Monday, 15 August 2016

Homemade soap to make our habits more sustainable

I have always been conscious of respecting the environment and especially on not wasting resources. Water is our most precious resource on earth and, while 1 in 10 people don’t even have access to fresh water on a daily basis, we still waste it A LOT. My internship in EduCare as a SWASH intern gave me an opportunity to think about how to reduce our water usage. In a sustainable development approach, the reuse of grey water is a huge part of the solution to this problem.

In an ideal world, we would be able to have a cyclic system in our houses where no water is wasted. Unfortunately, we put so many toxic compounds in our grey water that we can’t use it for much, except for flushing or cleaning. So how can we solve this? How can we improve the quality of our grey water in order to use it for a possible garden? Where does all the toxicity come from?
And the answer is simple: imported chemical detergent. We use soaps and detergents on a daily basis for our bodies, our dishes and our home without even knowing their exact composition. And, most importantly, we don’t understand how those chemicals will affect us and our environment. So, to improve the quality of the water we put into the ground after washing, we need to know what exactly we are using to wash it.

Before all the big corporations came along with their fancy soaps, what did we use to clean our stuff? As for many times in environmental conservation research, I had to turn to our old traditional ways. Let’s make homemade soap!! By wanting to solve an issue, I could also link it to other aspects of eco-friendly living and broader sustainable development! By producing soap locally, we are reducing the plastic packaging coming into the village. Also, this can become a microfinance activity with women of the village producing this soap and selling it! Finally, we can improve the village’s health by limiting the amount of toxic chemicals used on a daily basis!
For this, I was lucky that our local liaison Manoj had a recipe for homemade soap. His auntie produces homemade soap for the whole family of 60 people! This soap is used for washing laundry, dishes and the house. To make this soap even cheaper, they use the black frying oil from Manoj’s snack shop. So this soap uses waste oil as a resource, which makes it even more a sustainable eco-conscious product!

To make a batch of around 20 squares of soap, we start by dissolving 250g of caustic soda in 1L of water. We mix this and let it to rest overnight. The morning after, we add 1L of black oil (soybean), mix everything for 30 mins and we get creamy liquid soap! The caustic soda actually reacts with the oil to form what we call soap. The proportions are calculated so no caustic soda is left unmixed since it’s corrosive so not really what you want as a soap! We finally leave the soap to dry overnight and, when it gets the expected texture, we can cut it and start using it! We had some troubles with the soap being a bit oily for laundry but we are always improving the recipe! Moreover, I found out there are so many great recipes for soap out there so it can be adapted to all different wants and needs! 

Water and caustic soda

Adding the black oil

Creamy state of the soap

Home-made soap is not the only option, as there are hundreds of ways to clean without any chemicals that pollute your body or your home! Lemon is a great natural disinfectant and is actually what many industrial soaps use as main cleaning agent. Sand is great to use to scrub dishes or house surfaces in order to remove any stain. Ashes are also traditionally used to clean the dishes in Sikh temples. Indeed, ashes contain hydroxide anions which is the compound we use from the caustic soda. So, when they mix with the oil present in dirty dishes, they actually create mini droplets of soap on the plate. So, when the plate is rinsed, all the dirt has been washed with the ashes! Some studies have been made to address eventual health issues caused by these alternative methods. But the important thing when using any method is to weight the pros and cons and understand how each method impacts your health and environment. 

I started this project by trying to reduce water waste, and ended up learning so much more about sustainable alternatives. This experience made me rethink all my habits and re-analyze the products I use on a daily basis back home. We need to choose better and healthier care products not only for us but for our future children. We’re surrounded by all these products that are supposed to be the greatest cleaning agent ever but where does this come from? Advertisement plays a huge role in this and it’s important to become more responsible customers. Let’s challenge the big companies and ask for better products, that don’t spoil our health and our precious water and earth! It’s crucial to think about the impact that every single one of the products we buy has on the environment. From this experience and from seeing other habits here, I understood how new is not always better and that in some cases, our grandparents had it figured out all along.

After a whole night

Cutting the soap

Final result

Debora Cortez Miranda - Portugal
SWASH Project Manager and Center Administrative Manager in Gajner 

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