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Make luffa, not plastic April 19th, 2020 by

During the Second World War, cut off from many supplies, the USA looked to the laboratory for help. Large teams of chemists were specifically engaged in the war effort, explains historian Daniel Immerwahr in his 2019 book How to Hide an Empire. Agricultural products like rubber were replaced by a synthetic made from petroleum. Nylon and rayon substituted for silk. Fiberglass was born, along with plywood, and many plastic synthetics.

Plastic sponges invaded our homes, replacing their natural originals, which came from the sea. But, as we will see below, there is also a vegetable sponge.

My family has always washed the dishes with plastic sponges. Then last year we grew weary of having to frequently replace the plastic sponges, because they retained food bits which rotted and gave off a bacterial stench. Then we started to feel bad about throwing away so many sponges. Once discarded, they never decay, and we were fueling demand for plastic from polluting factories.

You can’t stop using something unless you have an alternative. Older people in Cochabamba remember how their parents would keep a luffa plant, whose fruits can be used as kitchen sponges. The luffa is a member of the squash family; it grows on a vine and looks a bit like a big cucumber when it is green.

When Ana decided that we had to grow luffa to replace the plastic sponges, our first problem was getting the seed. The plant is no longer popular, but fortunately a neighbor was one of the last people in the city still growing luffas. They grow vigorously and when their vine grew over the garden wall and into the street, we waited for the fruit to dry and when no one was looking, we plucked it off. We were on our way to growing luffa.

The luffa has a strange way of spreading its seed. The tip of the hanging fruit is covered with a little cap, which pops off when the shell dries and the seed is ready. Then as the luffa sways in the breeze, still swinging on the vine, it spills its seed on the ground.

The luffa plant needs little care, just a structure to climb on. We have yet to find any pests or diseases on this beautiful plant. Its big, yellow flowers attract bumblebees, and the plant climbs the walls like ivy, taking up little space on the ground.

After the fruit dries, Ana simply breaks off the crunchy, papery skin revealing a clean, dry vegetable sponge. Knock out any remaining seeds and the luffa is ready to use. It is the perfect size and shape to wash out a drinking glass. You can also scrub up in the shower with a luffa. You can use the luffa whole or cut it into pieces. The sponge is full of holes, so it stays clean and odor-free for weeks. When you replace your luffa sponge with a new one, you can toss the old one into the compost pit.

The luffa loves warm weather. If you can’t grow luffa yourself you can always buy it. Say farewell to those synthetic plastic sponges and welcome back their natural alternatives, straight from the garden.

Further reading

Immerwahr, Daniel 2019 How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States. London: Bodley Head. 516 pp.

Scientific names

The luffa (or loofah) belongs to the cucurbit family, along with watermelon and pumpkin. There are two species, Luffa cylindrica, also called Luffa aegyptica, and Luffa acutangula.

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