Don’t you just hate when there’s a long personal story in front of the recipe, and you have to scroll forever to find out how many cloves of garlic? Me too.

Recipe first:

600g lard, which my local pastured farm practically gives away, or more often ends up throwing away.

80g lye

228g of water

about 1/4 oz of essential oil, if desired

That’s it. No parabens, no unpronounceables.

Directions: add the lye to the water outside, being careful not to breathe the fumes. Heat the oil to 120F. Add the lye mix when both reach about 100F. Blend it until it “traces” (gets thick enough that dribbles onto the surface don’t instantly disappear), and add the essential oil. Pour it into a mold and wrap it in a towel for 48 hours, then cut it in bars and cure it for a couple weeks.

That’s it. (Original recipe here.) Not scary as long as you don’t splash it on yourself. Maybe an hour’s worth of work. Maybe 50 cents a bar.

mixing soap ingredients

Melted lard in metal pot, lye/water mixture in heat resistant glass bowl. Please excuse my half-finished kitchen resurfacing project and hungry sourdough starter in the background.

When did something as simple as soap get so complicated? How did we get suckered into thinking we needed 17 different substances just to clean stuff? I guarantee my great-grandmother Esther Moon did not have 17 different substances to clean stuff. She probably had lard soap just like this, or maybe tallow. Either way, her soap was likely made with local fats, using up wastes in the most effective, least impactful way. She was just that kind of lady. All our great-grandmothers were.

This soap doesn’t lather extravagantly like “dish soap” but it definitely gets the dishes clean, and it’s kinder on my hands than that yellow stuff labeled “gentle on hands.” It seems to work fine melted and diluted as laundry soap (I’m still on the fence about whether washing soda improves the result). Diluted as liquid soap, it cleans buckets in the barn. And it’s perfect for tiny muddy hands.

The big payoff for me personally, though, is using it as shampoo. I was always told I needed a clarifying shampoo because I have thin slow-growing oily hair. Turns out that’s false. Now I’m washing my hair less often, and it’s actually less greasy, healthier and less fragile. When I accidentally went back to shampoo for two showers in a row I shed my entire scalp, which was alarming. What’s in that stuff? I’ve been letting the marketers sucker me into a much more expensive and ultimately worse-performing product. For decades.

Then there’s the packaging.

See, an ugly thing was happening here in America. Our landfills were filling up faster than we could build them. Things that used to come in glass (which could be refilled) and metal (which could be recycled, saving energy) began to come mostly in plastic. It was lighter, less fragile, cheaper. But it was costing municipalities a lot in real estate.

“No problem!” said the industry, when confronted. “Plastic is recyclable, too.” And every Coke bottle got its own little recycling symbol, with the number denoting what sort of plastic it was composed of. People trained themselves to clean and separate, and felt much better about all the landfill space saved. Problem solved.

Except, decades later, it has become clear to us that the problem was not solved.

It disappeared from our sight, but it did not come off our ecological balance sheet. We shipped much of that plastic to China. Some of it was burned. Numbers 1 and 2 were downcycled (at least some portion of the volume was), but higher numbers still aren’t effectively reused. A small slice was made into nice fleece coats, but the vast bulk of human-made plastic is still in its original form.

Much has migrated into rivers, forming small floating continents in the oceans. It has fragmented into tinier and tinier pieces and been mistaken by wildlife for sustenance, causing birds and whales to starve to death with full bellies. It has made its way into our own bodies. China has stopped accepting most foreign plastic, which means it’s now a visible problem again, and ending up in other countries.

Pouring soap

Since my immersion blender bit the dust, I’ve used the food processor a couple of times. This is not ideal because over time plastic will be damaged by lye, but it does work. There’s just a smidge of essential oil of flavors I would not mind eating a truly miniscule amount, no artificial fragrances. My mold is currently a cardbord box lined with a grocery bag. I’m planning to get something better before the next batch, but for the moment, gotta use what I got.

Who is responsible for this problem? Which is to say, who has the ability to respond to it?

Companies that package their products in plastic have huge power to choose something less polluting. Or they would, except we have collectively written the rules of capitalism to demand that companies maximize profits at the expense of us all, and plastic is still slightly cheaper.

Consumers can vote with their dollars, spend twice as much for the eco-friendlier option, if they happen to have a dollar to spare. Fewer and fewer of us do each year, thanks to widening inequality. Countries with functioning governments are legislating smarter choices. Micro-beads aside, let’s be real: that’s not going to happen soon in America.

So, people can’t do it, companies won’t do it and my government isn’t going to do it. Bummer. But before we declare that we’re stuck, I’d like to take a step back. Look at the assumptions that led to the stuckness.

Here’s a big fat hairy assumption embedded in the plastic disposal problem: my life is better with umpteen million products. Actually, the assumption is that my life is so much better that I must wrack my brains, build huge machinery, ship trash all over the world, do anything to keep my access to those umpteen million products.

Oh no. That’s just not true.

soap bars curing.

Bars cut and curing. They’re not the prettiest, but boy do they clean!

Of course it is true that plastic has unique capabilities. I’m thinking medical applications, crash helmets, car seats. For those things it is irreplaceable. And it is true that there are Legos and other plastic things in my house that we get a lot of value out of. But these are mostly fairly durable things, either used and loved repeatedly for years, or carefully downcycled at home from one use to another without further processing or shipping. The lye comes in a plastic bottle. One tiny bottle for many, many batches of soap, and it will live again as a seed starting pot.

That’s not what I’m talking about, because that is not the largest vein of the plastic river crashing into our oceans.

I’m talking about the single use spoons and straws that can so easily be avoided by many more people than are choosing to do so. Soda bottles and junk wrappers that deliver substances that actually make our lives worse (I’m looking at you, seven-layer bag around my beloved potato chips). And the packaging that enables the illusion of choice, the illusion of a perfect solution that is just the marketing department’s wet dream, and nobody else’s. We simply must. buy. less.

Now, lard soap may not be perfect for everyone. Harder water or different skin/hair, and your mileage may vary. Some people will want more scent; my husband says the soap smells just a little like food. Not like pork, mind you, but somehow vaguely edible. We all have to find what works for us. But let’s not let the marketers decide for us.

How has simplifying your purchases improved both your life and your impact?