Soda crystals may just be the magic cleaning ingredient you’ve been looking for.
From sinks and drains to cookers, fridges, washing machines and laundry, soda crystals are a multi-purpose cleaning ingredient that can really help out with your eco friendly efforts around the home.
In this guide, we’ll take a good look at soda crystals, assess whether they’re bad for the environment, discuss the main soda crystals uses at home and a few more frequently asked questions.
By the end of this article, I hope you’ll be much more clued up on soda crystals and be set to put them to good use as a cleaning ingredient in your home.
What are soda crystals?
First and foremost, soda crystals are a type of salt.
As a material, this type of salt has been used by humans for hundreds of years because of its alkaline properties. Soda crystals have a high pH of around 11.5.
As soda crystals have been around for a long time, they do go by a couple of other names. In North America and parts of Asia, soda crystals are known as soda ash or washing soda.
Soda crystals are a multi-purpose chemical compound and have multiple uses. Aside from cleaning, soda ash alkali is used in a wide variety of industries, including glass making, soap production and textiles. We’ll find out more about these below.
I’ve been using soda crystals as a cleaning ingredient at home now for a little while and they’ve been incredibly useful and effective. I bought mine from Ethical Superstore*.
What are soda crystals made of?
Soda crystals are simple chemical compounds made up of two sodium molecules, one carbon and three oxygen.
In the simplest terms, soda crystals are just sodium carbonate. There are no other ingredients and materials involved with soda ash.
Sodium seems to be a good base for cleaning products. Other sodium-based eco friendly cleaning ingredients include baking soda and borax substitute.
Soda ash or washing soda can occur naturally in mineral deposits. They typically form in dry regions when seasonal lakes and wetlands evaporate, leaving behind the material.
Back in the day, soda crystals were extracted from the ashes of plants grown in high sodium soils. This is where the name soda ash comes from.
More recently, soda crystals are mainly manufactured in industry, but some are still mined from natural deposits.
How are soda crystals manufactured?
Unlike the early dates of extracting soda crystals from plant ash, this chemical compound is now produced in large industrial quantities.
This is because soda ash is an incredibly useful compound thanks to it being a common alkali.
The process used to make soda ash is known as the Solvay process, which is also known as the ammonia-soda process.
There are three main materials used in this process: saltwater (brine), limestone, and ammonia.
To create sodium carbonate, the Solvay process involves several reactions. First of all, the saltwater solution must be subjected to evaporation to create a strong salt solution. This saturated brine solution is then passed through an ammonia tower.
This ammoniated brine solution is then carbonated from carbon dioxide produced from limestone which is heated to 950-1,100oC. A few more reactions take place before you’re left with sodium hydrogen carbonate (this is actually baking soda or bicarbonate of soda).
The final stage involves the sodium hydrogen carbonate being heated to 300oC to produce sodium carbonate. The ammonia from the previous stage can be recovered and used again.
Is soda ash production sustainable?
So, is the production of soda crystals sustainable?
The process of creating soda crystals uses two abundant materials: brine and limestone.
Although brine may be easier to get hold of, limestone requires mining. As you know, any type of mining involves altering the natural environment. There are also the possibilities of pollution.
To create soda ash from these raw materials involves a lot of heat. The limestone must be heated to around 1,000oC and the final stage involves heating the baking soda to 300oC. All of this requires a lot of energy and ultimately leads to carbon dioxide emissions.
Most of the ammonia used in the reaction can be recovered and used again. The carbon dioxide used to carbonate the ammoniated brine can also be recovered.
In terms of by-products, the main waste element comes from calcium chloride. This is a useful type of salt that can be used by the concrete industry and for road salt. However, supply of calcium chloride outstrips demand, meaning there’s waste that has to be disposed of.
Overall, the process of creating soda ash isn’t particularly sustainable. There’s a lot of therm energy used, and also materials are re-used, there are no renewable material used.
Efforts are being made by soda ash manufacturers to reduce carbon emissions and operate more efficiently.
The only manufacturer of soda crystals in the UK is Dri-Pak, a company founded in 1961 in Nottingham. They’ve been packing soda crystals since 1965 and manufacturing their own since 1970.
Are soda crystals bad for the environment?
No, soda crystals are not classed as harmful to the environment.
Soda crystals don’t contain any phosphates, bleach or any other toxic chemicals. As outlined above, soda crystals are a salt by the name of sodium carbonate.
Whilst large quantities of soda ash in the environment might not be a good thing, sodium carbonate is a relatively environmentally friendly compound as it’s non-toxic in small quantities.
However, because it’s a water soluble inorganic salt, it won’t break down into organic compounds that can enter the soil ecosystem and be absorbed by plants. Once dissolved into water, it forms a mild alkali solution that’s not thought to be harmful to aquatic life. Again this is in small quantities.
In good news, when compared to the plethora of toxic, chemical-heavy household cleaning products on the market, soda crystals are an eco-friendly choice.
Soda Crystals Uses – Main cleaning uses for soda crystals around the home
Soda crystals are an incredibly useful material with multiple uses and applications around the home.
Here are a few of the more common home uses for soda ash.
- Deodorising appliances – washing machines, fridges, bins, dishwasher and slow cooker
- Unblocking pipes and drains – use regularly with hot water to keep drains free of smells and blockages
- Clean the glass on wood burning stove – read more on how to clean wood burning stove glass naturally here
- Pots & pans de-greaser – use on pans, tiles, cooker hood and hob with hot water to remove grease and stubborn deposits. Just wipe down with a good scourer or eco friendly sponge.
- Washing machine cleaning – add 500g of soda crystals to the drum and run on a hot wash once a month
- Clean your oven – Get help with that horrible job and clean your oven and metal racks with soda crystals. Check out these other eco friendly oven cleaning methods here.
- Clean chopping boards
- Remove stains from clothes
- Remove stains from cups and mugs
- Softening water – soda ash is used as a water softener. Add 25-75g of soda crystals to each wash depending on the hardness of your water.
- Soften towels
- Toilet cleaner – use as an alternative to bleach for toilet cleaner
When it comes to industry, soda crystals have even more uses. A couple of the main ones include glass making and producing soaps and detergents.
It’s thought around 50% of all soda ash produced goes towards making glass, which also requires silica sand and calcium carbonate. Find out how sustainable glass making is here.
Soda crystals solution strength
According to the manufacturer Dri Pak, you can easily create different strengths of soda crystal solution.
- Strong – 1 cup of soda crystals (200g) to 1 pint (550ml) of hot water
- Medium – Half a cup of soda crystals (100g) to 1 pint (550ml) of hot water
- Mild – 1 tablespoon of soda crystals (20g) to 1 pint (550ml) of hot water
What I shouldn’t use soda ash on?
Soda ash doesn’t clean absolutely everything however.
For example, it won’t descale your energy efficient kettle. This is because the limescale that builds up in your kettle is alkaline and so are the soda crystals.
For this type of cleaning you want an acidic solution to help remove limescale and return the surface to a neutral pH. This is why citric acid, such as that from a lemon, or acetic acid from white vinegar works well for descaling a kettle.
However, it’s true that soda crystals can help prevent the build up of limescale in the first place, such as in a washing machine.
You should also avoid using soda ash on aluminium products. This might include pots and pans, and even some surfaces and appliances.
The reason you shouldn’t use soda crystals on aluminium is that it can slightly corrode the surface of the metal. This will leave it looking dull and can potentially damage the metalwork.
Finally, soda crystals shouldn’t be used on any sort of waxed or polished surface, including most types of wood. The alkaline properties of the soda ash will dissolve the wax or polish, leaving the surface exposed.
Are soda crystals the same as bicarbonate of soda?
No, soda crystals are not quite the same as bicarbonate of soda. Soda crystals are also not the same as baking soda (which is the same as bicarbonate of soda).
Getting into the science, washing soda’s proper name is sodium carbonate.
Baking soda on the other hand is a salt named sodium hydrogen carbonate or sodium bicarbonate.
Soda crystals and bicarbonate of soda are similar compounds and it’s easy to see how and why they’d be confused.
But baking soda is not the same as soda crystals thanks to different chemical structures.
Soda Crystals and White Vinegar – Can I Clean With These Together?
Soda crystals and white vinegar are both fantastic and versatile eco friendly cleaning ingredients. You can have a read here about how good white vinegar for cleaning is.
So you’d think that mixing the two of them together would create a super-cleaning miracle.
The answer to do soda crystals and white vinegar go together is yes and no.
Let’s start with the no. It’s not effective to directly mix soda crystals and white vinegar together to clean a surface.
This is because soda ash is an alkali, whereas white vinegar is an acid. Mixing these together creates an almost neutral solution that isn’t particularly effective when it comes to cleaning.
The best way to use soda crystals and vinegar is in two stages. For example, when you’re wanting to unblock a drain, first use the washing soda and leave for a few minutes. Then use the white vinegar and hot water to blast the blockage away.
If you’re cleaning a hob for example. First use the soda ash to give it a good clean. Then use the vinegar to remove any debris and leave the hob gleaming.
Where to buy soda crystals
As mentioned previously, Dri Pak are the only UK manufacturer of soda crystals.
Dri Pak soda crystals are sold on a number of online sustainable shops. I personally bought mine from Ethical Superstore but there are a number of places selling them.
Here are my favourites:
Wrap up on soda crystals
Soda crystals are an incredibly effective green cleaning ingredient that can be used throughout your home for a number of different jobs.
The great thing about soda ash is that it’s relatively inexpensive to buy and is non-toxic to the environment. In the quantities produced by households, our waterways can handle this alkaline substance being deposited with no negative impacts.
However, the process to produce soda crystals does come with an environmental impact and is not currently sustainable. Yes, some of the materials are reused during the manufacturing of soda crystals but it still involves mining limescale and enormous amounts of heat.
The soda ash production process can be made more sustainable and with the involvement of renewable energy. This is currently the only negative.
All things considered and especially when you look at the high-chemical, toxic and corrosive alternatives so many household cleaning jobs, soda crystals are a great eco friendly choice.
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I’m the Creator and Editor of Tiny Eco Home Life. I write and publish information about more sustainable, environmentally friendly living in and around the home. Alongside this website, I love spending time in the natural world, living a simple life and spending time with my young family (Murphy the dog!) I round up my thoughts and recent blogs on the Eco Life Newsletter.