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Q. Dear Umbra,

In light of Lisa Hymas’ current series on GINKing, can you fill us in on the most eco-friendly forms of birth control currently available?

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Keeping It Kid Free

A. Dearest Kid Free,

StorkIndeed the “green inclinations, no kids” (GINK) posts have caused quite the stir. I’ve only dared to poke the issue with a 10-foot pole a few times in the past, but I think it’s a topic that deserves its place in the sun. I’ve also broached the subject of contraception previously, but it’s been several years and is totally worth another look.

Any form of birth control is greener than no birth control at all, as it aims to prevent the addition of yet another human to our already overburdened planet and its resources.

But let’s say that going permanent with a vasectomy or tubal ligation (truly green, GINK-approved, no more condom waste) is not yet a commitment you’re ready to make. Fair enough. No judgement here. I’d certainly hate to have to eat my words should a mini-Umbra pop into the picture down the road.

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Also, I completely understand if you are abstaining from abstinence. The next best option, effectiveness-wise would be an IUD, which either contains copper or releases the hormone progestin, as do implants. Both IUDs and implants are quite small and last for years; however, I’d probably opt for the copper as the greenest choice, what with synthetic hormone production and all.

But not comfortable with the IUD? Birth control shots, rings, pills, and patches work just fine—they all release progestin or a combo of progestin and estrogen. Aside from the hormone issues, the plastic film over the plastic cover in the paper box, which contains a zillion-page booklet of all the awful things that can happen if you take the drug, seems like overkill packaging-wise for something you use every single month. Hey, birth control companies, can’t you just give each patient one little booklet for the duration of the prescription?

My second fav option behind the copper IUD in terms of eco-ness is a reusable barrier—a diaphragm or cervical cap. Both basically get in the way of the sperms’ journey to the egg and can last a couple of years. However, in terms of effectiveness, 15–25 pregnancies result each year out of 100 women with this method—the same as with male and female condoms. And speaking of old faithful, ah, the condom. Indeed they do produce some waste, but in the grand scheme of things (i.e., possibly producing another human being), I’d say it’s somewhat inconsequential. Especially given that condoms, most of which are made of biodegradable latex (though chemical additives can complicate the process), represent 0.001 percent of trash American households produce annually. But whatever you do, don’t flush that condom: In addition to wasting water, it’ll just end up as a sewage solid, and the sewage staff will have to pick it out and put it in the trash themselves. Vom.

And if you feel slightly stifled by your BC options, take this stroll through the evolution of birth control, and thank your lucky stars that we’re no longer bound into chastity belts, having to blow up condoms before use, or using a vagina-scalding gem called Lysol douche.


Q. Hello, Umbra!

The massive company I work for recently got Keurig machines. I noticed that the K-Cups are not recyclable and are made from “other or #7 plastic” which is not healthy when heated.

Anything in mind that can be done (e.g., posting about them on Grist!) other than me calling them and asking them to change it (which I have four times now)?

Have a good one!

Ron M.

A. Dearest Ron,

So annoyed myself with these little individual-cup-producing plastic buckets of coffee, despite the fact that the company says it’s “researching alternatives to the K-Cup portion pack’s petroleum-based materials.” Normally I would consider this one of those small things not to sweat so much, but it’s so easily avoided. According to parent company Green Mountain Coffee Roasters’ website, more than 2.7 million K-Cup portion packs were brewed every day in 2008 alone. That’s a lot of unnecessary plastic whiling away the years (and years and years) in the landfill—not to mention the petroleum that went into making them.

You said you’ve called “them” four times and asked them to change it—who are you calling? Your supervisor? HR? Maybe talk to your boss to make sure you’re contacting the right people within the company first. Then get a posse together. Several voices are much louder than just one—even if it’s heard four times over. Start a petition or draft an email everyone can send to show the peeps in charge that there are lots of employees that feel the same way you do. And be sure to offer an alternative—like coffee grounds and a reusable filter (actually, I see that K-Cups even has a reusable filter option). It always chaps my hide when people say they disagree with an idea but don’t offer up any sort of alternative.

Or perhaps some guerilla-marketing-style, anti-single-serve-coffee posters near the machines would do the trick. Additionally, I always find it helpful to include cute pictures of puppies when I want to get a point across. Best of luck to you!


Q. Dear Umbra,

Some years ago I read about a study that recommended a nontoxic way to sanitize counters: two spray bottles—one with vinegar, one with peroxide. Spray till damp; the order doesn’t matter. Let dry.

I can’t find a reference for this. It seems like the USDA did the study.

Salt Lake City

A. Dearest Kathy,

Good memory—that was more than a decade ago! However, it wasn’t the USDA; it was Susan Sumner, a food scientist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, who discovered vinegar and peroxide’s combined sanitizing power, which she found would kill almost all Salmonella, Shigella, and E. coli bacteria. And it’s not just for counters; you can use it to clean cutting boards and vegetables too (just give the veggies a rinse with water after spraying them).

Sumner in Science News Online in 1996: “If the acetic acid got rid of 100 organisms, the hydrogen peroxide would get rid of 10,000, and the two together would get rid of 100,000.”

All you need is regular white vinegar and 3 percent hydrogen peroxide (the same stuff you’d buy at the drugstore) in two separate spray bottles—don’t mix the two in one container, as it can form a weak peracetic acid, which can be highly corrosive. Spray one and then the other onto the surface; the order doesn’t matter. And voila!


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