Design Contest Washing Machine Uses Soap Nuts

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Hungarian designer Levente Szabó has won the 2007 Electrolux Design Lab competition with his concept for the "E-wash," a washing machine that forgoes chemical detergent for "soap nuts," which are completely organic.

In India and Nepal, people have used the soap nut (sapindus mucorossi) for centuries to get their clothes clean. Szabó says that a kilogram of soap nuts would last the typical person a year, and soap nuts are good for people with allergies and gentle on clothes.

His design is attractive, but it's obviously the use of the soap nuts that sets it apart. And I wonder how difficult it would be to use the nuts with a regular washing machine most of us already use. From what I can tell from those selling soap nuts/soapberries, you can just stick them in a cotton bag and put them in the wash.

(Other winners of the competition can be seen here.)

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15 Comments

  1. Okay so the soap nuts are organic but if the wikipedia entry (on the website the active ingredient is saponin) is to be believed, then those little soap nuts can be poisonous if swallowed and in some cases can cause a skin rash. So I am a chemist and I agree that organic is great for somethings but a lot of these products are untested and who knows what they might do. If they were tested then I would be more than happy to use them. The whole problem is our unregulated chemical industry, not the chemical industry itself but of course I am biased.

  2. I wonder how these compare to ‘magnetic’ or ‘ionized oxygen’ wash balls. Everything I’ve read about these say they work, but not for the ‘magical’ reasons claimed. Rather, it’s a mechanical effect; the balls bash the clothes around to release the dirt (up-side is you don’t need detergent; down-side is your clothes wear out sooner). The ions or magnets are snake oil, and a couple of tennis balls work just as well. I’m curious if these soap nuts work on a similar principle.

  3. French independent consumer magazine “60 millions de consommateurs” recently tested a selection of washing powders and liquids, plus the soap nuts, and found that using them gave results barely better than washing clothes in just water.

    I’d love them to be an alternative to chemicals, but I’ve tried them and I’m really underwhelmed.

  4. Yeah, everything I’ve seen on these alternative clothes washing devices indicate that they’re no better than just using water. I think they only sell because people don’t know how well water alone washes stuff.

  5. Well Vik, if people have been using these soap nuts for centuries, don’t you think someone would notice if rocks would work just as well? I know the ionized balls only work mechanically, but it’s very likely that at least one of the organic compounds found in a soap nut has a detergent effect.

  6. An upside of this is that apparently, washing your clothes in plain hot water is more effective than I had realized.

    Besides, marketing these soap nuts as an “organic” alternative to soap strikes me a little like those shops that sell yerba mate as a “natural” alternative to coffee — as if coffee were somehow unnatural, or mate a more natural plant.

  7. Name: Kasha

    In response to CRASH’s comment about soap nuts being an organic alternative to soap . . .

    Soap nuts are a natural alternative to detergent, not soap. Commericially available detergent have petroleum-based, synthetic surfacants that are produced in chemistry labs.

    For a good explanation of the use of soap vs. detergent, visit:
    http://www.fabrics.net/deterg.asp

  8. Soapnuts are an organice material, which is a very different thing than the way organic is used to describe the agricultural process of relying on ecosystem management rather than external agricultural inputs.

    There are a multitude of species of the sapindus tree and there is a wide degree of variation in quality. So for the poster who was “underwhelmed” you may want to try a few samples from different companies before you give up on the idea of soapnuts.

    Besides being a natural detergent there is a huge reduction in waste related to the use of soapnuts.
    One no longer needs packaged detergent, fabric softener, or dryer sheets to have soft clean clothes.

    For people with sensitive skin, allergies to fragrance, and a social conscience to reduce waste and pollution soapnuts are a great alternative to packaged detergents.

    If you read the article on the design contest here
    http://www.appliancemagazine.com/news.php?article=113697 you will see that his design has other aspects besides simply using soapnuts in the place of traditional packaged laundry detergents.I applaud the inventor of this washing machine for combining nature and technology.

    When my current machine wears I out will seriously consider the E-wash as a contender as its replacement.

  9. Good job, Sixpoints. Very well stated.

    Szabó has designed something truly amazing. We will no doubt see others in the future. Isn’t it interesting that soap nuts are so uncommon in the US? Having been using them for quite a long time, I’ve thought of so many ways in which a machine could be built to utilize the shells in ‘raw’ form and work incredibly well – even using a cold-cold cycle. Built right, it could extend the use of the shells tremendously. (Guess there’s a lot of people that wouldn’t like that, huh? Do you ever wonder if it is even on P and G’s radar screen? Hmmm…)

    In the meantime, the old world way works just fine. I’ve personally gotten as many as seven loads out of a half ounce of good quality soap nuts. Hands down, if you are looking for good info about usage of soap nuts (that’s not a copy/paste of something you have already read) try this link: http://www.naturoli.com/soapnuts/ These folks know there stuff like no others I’ve found anywhere. If you have any questions (basics or hard science) they’ve got answers – with no hype and no sales pitch. That’s a nice change of pace given that most sellers are totally clueless. Given the way you write, you probably already know them. If not, I’m glad I could share this.

    BTW: If you check them out, let me know what you think regarding NaturOli’s perspective on the industry and all the politics. They should team up with Stacey Malkin and go on Oprah. It would get really interesting. LOL!

  10. Good job, Sixpoints. Very well stated.

    Szabó has designed something truly amazing. We will no doubt see others in the future. Isn’t it interesting that soap nuts are so uncommon in the US? Having been using them for quite a long time, I’ve thought of so many ways in which a machine could be built to utilize the shells in ‘raw’ form and work incredibly well – even using a cold-cold cycle. Built right, it could extend the use of the shells tremendously. (Guess there’s a lot of people that wouldn’t like that, huh? Do you ever wonder if it is even on P and G’s radar screen? Hmmm…)

    In the meantime, the old world way works just fine. I’ve personally gotten as many as seven loads out of a half ounce of good quality soap nuts. Hands down, if you are looking for good info about usage of soap nuts (that’s not a copy/paste of something you have already read) try this link: http://www.naturoli.com/soapnuts/ These folks know there stuff like no others I’ve found anywhere. If you have any questions (basics or hard science) they’ve got answers – with no hype and no sales pitch. That’s a nice change of pace given that most sellers are totally clueless. Given the way you write, you probably already know them. If not, I’m glad I could share this.

    BTW: If you check them out, let me know what you think regarding NaturOli’s perspective on the industry and all the politics. They should team up with Stacey Malkin and go on Oprah. It would get really interesting. LOL!

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