Karin Berkhoudt

The wonderful world of circular soaps - beautiful handmade, artisan products made from other people's waste

Working from her studio in BlueCity Rotterdam, Karin tells us about her inspiration for Kusala.eco…


Kusala comes from the Pali language used in the oldest Buddhist texts and means good karma. The idea for Kusala was that we would send good karma into the world in two ways: by producing with respect for humans, nature, and the environment, and by making people happy with our wonderful products and scents.

“Working towards a circular economy involves reduction of unnecessary production & consumption, or 'de-growth', rather than always thinking in terms of new things to make and sell. ”

The story began on an olive plantation in Italy. Karin was approached by a grower who had a lot of olive oil leftover from previous years, no longer fit for consumption, and felt bad throwing it away. This gave Karin an idea – realising there must be a lot of high quality olive oil reaching an expiry date, perhaps there was a way to do this on a larger scale?

Around that time, BlueCity Rotterdam was established and growing as a hotspot for circular entrepreneurs – which was to become Kusala’s permanent home. After a few successful collaborations making coffee soap with waste stream coffee from mushroom grower Rotterzwam, and beer soap with beer and grains from brewery Vet & Lazy, Karin began scaling her operations and experimenting with more circular ingredients.

How do you make your soaps circular?


In order to make circular soaps you need circular fats and liquids, which in our case are repurposed olive oil, coffee oil from spent coffee, avocado oil from ugly avocados, and rain water. As 65% of soap is made out of fats, it’s important to select the best fats in order to have a hard, cleansing yet nourishing bar of soap. We are still exploring ways to get circular mango butter from discarded mango seeds, which is a large waste stream from the fruit & juice industry. Other than that, there are beautiful circular additives like ground coffee or beer grain for exfoliation, rejected avocados or tomatoes for nourishment, and so on!

What is the process for making a bar of circular soap?


Testing, testing, testing. My academic background helps – it’s important to test strategically, make extensive notes, and give the process time. The hardest thing when it comes to soap is to have patience to wait and see how a soap turns out and behaves over the course of several months. Then, once a recipe is decided upon, it needs to be certified for safety and registered in an EU database in accordance with the EU cosmetics regulations. The text on the packaging also needs to follow strict rules. This means that it’s not easy to simply adjust a recipe or make special editions.

What are your soaps made from?


We use all plant based fats, (free from palm oil) in our soaps such as olive oil, coconut oil, mango or shea butter, coffee oil, avocado oil, and castor oil. Many of our recipes contain extra nourishing liquids like coconut milk, hemp milk, white wine, or chamomile tea. We also use additives to give the soap extra properties, colors, and scents. Kusala soaps are all scented with unique blends of natural essential oils.

How do you find the right partners for your supplies?


We have built some some wonderful collaborations over the years. For example, we work with many olive oil traders in The Netherlands and producers in Spain and Italy; we buy coffee oil made from spent coffee from Kaffe Bueno in Denmark; we buy avocado oil made from ugly avocados from Soil Mates in The Netherlands; and all herbs we use are organically grown by Het Blauwe Huis Kruiden. Ideally, we work as locally and as sustainably as possible, but this is not always realistic for each and every ingredient.

What are the biggest challenges in making circular soap from waste?


There is still a disjunct between supply (waste) and demand (consumers). I get approached regularly by people who have a certain type of waste (most often coffee). Not every ingredient makes a high quality soap, so blindly using something to claim it is circular could lead to inferior products.
You also have to balance the trade-off between quality/sustainability vs affordability or else no one will be able to pay for the final products. Sadly, we still live in an upside-down world where unsustainable as well as unfair production leads to cheaper products on the market and society and the environment pays the price.

“I don't think we will get the change that we need only by trying to change our individual lifestyles, we will also need a more structural transformation of our political and economic systems. ”

What advice would you give someone pursuing a circular business idea?

Do your research and be critical. It’s easy to do something quite shallow, package it into great marketing, and sell it. For example, junk made from recycled plastic is still junk.

It’s important to quantify and qualify the impact of what you’re doing. Also, collaborate! There are lots of people doing very neat things and it’s awesome to be part of a growing community of people committed to making real changes.

Swap kusala soaps on swap-studio. Or visit the Kusala.eco website to see the whole range of products including shampoo bars, cleaning soaps, body soaps and accessories – or join one of their soap making workshops. 

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