How Sustainable is my Bacon Soap?

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This is the fifth year I’ve made bacon soap. Cold process soap making–which describes the method of making soap through a chemical reaction –uses lye and is not a kid-friendly activity. I skipped soap making last year on account of having a baby, and I ended up really missing the bacon soap. It’s smooth and moisturizing and unlike anything you can buy commercially, probably because many/most people find the idea of lard soap disgusting. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that on one or two occasions I found some unused bars I’d gifted in previous seasons in the homes of relations–and after calculating the likelihood of the bar languishing forever unused, I snagged a few back. The other person who is a big fan of Sunday Best soap is my Grandfather-in-law, who grew up partially in rural Kansas in the 30s and has no hang ups about the making of soap from lard.
I myself am split on the issue, having become a mostly vegetarian “flexetarian” a year and a half ago, most of the lard for this year’s soap came from my aunts who collected it for me. Obviously it would be better for our health (and would be great for slowing climate change) if we all quit bacon… But so long as lard is being thrown out by someone I know, I’d prefer to use it. This especially true because the vegan oils typically used in soap formulations also come at a significant environmental and financial cost.

I got into soap making partially in effort to find an alternative to bottled plastic liquid soaps and the waste they make, but also to upcycle cooking grease. One of the ironies, however (there are always ironies in attempted zero waste living), is that having all the tools to make soap is something of an investment. For the most part I’ve tried to avoid buying separate tools for soap making. Several sources I’ve seen recommend having a fully separate mixing spoons, containers, stick blenders, etc for soap making, which are not used for cooking. This is unrealistic for me from both a cost and a storage perspective. I use my regular stainless steel and Pyrex cooking tools to make soap, and afterwards wash everything thoroughly.

There are a few tools that are essential in soap making, and also do double duty in the kitchen, including:

– a scale– I bought one years ago to determine postage for selling books online. In order to get accurate measures for the chemical reaction needed to make soap, this is essential.

–a stick/immersion blender–also great for making soup! I’ve never made soap without one. It integrates the mixture of lye and lard expediently.

-thermometer: I use a somewhat inaccurate candy thermometer. Someday I may need a better one.

-soap molds: you can use a lot of things in lieu of purchasing silicone soap molds, including heavy duty leftover plastic packaging. Soap should typically be cool enough when it is being poured not to melt most plastic. I bought some silicone molds before I realized this.

Safety goggles and gloves: lye is corrosive, safety and safety equipment are essential.

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I have worked to keep my apothecary-making kit something that can fit easily inside a single 25-gallon Tupperware trug (one I found in the trash without a lid, therefore allowing a little overflow up top). Last year the folks at Root Simple (one of my favorite homesteader blogs) did a great series of posts on their attempts to de-clutter their lives per the Marie Kondo ‘magical art of tidying up’ method. They did a post on the challenges of doing this when you are leading a homesteader lifestyle. The truth is that if you want to avoid single use and disposable objects, one has to keep more re-usable tools around. As an obvious example, I have a large, full size dresser drawer plus another bin or two full of cloth diapers for my baby. This large bin probably saves 16 pounds of plastic garbage per week, and significant amounts of water and energy on wash because I can get away with just one load of diapers a week. But the cloth diapers occupy a larger footprint in my house than a slim pack of disposable diapers would.

As charmed as I am by the idea of a streamlined life with empty, zen-like rooms, this doesn’t reflect my lived experience with the hoarding and resourcefulness that an attempted zero waste waste lifestyle inspires.  All of which is to say that all of these decisions are negotiated. Clear answers on best practices on sustainability are hard to come by, and often shift depending on how much of the product lifecycle you re looking at. For the time being, I hope to use the infrastructure for soap making I’ve developed to continue to make soap for as long as bacon grease continues to be a breakfast byproduct amongst my friends and acquaintances.

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