You might have seen soda crystals presented as an eco-friendly alternative to standard cleaning products.
While using soda crystals is better for the environment than cleaning products containing toxic materials, that doesn’t mean they are not harmful to the environment at all.
The major concern is that the process of sourcing or manufacturing soda ash is environmentally destructive.
Here’s everything you need to know about the environmental impact of soda crystals.
1. What Are Soda Crystals Made Of?
Soda crystals are salts made from sodium carbonate decahydrate.
They’re formed when sodium carbonate is dissolved in water, forming small crystals.
2. Are Soda Crystals the Same as Baking Soda?
Soda crystals are not the same as baking soda, but they are similar.
Baking soda is made from sodium bicarbonate, while soda crystals are made from sodium carbonate decahydrate.
While the names might be similar, they are not the exact same compound.
Sodium carbonate is symbolized as Na₂CO₃, while sodium bicarbonate NaHCO₃,
So, sodium bicarbonate contains hydrogen, while sodium carbonate does not.
Soda crystals are also much more alkaline, with a pH of around 11, whereas baking soda has a pH of 8.
While sodium bicarbonate is often used for baking, you should not use soda crystals as a substitute.
They are not safe for humans or animals to consume.
3. Are Washing Soda Crystals Eco-Friendly?
The appeal of soda crystals is they are believed to be less environmentally destructive than many commercial cleaning products when used.
Another example is how laundry pods can contain toxic ingredients, and much of the PVA film around them does not degrade after wastewater treatment.
When it comes to using soda crystals in the dishwasher, washing machine, or cleaning drains, it is typically neutralized in waste-water treatment plants.
So, in this regard, soda crystals are eco-friendly as they do not contain harmful ingredients and are not coated in PVA.
Although soda crystals are presented as an eco-friendly cleaning option, they still have an environmental impact when it comes to the manufacturing process, so they are not as eco-friendly as some people believe.
Sodium carbonate is often referred to as soda ash. Soda ash is usually sourced via mining or made in the Solvay process.
This process creates sodium carbonate by first using limestone to release carbon dioxide. The CO2 will then react with ammonia in brine to create soda ash.
In 2021, 17 Tg (teragrams) of soda ash was sourced in mines, and 42 Tg was manufactured via the Solvay process. One teragram is one billion kilograms.
Neither mining nor the Solvay process are good for the environment.
Although soda ash can also be found in lake brines or the ashes of some kinds of plants, it is rarely sourced in these ways.
Mining trona ore can release methane, which is detrimental to the environment as it has a more potent warming ability than carbon dioxide.
The mining process is also physically destructive to the environment as land is cleared to create the mine site, which can disrupt a pre-existing ecosystem.
Limestone is usually sourced by blasting, a process that uses explosives to extract rock fragments.
Blasting releases dust and fumes – the dust can disrupt the surrounding ecosystem when it settles on plants that are no longer able to photosynthesize.
These plants will wither and are unable to reproduce, which impacts pollinators and herbivores, who are left with less food.
The vibrations and noise pollution are also detrimental to the health of workers and animals and cause hearing loss and stress.
The noise and vibrations will also interfere with predator-prey relationships as prey cannot hear approaching predators and vice versa.
The Solvay method is also energy-intensive and has a big carbon footprint.
With approximately 760 Gg (gigagrams) of soda produced annually using this method, 210 Gg of CO2 is released per year. One Gigagram is one million kilograms.
There has been research into reducing the emissions associated with the Solvay method, alterations to the process could cut back on emissions by 7.93 Gg.
4. Are Soda Crystals Toxic?
Soda crystals are not toxic, but as mentioned earlier, they must not be used as a substitute for baking soda when baking.
Research on hydrates of sodium carbonate found these compounds have low acute toxicity.
5. Are Soda Crystals Biodegradable?
Soda crystals are biodegradable.
However, they can kill moss and algae. They are great if this is the desired effect of using them to clean your garden.
With that said, this means they will have an effect on the surrounding plant life if they are discarded in nature.
So, for this reason, and since soda crystals are anti-bacterial, they are typically not discarded in a compost bin as they impact the composting process.
Instead, they are usually discarded in the general waste bin.
6. Are Soda Crystals Sustainable?
Soda crystals are not exactly sustainable.
They do not contain harmful ingredients like some other cleaning products, so the direct environmental impact when using these products may be low, but the manufacturing process is the big culprit.
The Solvay process is unsustainable as limestone is non-renewable, and so is Trona ore.
As mentioned earlier, while soda ash can technically be found in mineral lakes on plant ashes, it is very rarely sourced this way.
The mining process and the Solvay process are not sustainable as they both have high carbon footprints and damage their direct environment.