Wednesday, January 8, 2014

How do I take care of my period in an environmentally friendly way?

Over the last two years, I have been quietly evangelizing the diva cup to my close female friends. So far, all of them have had positive reactions, so I think it is time for my advice to go prime time. 

The Question

How do I take care of my period in an environmentally friendly way?

The Answer

Most women in the United States deal with their period by using tampons or pads. For a long time, I thought that these were the only options. However, there is a third, superior option that is popular in Canada and other Western countries. It is called a menstrual cup. 

What is a menstrual cup? Good question, I'm glad you asked. A menstrual cup is a small cup made of medical grade silicone that you insert in to yourself in order to catch your flow. It can stay in for up to 12 hours before you take it out, empty it, wash it, then re-insert. A single cup can be used for several years. 

Where do I buy one? There are two menstrual cups commonly available on the market called the moon cup or the diva cup. I found mine at Whole Foods, but they can easily be ordered online through Amazon. A cup costs about $40 and comes in one of two sizes -- narrow (for women under 30 who have not had children) and wide (over 30 or who have had children). The size is important because the "channel" widens as you age or after you have children. 

The cup takes some time to get used to because it can be tricky to learn how to insert it. However, once you get used to it, you will never go back. For me, it completely changed the way I thought about my period. I only have to think about it twice a day -- once in the morning and again before night. Also, some women report that using the cup reduces their cramps. Even women who hate tampons say that they can easily forget that the cup is there at all. Again, all of the female friends I have told now use the cup and love it. 

Of course, this solution is environmentally friendly, because you are using fewer resources. Also, it is ideal for avid backpackers, because there is no trash to throw away -- you dispose of your flow in the same way that you dispose of your poop (i.e., in a hole, preferably in the same hole as your poop). 

Try it for yourself, I promise you will not be disappointed. 

-- Your personal green expert

Friday, January 3, 2014

In the news: Uplifting stories II

In the last few months, I've read a number of inspiring stories in the news. Here is a quick recap (with links) of what I've learned.

1. The Economist covers a new business model for R&D designed to spur green technology -- in this case, the paper industry. Businesses from one industry pool resources to develop a cleaner technology, then each company races to put the developed technology into production.

2. The Hollywood Reporter states a Captain Planet movie is in the works. Need I say more?

3. Taiwan builds an enviro-friendly stadium that looks like a dragon, as shown in the blog GreenBuzz.

4. Philipinne delegate to the climate talks goes on hunger strike after typhoon destroys his homeland, as covered in the BBC News.

5. Elephant whisperer. Yeah, that's right. This 14-year old girl saves towns in India from lost and rampaging elephants. Reported by the BBC News.


Are artificial sweeteners safe?

The Question

A friend of mine recently asked about artificial sweeteners. Are they safe? Do they have any environmental impact? Which, if any, should I use?

The Answer

Short answer: Eat real food, use honey as a sweetener, train yourself to prefer less sugary food.

Long answer:The fact is that we don't really know if artificial sweeteners are safe or not. Just because they are allowed on the US food market now, does not mean they are not harmful to consume. The US Government assumes that if there is no proof that it hurts consumers then it must be safe. Unfortunately, there have been many cases where something once thought benign turned out to be toxic after many, many people had suffered (e.g., cigarettes, chemicals in hair spray, BPA in plastic). 

Let's keep in mind that not all countries treat their citizens like guinea pigs. For example, in the European Union, they follow the Precautionary Principle. If there is a reasonable assessment that some new product could be dangerous, then it is up to the industry to prove that it is safe. Of course, this decision is weighed against other considerations, such as, is there a viable alternative (e.g., some new medical procedures or medicines carry great risk, but there is no current alternative, so the procedure or medicine is approved). 

So the question is, is there a reasonable assessment that sweeteners are risky to consume? And if so, is there a viable alternative?

Understanding how artificial sweeteners work and are made is the first step to evaluating the risk of consuming them. First, it is important to know that sugar is very inefficient at delivering the perception of sweetness to our taste buds. Artificial sweeteners have the same calorie content as sugar or honey, but because they are so efficient at delivering the perception of sweetness, only a tiny amount is needed to get the same level of perceived sweetness as in sugar. Most of the powder in a packet of sweetener is actually just filler, like sand, so that the sweetener can be measured out.
Yeah, that's right, sand. Look for it on the label as "silica". But, honestly, that is probably the safest part of what you are consuming. 

So, how do they get such an efficient perception of sweetness out of such a small amount of material? For every sweetener on the market, with the exception of stevia, it means chemically processing some existing sweet thing (like sugar) so as to strip off the part that has the calories. Because these chemicals are used as part of the "process" they do not need to be labeled as ingredients, but there are residues in the food. For example, some estimates put the arsenic in Splenda to be about 2% of volume. Keep in mind that arsenic is a bioaccumulator. That means it builds up in the body over time. Scary!

What was that you said about stevia? Right. So, stevia is the only sweetener currently available on the mass market that is made through a physical process rather than a chemical process. It starts as a plant that grows in South America; the leaves get harvested and dried, then soaked in water to extract the part responsible for sweetness. The processing sort of reminds me of how we get caffeine out of tea leaves or coffee beans. Overall, pretty harmless. 

BUT (you could feel the "but" coming, couldn't you?), there is still reason to be cautious. Some people (including nutritionists, doctors, and scientists) are concerned about what the fake sweets are doing to our bodies. Keep in mind that our bodies evolved for thousands of years only knowing sweetness as fruit and honey, and knowing that there would be calories and essential vitamins and minerals in those foods. Scientists are now studying how the body reacts when it perceives sweetness but then does not get the associated calories and nutrients. So far, the results are still out -- not enough evidence has amounted one way or the other. 

So what does that leave us with? In my opinion, the healthiest thing you could do is just eat real food. No soda, no candy, no pastries, no meal-replacement bars... not with sugar, corn syrup, or artificial sweeteners. If you want something sweet, eat fruit or add a little honey. You can train your body not to like overly sweet things (same is true for salty things). It might be hard at first, but you will be healthier in the long run for it. 

If you want to read more about which foods to eat and not eat, I highly recommend In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. It is very easy to read, but very well researched and presented. It gives clear advice on what to eat and why.

And if you're in doubt, ask your personal green expert.