DIY Zero Waste To Help Save The Planet – Your Washing Machine Detergent Step By Step

The idea of a Zero Waste life was quite an overwhelming concept when I first heard about it a few years ago. I experienced some intense waves of guilt thinking about the full black bin bag I had sitting at home, and the excessive amounts of plastic that I have used and wasted throughout my life. Unaware of the consequences of buying plastic and unable to see the direct effects, it seems that many of us continue to live in a way, which is deemed easier, rather than more sustainable. 

Although the initial steps of a Zero Waste life did take some effort on my part, it really wasn’t as difficult as I thought it might be, especially after I relieved myself of my plastic waste shame. We all know that canvas bags are the way forward, as well as glass bottles, jars and anything reusable. But what I found to be difficult was finding alternatives for the cleaning and toiletry products we buy in plastic packaging. Washing machine liquid has always been my number one guilty purchase, knowing that plastic packaging and the chemicals were not the best for my health and the environment.

Originally, I presumed that it would be far too difficult to make my own Zero Waste products, let alone too expensive. Again, I was completely wrong. DIY Zero Waste products not only reduce your plastic waste but they save you heaps of money too! You also gain control over what ingredients are included, reducing the amount of chemicals released into the environment and onto your skin. 

You might be already aware of the current global plastic waste issue, however, just in case, here’s a little reminder. Throughout the entire world we generate on average 1.3 billion tons of trash each year; 3 million tons of which only in Germany. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad if recycling actually meant recycling, but yet again, in a world of fake news, on average only 48% of all plastic waste gets recycled; with experts suggesting that this figure might be as low as 38%.

Due to plastic’s undeniable durability, it’s a love hate relationship. I can imagine back in the day, plastic would have been revolutionary, but sadly, all of the plastic that has ever been created still exists to this day and will do for hundreds of years. Much of the plastic waste has ended up in the oceans, with around 150 million tons estimated to be in our seas right this very second. This information alone was more than enough for me to decide to change my relationship with waste! 

With the recipe below you’ll be able to make copious amounts of washing machine detergent, with much less waste and a much more positive impact on the environment and on your health too. 

The liquid soap for washing machines sold at local supermarkets not only doesn’t last very long, but it also creates a lot of plastic waste, beside being filled with destructive ingredients such as phosphates, brighteners, fragrances, micro plastics and more. The plastic compounds found in washing machine liquids are somewhat soluble in water, but find it difficult to efficiently break down, going on to make their way into our environment on land and in the sea. The chemicals can affect our health too, causing skin irritation and rashes

Before we had washing machines and detergents, people actually washed their clothes with water and urine, not something I would advise, but it seems we’ve pushed it a little far, now opting to damage our clothes, skin and environment with toxic chemicals instead.

Four very affordable ingredients  

These 4 ingredients, mixed with water, will produce 9 liters of washing machine detergent. Although this might seem like quite a lot, you won’t need to pop to the shop any time soon and you could even hand it out to friends and family to try, reducing their waste too!

(Do not buy waschpulver, Reine Soda is the one you want, I just couldn’t find it without plastic packaging) 

(Do not buy waschpulver, Reine Soda is the one you want, I just couldn’t find it without plastic packaging) 

  1. 110grams of soap – natural, plant oil based, vegan

  • I used olive oil natural vegan friendly soap, €0.79 so €1.58 for two as you need a little more than one bar

  1. 120 grams of Baking soda 

  • This is called Natron in German, €1.49

  1. 120grams of washing soda

  • I could only find this in plastic, so instead I bought an eco friendly, vegan, sensitive washing powder that came in a cardboard box and is micro plastic free, but I would highly recommend washing soda if you can buy it in cardboard! In Germany it’s Reine Soda. This cost me €3.99. Reine soda is a similar price, if not cheaper

  1. Tea Tree essential oil (a few drops)

  • Optional: Choose another essential oil if you prefer other smells, but the tea tree is antibacterial and antimicrobial so this was my favourite choice, €1.99 

 Now for these simple steps…

  1. Grate the soap using the smallest side of the cheese grater into a large mixing bowl.

  1. Boil 500ml of water and then slowly add it to the grated soap, stirring as you pour. Keep stirring for 5-15 minutes until all is dissolved in the water. 

Soap and 500ml boiling water mixed consistently

  1. Fill your bucket with 4.5 litres of hot water, then, add the soap solution to the water whilst stirring.

  1. Add 120grams of baking soda and stir in well.

  1. Add 120grams of Washing soda (or like me, the closest to it you could find) and again, stir in well. 

  1. Add another 4 litres of hot water and stir

  1. Keep on stirring until it is evenly mixed/when you feel that it’s ready.

  1. Let the solution sit for 24 hours, covered, without any disturbance whilst it turns into a liquid gel

(This photo is without the extra water needed, don’t do what I did, remember all of the water! I covered mine with a towel and left it under my sink)

  1. Once your washing machine liquid gel is ready, either transfer it into containers, old plastic/glass bottles or jars and get ready to use. 

Photo: liquid gel after 24 hours

Photo: Washing machine detergent. I used a reusable old plastic bottle

  1. Depending on how many clothes you need to wash, use between 35ml and 70ml

  1. Check out what little waste you have left and feel great about yourself!

The Ups… and The Downs

I chose this recipe after a while as it turned out to be the best one for me, due to its minimal ingredients and low costs.

As I did not find the washing soda (reine soda) I hoped for, I needed to find my compromise.  I start searching for an eco friendly, vegan, and micro plastics free washing powder. I know that this will change the results and reduce its washing strength, but time was of the essence. The powder worked in the end, but from all of the research I have done I would definitely advise you to use washing soda if you can get your hands on it without plastic packaging. It’s purer, easy on the environment and people seem to love it online! 

Although this wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, Zero Waste is all about flexibility. If you can’t find what you are looking for, use your imagination and find the closest thing that will have the least negative effect on the environment, in terms of waste and chemicals used. 

Using the washing powder still means that there is a considerably less amount of waste being generated. Creating 9 litres of liquid gel from only 120g of washing powder, from a 1350g box, means that instead of only being able to get a measly 18 washes from the whole box, you get at least 1000! 

Moreover, I still have most of these ingredients for the next “production”.  

All I will need to do is buy one bar of soap for 79 cents. As the pandemic has been rather tough on my financial entries, such type of savings is an absolute game changer. Each month I would buy one litre of washing liquid and one litre of conditioner for €6 each. That’s €12 a month and €144 per year. This detergent cost a total of €9.05, for 9 litres. So, if I keep this entire batch, I won’t need to buy another bar of soap to make the new batch for 9 months. Two batches therefore costing €9.84. Lasting an entire 18 months. What a bargain. 

No journey is perfect…

One issue I did have with the process was that, because of my excitement, I forgot to add the rest of water necessary at the end! 

Moreover, I decided to transfer the solution into bottles for it to set, rather than keep it in the bucket. This meant that after the first 24 hours I was left with a solid jelly trapped in glass bottles.  

I turned each one upside down, nothing moved. I tried to shake it, nothing happened. So, again, being a flexible zero waster and instead of starting over, I popped the glass bottles into some boiling water and let it melt. 

Then, after I had solved the problem and found myself a few steps back, I added the hot water, stirred and then allowed it to settle, whilst still in the bucket. Once all of the needed water had been added and I waited another 24 hours, the washing machine detergent was finally ready! I gave it a quick stir, poured it into bottles and put a load of laundry on (two days later than scheduled). 

Final result? My clothes smelled amazing, as well as the surrounding environment! 

It was surprising how easy the process was (despite my messes up).

I am new to DIY zero waste, however, the whole process was really quick and before leaving it to set it only took around 25-30 minutes to make; I also had a really great time doing it. 

After I had used everything and the liquid was setting in the corner, I looked around to see how much waste I had generated. I bought the baking soda (Natron) in a glass jar, soap in a paper box, tea tree in a glass bottle and the washing powder (that should have been soda) in a cardboard box, which, in the end meant that all I had left was a strip of cardboard from the top of the box and the empty soap box. This being the only waste I will create for the next 9 months from doing my washing! 

Usually I would end the year with 24 plastic bottles, which is a scary 240 bottles from the past 10 years. If you think about it in terms of how many people live in your area or apartment building, this is a hell of a lot of plastic waste only from doing your laundry.

Thanks to my earlier slip up, I had an even bigger pile of clothes to get stuck into. My partner is a food stylist (yes, it’s a real job!) and he seems to get food stains all over his T-shirts. I finally could test my DIY washing machine detergent on his clothes! I did two loads of laundry, the first one at 30 °C and using 35ml of liquid gel.

The Results!

At first, I noticed a lack of fragrance. I personally don’t dislike it, but it made me realise how strong fragrances are usually not natural. Surprisingly, thus, my clothes felt pretty soft (as when using a fabric softener).

As the second load included clothes with pretty intense stains, I opted for two cups of liquid gel in (70ml) and settle the temperature to 40 °C. It’s not ideal to be washing with hot water, but sometimes this is the only thing that works to get those greasy stains out. To my surprise though, all of the stains were removed. Everything was super clean! 

Overall I had no issues, however, if you were looking for washing liquid that makes your clothes smell lovely, I would choose another essential oil rather than Tea Tree. I chose the latter because of its antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, helping with a deep clean, however, the smell of the gel before in comparison to the clothes afterwards, wasn’t even close. This was fine for me, but if you do like a little treat for your senses then perhaps you could try some orange essential oil or lavender, or whatever tickles your fancy, and add more than just a few drops. 

Would I recommend this to you? 

Whilst researching this topic I really came to understand just how harmful the chemicals, the packaging and the micro plastics in washing machine detergents are! Ignorance isn’t bliss for those who have to face the consequences (we are talking about oceans, marine life, environment and our skin).

This is why I am glad I found such an affordable and quick recipe.

The only aspect that could represent a downside for many is the lack of fragrance after the wash. However this definitely doesn’t stop me from recommending it to anyone! My clothes are clean, I have endless amounts of liquid soap and I feel less guilty for my impact (beside saving over 130 euros each year!)

Hot Tips 

  • Add more drops of essential oils if you want your clothes to have a stronger smell. However, be aware that your clothes will not smell the same as they would with your old, chemically filled washing machine liquid, keep your expectations as realistic as possible. 

  • Ask your friends and family for any empty detergent bottles, or use any you have yourself and fill them up with your new concoction. You can also leave the liquid in the bucket and refill your bottles if you don’t have enough to begin with. 

  • Your liquid gel might be a little lumpy, don’t worry, lumps are fine, it will still work. 

  • Trust yourself. DIY Zero waste can go a little differently for everyone, however, trust yourself to make the right decisions for you. If you think the gel needs more time, leave it a little longer. If you mess up, use your initiative, imagination and have fun doing it! 

  • If you would like to make a smaller amount, decrease the amount of ingredients used above. Just make sure to use enough water so it doesn’t turn into a solid jelly… like mine did! If it does, simply add boiling water to the bucket and stir. You may have to play a bit of a guessing game, but that’s all part of the fun.  

  • If you are finding it hard to get those stains out, you could either soak your clothes in some hot water and white wine vinegar before the wash, or you could add a cup of white wine vinegar after your wash and put it on a quick rinse. 

  • Do not transfer the liquid gel into containers before it has set, DIY in general creates various different outcomes. Make it easier for yourself if you do happen to make a couple of mistakes

  • Enjoy it! There are only a few ingredients, time and efforts. So, let yourself enjoy the process and be inspired for what else you can create next.

Author

  • Writer, founder of earthlings magazine and women's mental health support group 'Wacky Women'. I love silliness, getting creative and nature in all of its forms, especially when there's no humans around, or traces of any.