Archive for February 11, 2012

Organic mattresses

I spend a good deal less time than I would like reclining in comfort on my bed. But I still rack up at least 45 hours a week. These, to me, are critical, replenishing hours. I like them to be unadulterated by both stress and toxic chemicals.

Sadly, the former cannot always be banished. The latter, on the other hand, I can control.


My kids all sleep on natural latex, organic mattresses, made right here in Ottawa. I have not yet bitten the bullet and sprung for such a mattress for myself, partly because my present mattress is not that old (its purchase directly preceded my more intense eco-conversion) and partly because it is very comfortable.

A word on replacing mattresses: please look to recycle rather than sending your old mattress to the dump. Mattress recycling is not mandatory in Ontario, though it is in parts of Canada (e.g. in the Vancouver area) and elsewhere. But it is certainly the right thing to do. Ninety five percent of a mattress can be recovered and reused.
See here for a list of recyclers in the US and Canada. Similar services operate in the UK and other countries: I suggest you use the powers of Google to find them.

If you end up replacing your mattress with a conventional one (i.e. if you ignore my advice!), and the company you buy from offers to take your old mattress away, do enquire where that mattress will end up. As far as I know, Sleep Country is the only big retailer in Canada that has made a public commitment to recycle or refurbish every mattress they collect.

obasan logo

But I digress. My kids’ mattresses come from a company called Obasan. It is Ottawa-based but has branches in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. The showroom here in Ottawa (on Colonnade Road) is lovely: blonde wood and fresh white bedding with no nasty off-gassing. It makes you want to buy everything.

The company website is very informative about where they source their materials (natural rubber from Malaysia, organic wool from Argentina, organic cotton from Peru and wood from Canada) and tells you about the customization option that is available for all their mattresses (so you can have an altogether different bed experience than your partner).

Obasan mattresses (and, indeed, other latex mattresses) should last 20-30 years. And when they do reach the end of their lives, they can, I am told, be composted (though I’d be interested to find out how long that would take and whether you could jam one into your home organic waste bin…..).


All Obasan products (they sell sheets, pillows and crib mattresses too) are guaranteed free from nasty chemicals. Felted wool is used in the mattresses, instead of chemicals, to ensure that they meet north American flame retardant standards. Conventional mattress makers typically use a class of chemicals called PBDEs to do this. However, these are soon to be phased out (as of 2013), here in Canada, due to recognition of their harmful effects.

This new ban serves to confirm what most us us probably suspected: sleeping on chemical-soaked mattresses night after night is not a great idea. Yet manufacturers continue to use them, not just as fire retardants, but also in the adhesives that they use. So, consider the Obasan option.

organic cotton

The company is great: small and personal. When I ordered the wrong length of mattress, they could not have been nicer about replacing it.

The downside, as usual, is price. Mattresses range between $1,599 (for the thinest twin) and $4,299 (for the thickest king size). This is one of those cases where, if you think of this as a 30-year investment, the price looks pretty good: just over $1 a week for the twin, assuming it lasts 30 years. Otherwise it can be daunting, though it is in line with other organic mattresses.

If you baulk, try Ikea instead. Ikea made a commitment way back in 1998 to phase out the use of PDBEs. Its Sultan mattress line, discussed here, is a lot easier on the pocket. The Ikea natural latex mattress is $499 for a twin and $999 for a king. It is, though, a compromise: made in Asia with a mixture of natural (85%) and synthetic latex (15%) it has polylactide fibre wadding instead of natural wool. (However, despite their scary-sounding name, these fibres are plant derived and don’t seem to be too evil.)

Last thing: Obasan has regular and quite generous sales, so, if you are on the fence, make sure you get on their mailing list to find out when the next event takes place. And, if you are wondering, within their delivery (as opposed to mail order) area, they do take old mattresses away for recycling.

Laundry soaps for the adventurous

This contribution to your eco-journey is based on input by Cindy Scott, my chief laundry adviser (she wrote the guest post on dryer sheets).


Cindy has been experimenting with homemade laundry soap…..and she assures me that it really works, even beating out commercial soaps when it comes to stinky running gear, which is certainly impressive. It is also very cheap to make.

Cindy used the laundry soap recipe from the Suzuki site. As long as you put in pure soap granules, you can pretty much guarantee that this is an eco-friendly concoction (see here for a discussion of the green credentials of soap).

By contrast, even some of the greener commercially available laundry soaps (including my favourite, Biovert) contain surfactants which are likely derived from petrochemicals and are certainly not naturally occurring (i.e. even if plant-derived, they require a grand amount of processing). So, for purists, making your own is a good bet. Once you have established your sources for borax and soda you are in business…you can even supply your friends.

Being a keen laundress, Cindy experimented with different ways to keep her whites sparkling. She found the best solution was to add 1 tablespoon of Nellie’s all-natural oxygen brightener to the water first and let it soak for 30 minutes.


Nellie’s All Natural is a Vancouver-based soap company. I use the washing soda (which is really washing detergent) from time to time, though it is hard to find in the east (I actually got mine at HomeSense). I am not 100% convinced by the company’s eco-credentials (their dryer balls are made out of the über-evil PVC which they proudly announce is `widely used in the healthcare sector, children’s toys and food packaging’….), but their products generally seem pretty good and the packaging is attractive if you go for the retro laundry-room look.

The oxygen brightener is made from sodium carbonate, sodium percarbonate, primary linear alcohol ethoxylate (those surfactants again) and sodium sulphate. Pretty benign, in the scheme of things, and with no fragrances or dyes.

I did a bit of research to see how the Nellie’s product stacks up compared to OxiClean, a more readily-available oxygen stain remover. It turns out that the active ingredients are the same (sodium carbonate and sodium percarbonate), but that OxiClean contains undisclosed fragrances and other ingredients (see here for a discussion of the pros and cons of OxiClean).

The purest product in this class seems to be Oxo Brite, made by the Earth Friendly Products company in the US. This contains nothing but the two active ingredients. I wonder whether it would work as well on Cindy’s whites: do the surfactants make a difference?

Anyway, back to the point. The soaking step is fine if you have a top-loading washing machine (and a good memory) but not so good for folks like me with precision-engineered German front-loaders. I guess I could use a bucket to pre-soak, add some dilute solution to the drum before hand, or use the pre-wash function. I suspect, though, that I will just let my whites gently yellow so I look all natural and non-bleached….

Not to be outdone, I have been doing my own laundry experimentation, using soap nuts (literally seeds from the Chinese Soap Berry Tree) in my wash.

soap nuts

The Green Virgin products website (from where I was kindly sent my nuts) tells you all about what these are and how to use them.

So far they have done a pretty good job for me. I use them mostly on bed-linen and other fairly benign stuff. I recently conducted one of my scientific stain tests, pitting them against `my regular detergent’ on red wine, tomato, olive oil and banana. They didn’t do too badly, but they were definitely worse than Biovert. They are, however, self-evidently natural (usually you only find seed pods in your laundry when you have inquisitive kids who don’t empty their pockets) and a very cheap option too (around 12 cents per wash).

So that’s that on laundry adventures for now.

Finally, let me apologize both for this too-long post and the errant emails subscribers have received from time to time with old postings. I am doing my best to get to the bottom of that problem.

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