White lies, palm-free

The other day, my daughter asked for help with a school assignment that required her to write a list of things she could do to prevent deforestation. Her list already included some obvious items to do with saving or recycling paper, but she needed more. I explained that because tropical forests are being ripped up to make way for palm-oil plantations, some people are avoiding products made with palm oil, such as Dove soap. “But Dad,” she protested, “then why do WE use Dove soap?”

Why, indeed? Lacking enough knowledge about the alternatives, I had allowed our family to stick with this old habit. I knew that the main culprit in the expansion of the palm-oil plantations was biodiesel for the European market. But significant quantities go into soap and foods, so it was worth looking for alternatives. These proved to be difficult to find. In my local Pick n Pay, every bar of soap had either sodium palm kernelate, sodium palmate or sodium palmitate on its list of ingredients. Liquid soaps never have these ingredients, but they come in wasteful, disposable pump packaging. (They also probably have other unsavoury ingredients, but I already steer clear of antibacterial soaps and I’m just trying to save the rainforest for now.)

The trick seemed to be finding a bulk refill liquid soap so that I could keep reusing the pumps that are already in my house. Single-use refills invariably come in unrecyclable pouches, so they’re not particularly helpful. I never found bulk hand soap in any ordinary store, but a factory shop near my home carries five-litre containers of Plush Pearly Lotion Soap. It has no list of ingredients and I have no way to verify the “biodegradable” claim on the label. I am confident that it contains no palm oil, however. It may not have a particularly exotic scent or produce the most luxuriant lather I’ve ever come across, but it works very well. I quietly placed it in every bathroom and shower in the house, and no one has even noticed. And at R94.50 for five litres, I calculate that it costs one-quarter the price of single-use pumps by volume. So saving the rainforests is saving me a few rands to put aside for a rainy day.