specially built on the farm.

The farm is in a dry, fiercely hot part of Andhra Pradesh, perfect to dry a water loving fruit like the Sapindus trifoliatus. The fruits dry slowly under the sun for 3 days in the sun until they become brittle.

We then collect them from the stone platform, clean them and take them into our ‘factory’ where they are powdered in a large mill (similar to the flour mill that makes the atta ,though much much cleaner).

We put a lot of thought into how fine the fruit gets powdered in a mill.

Powder them too fine, & they absorb too much moisture; Powder them too large, & you would need to use a lot more of them to wash.

We powder them just right – so that they don’t absorb too much moisture, and give you a perfect wash every time.

Once our Sapindus Trifoliatus has been powdered, we mix natural, organic Calcium Carbonate to the powder. Calcium Carbonate, also called Limestone, helps keep our dried fruit powder dry, so that it remains a powder, and easy to use.

And that completes our manufacturing.

We don’t use heavy machines that are energy intensive. The process also does not release harmful vapours.

We don’t use water in our ‘manufacturing, so no river or fishes or tadpoles are harmed during the making of our detergent.

We use just 2 ingredients and 97% of the ingredients are available in the farm right next to the factory. Normal manufacturing would require several ingredients, which would need to transported to the factory using fossil fuels.

It is a fruit, so all those 100+ litres of water that your washing machine used to wash clothes can be sent to your garden. The remaining detergent can be composted in the earth.

Your garden thanks you and so does the municipality whose load you’ve just lightened by reducing the load on the city’s sewage system.

That’s what we call being sustainable – from the farm, to your home, and back to mother earth.

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Sapindus Trifoliatus: or how the fruit became a detergent

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Reading Time: 3 minutes

We unveiled our first sustainable gooThe fruit that's a detergentdie yesterday, the fruit that’s a detergent.

The fruit has a name. Trifoliatus. Sapindus trifoliatus.

A year ago I had no idea of the existence of such an awesome fruit. Through an incredible concatenation of events, Preethi & I found ourselves with a bag of Sapindus shells. We were thoroughly intrigued by the possibilities. What started off as an innocent laundry experiment a year ago has snowballed into our first business venture.

However I digress.

The Sapindus

The Sapindus is a group of around 10 species of trees whose fruits can be used as surfactants. The name Sapindus is derived from the Latin words Saponis, meaning soap and Indicus, meaning from India. They are commonly known as soapnuts or soapberries. Soapnuts, though isn’t technically right – as they are fruits and not nuts. For the botany snob hidden in you, we can go a step further and call them “pericarps”

India is home to several species of Sapindus. The two most well known of these are the South Indian Sapindus trifoliatus & the Himalayan Sapindus Mukorossi. All species of Sapindus are useful detergents in their own way.

The secret ingredient

The secret ingredient in the fruit is the Saponin which makes it a useful surfactant (or detergent).

Ergo, the fruit that’s a detergent.

How Surfactants clean

Plain water does not usually remove oily particles or tough dirt stains from clothes. The addition of surfactants helps to clean clothes in a two step process.

1. Reduce surface tension

    The surfactant molecules have a water-loving head that attaches to water molecules and a water-hating tail that attaches to the dirt molecules. This creates a force that detaches the dirt from the clothes & suspends the dirt in the water. The agitation of the washing machine or scrubbing by hand further helps detach the dirt from the clothes. As a result of the dirt getting detached the water now starts looking murky.

    2. Emulsification

    Now that the dirt has been removed, it is critical that they don’t re-deposit on the clothes. This is the done by the second action of the surfactant i.e emulsification. Emulsification is the process by which the dirt and the water form a mixture. This keeps the dirt suspended in the water till it is washed down the drain

    But the Sapindus is so much more

    The fruit that’s a detergent is a great surfactant which explains why it cleans so well. However it is so much more than just a surfactant.

    1. It is a certified organic product fruit. So it is absolutely bio-degradable and once used for washing leaves no trace of its existence.
    2. It is powdered to make a great detergent, so it consumes very little energy to manufacture.
    3. It is hypoallergenic, so it is gentle on hands, leaves no chemical residue on clothes, that can be harmful to skin.

    Food for thought

    In the first month of our experiments with the Sapindus we completely eliminated regular chemical detergents. However I am constantly amazed by how well the innocuous, light brown fruit cleans.

    But think about it, regular chemical detergents have been around for the last hundred years or so. However humans and dirty clothes have been around for thousands of years. More often than not it has been the fruit that’s a detergent that saved  the day.

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