Zero Waste chatter lately has all been a buzz about using conkers (horse chestnuts) to make Laundry liquid. The word on the street is that they’re a more sustainable alternative to soap nuts, which are flown to us from half-way around the world. Apparently conkers contain the same soap-like substance as soap nuts, saponin. So challenge set all I needed to do was find some conkers!
Finding conkers was not easy. Any horse-chestnut tree near a school had been thoroughly denuded and my fear of dogs prevents me walking in parks in Ireland. Then, when I was on route to visit an elderly neighbour in a nursing home, I came upon an unadulterated glut of them. Karma!
So here’s how I made my laundry liquid.
- Cut the conkers into quarters or smash into pieces with a hammer. I did six.
- Cover the pieces with water and leave to steep for at least 30minutes. I did it overnight for maximum effect.
- Strain the yellowish liquid and use as laundry liquid. The recipes I’ve seen suggest 1/3 – 1/2 cup per wash.
I’ve also seen people cut the conkers into quarters and just put them in a small cotton bag in with their laundry, like you would with soapnuts.
How did it fare?
The clothes I washed with the conker laundry liquid did seem clean when the came out of the washing machine, but they were dark clothes so hard to sure. I’m also conscious of the fact that in a trial of alternative laundry products it was found that water cleaned clothes as well as soap nuts, and that I thought soap nuts were doing a good job of cleaning my laundry until about 8 months in when clothes really started to stink.
So I decided to test the conker liquid to wash some greasy bakeware. My thinking being that if it can shift grease on bakeware it will surely shift it on clothes. The conker liquid was slightly more effective than boiling water alone but not nearly as effective as the Bio D dishwashing liquid*.
Next I tested it against soap by using it to clean oil-coated hands. This time the liquid really did have impact and did a very good job of cleaning my hands in comparison to water alone. I did find that it dried my hands out quite a bit and felt as if it had stripped the natural oils out of my skin.
Pros of Conker Cleaning Liquid
- It’s practically free, although remember if you’re collecting them to leave some for foraging animals.
- They’re grown locally so much more sustainable than soap nuts from across the globe.
- They don’t need to be manufactured, packaged and shipped and so have a lower carbon footprint than other products.
Cons of Conker Cleaning Liquid
- I’ve read that the yellow tinge to the liquid might stain white clothing and that you’re advised to peel the conkers first. I’m afraid I don’t have the time or interest to peel conkers so I won’t be trying this.
- If you’ve played conkers as a kid you’ll know that conkers harden over time. This might be an issue for continual use of conker laundry liquid. I have read that conkers soften if soaked in water but does this cause saponin to leech out- I don’t know. If reducing them to smaller pieces for steeping becomes a mammoth task I can see myself reaching for my Sonett laundry powder, which is 100% biodegradable.
- The other issue with conkers over soap nuts is storage. If I have to use 6 conkers for every wash, that’s a lot of conkers to store. With soap nuts you’re suppose to be able to use them for 4-5 washes. I’ll soaked the same set of conkers 3 times and saponin was released into the water on all three occasions, but the strength of the conker ‘tea’ was much weaker with each additional soaking. Perhaps you can dry out the nuts and grind them down to a powder for storage but I don’t know if this would damage the saponins and it way to much work for me to do on an ongoing basis. I’ve heard of people cutting the nuts into quarters and freezing them to prevent them going mouldy.
Although it might work as a replacement for hand soap, I simply don’t believe that conker liquid washes as well as detergents. Here’s why. Both soap and detergents trap dirt and suspend it in water so it can be washed away but soap isn’t as effective at suspending dirt, particularly in hard water areas. Soaps form a scum in hard water and this scum does not rinse away easily and is known to turn laundry a greyish hue. Detergents react less to minerals in water and do not leave this residue. If you live in an area where the water is soft, you will have more success with soaps, but even then a gradual build-up of calcium and magnesium ions (also called ‘curd’) can be left in the fabric of your family’s laundry over time. (source: diaperincorner.com). You can read more about how soap and detergents work here.
PS – I can buy refills of Bio D in the Food Coop Dublin 8 and it’s free of a lot of the nasty chemicals in mainstream washing up liquid. Their products are also 100% hypoallergenic, cruelty free and made in the UK.