Earth Day: In search of health, alternatives and contentment
By Clara How, Apr 22, 2021
Let’s face it: going green is hard. We clearly know why we should (climate change has become a climate crisis) and how (saying no to plastic straws and bags). But the truth is that for many of us, it’s hard to sacrifice convenience, especially for a concept as abstract as saving the earth. It’s even harder to commit to well-intentioned good habits.
So for this Earth Day story, we encourage you to ease into these habits by reminding you that there is positivity to be found for yourself, on top of for the earth.
Because making conscious green choices can improve your health, and of those you love. They can save you money (always a good thing), and make your decisions more intentional. They can help you cherish what you have, and give new definition to what it means to find happiness.
Homemaker and mum of two Eileen Kao (who advocates about living sustainably on her Instagram account, @ecomamakao) and Jasmine Chiam (founder of Wellness Within, a platform to discover clean products) are here to share that there’s more to sustainable choices than saying no to plastic. And that you might already be taking steps to be eco-friendly, without even knowing it.
JASMINE, ON CLOTH PADS
Wait, what are cloth pads?
Cloth pads are reusable sanitary napkins that you wear in your underwear and change every few hours, similar to disposables!
To replace adhesive, the cloth pad stays put with wings and a snap button to hold it around the gusset. Brands like hannahpad have non-slip silicone drops for extra grip.
Um, really? But why?
I never questioned using disposable pads for many years, nor wonder why I was having very bad cramps. I just thought it was something that I had to go through once a month.
But when I started becoming more mindful about reducing my waste and the products I use, I realised that the problem with disposable products is that they are made to be thrown away — which means that they are produced very cheaply. In Singapore we have a good waste management system where our trash gets incinerated and the ashes taken to Pulau Semakau landfill. But this is projected to be filled by 2035, so every item that we throw away contributes.
I gave cloth pads a try and found that my period pains reduced drastically. Some may think that it’s a placebo effect, but even if it’s all in my mind, I’m just glad that the cramps are gone!
Doesn’t it smell bad?
A healthy period isn’t meant to smell fishy. When I discovered this, I thought: you mean that unpleasant smell has actually nothing to do with my body?
That foul smell we typically associate with periods comes from the moisture trapped in the plastic netting that disposable pads comprise of — like how damp clothes smell bad if not dried properly. The moisture and the lack of breathability of disposable pads increases the bacterial growth, and causes that smell. It may also have adverse effects on health.
What happens when you’re out — do you carry a used pad with you?
Yes. I fold it, put it in a bag, and wash it when I get home. Psychologically, we’re used to the idea that pads are smelly, and that they are something dirty to be thrown away. But if you stain your clothes when out in public, you don’t throw away your clothes. You take them home, wash the stain out, and rewear them.
How do you wash them?
I take them into the shower, put them on the floor, and let the blood wash out as I bathe. At the end, I squeeze out any remaining fluid, give it a bit of soap and that’s it!
There is no need to soak them if there are no stains, but if there are, soaking them with soap in cold water overnight helps. People ask if a stained cloth pad is still clean after being washed, but it just means that the colour pigment has bonded with the fabric.
But why should I bother?
Period blood is actually a good indicator to find out what’s going on with your health. Are there clots? Is it a different colour than usual? How bad are your cramps?
Many of us are so used to the idea of wrapping our pads and tossing them immediately that we don’t pay attention to our period blood. But it’s almost like a monthly health check-up.
EILEEN, ON FOOD WASTE
Isn’t this just about finishing your food?
Yes, but reducing food waste is also about preventing food from being thrown out.
During the Circuit Breaker period, it was so hard to prepare so many meals a day and keep within our grocery budget. I started to look at food that was reduced in price because they were close to expiry, and seeing how I could get creative with them.
I mostly buy reduced fruit or vegetables and stick them in the freezer, so you don’t get that mushy texture. My children love berries, which don’t come cheap, so I turn the reduced fruit into lollies for them. It feels good to be able to feed my kids what they love, and I saved food that would have been tossed out if it hadn’t been bought.
I try to buy food that’s locally grown, because it’s fresher and it’s one way of reducing carbon emissions. But I also look for reduced items that have been imported, because I figure that they have been flown all this way, and I would hate for them to be thrown away after making that trip!
Do you always bring a ‘tapao’ kit out with you?
No — when you have children, there’s already so much that you carry out in your bag! To avoid taking a disposable container when we eat out, we finish what we have. My husband will say, “Right, we will order three dishes. And if we’re still hungry, we can always order more.”
When I specially make a trip to takeaway food, I do bring my own containers. I try to make it as easy as I can for staff or the hawkers, like handing them the empty box without the lid so all they need to do is put food in it.
How do you teach your children not to waste food?
Now that they are older, my husband and I explain that there are children in other parts of the world who don’t get to choose their food.
It’s not unusual for children’s birthday cakes to be decorated with fondant and toys, but personally, we choose cakes that are edible in their entirety so nothing gets thrown away. There are still plenty of options for beautiful cakes, like a multi-tiered one, or decorated with edible flowers and fruit.
I explain to my children that fondant cakes are lovely but not everything can be eaten, and I’m grateful that they understand.
How do you feel about eating meat?
Eating organic and sustainably sourced food has always been important to me, but I started cooking more meatless meals during the Circuit Breaker period (I joke that so many things started then!). When you’re constantly cooking, it was easier to cook vegetables. I also found that eating vegetables gave me more energy, because the meat felt heavy on the stomach.
We’re not completely vegetarian, and I go to a reputable butcher to buy meat that is sustainably raised, looking out for labels like ‘grass fed’, ‘free range’ and ‘wild caught’. Sustainably sourced meat tends to be expensive, but with the money that I’ve saved from not eating meat everyday, I can afford to buy better quality meat and know it’s better for my health.
Ultimately, I think it’s about making good healthy choices for yourself and your family, and this includes knowing how your food is being made. I once read the ingredients for a tub of vegan feta cheese, which contained things like colour flavourings, modifiers and thickeners. I would rather go with the regular dairy option as opposed to the vegan one, because at least I know how it’s made, and what’s in it.
JASMINE, ON SKINCARE
How did you first hear about clean products?
I have a skin condition called eczema, and had been using steroids on my skin for over 20 years. They were a blanket solution, and eventually, my skin developed an addiction to steroids.
It was back in 2010 when I began to search online about my condition, and followed suggestions to try clean products, which are formulated with natural and lab made ingredients that are low in toxicity.
I noticed that my skin improved, and was less dry. Most importantly, it meant that I was less dependent on steroids. Instead of relying on doctors or quick fixes, it was empowering to know that I can take charge. But natural products are not miracle cures. You still need to do patch tests for allergies, and your body might take time to transition. Over time, you see the results.
What’s so bad about the regular stuff on the shelf?
Many skincare products contain synthetic sulphate-based chemicals, such as sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulphate (SLES). They are very efficient and cost-effective, but very harsh on the skin. For people with sensitive skin, these chemicals can break down the natural oils and may cause dryness and rashes.
Some products also contain parabens, which are preservatives that help to lengthen shelf life. But they’re also able to penetrate the skin, and mimic hormones like estrogen. Essentially, it may mess up your hormone function.
I believe that if something is negatively impacting you, then chances are that it has a greater negative impact elsewhere. We are lucky that Singapore’s waste water is treated, but in other countries, their waste water (together with the chemicals in our bath products) gets washed into the ocean.
For example, many sunscreen products contain a chemical called oxybenzone that causes coral bleaching and absorbs UV rays, so I would recommend mineral sunscreens which contain zinc oxide instead (which also reflects sun rays).
Aren’t clean products more expensive?
They are, but as a saying goes: don’t ask why organic food is more expensive; ask why processed food is so cheap! Natural ingredients use up more resources to harness than mixing different chemicals, so they are generally more labour intensive, which brings up the cost.
Is ‘clean’ just a buzzword in the beauty industry?
The problem is that buzzwords such as ‘clean’, ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘cruelty-free’ are not regulated, which means there isn’t just one standardised definition of what clean means. For the products I source, we have a long list of no-no ingredients. But other companies may define otherwise. Clean products might also not be in eco-friendly packaging, or be cruelty-free.
I believe it’s easier for consumers to be aware, rather than getting business to do the ‘right’ thing, because cost is always a huge factor at the core of any business. So what we can do is to ask ourselves, if a brand has promised to incorporate natural ingredients, has the price point remained unchanged? If so, what has replaced the sulphates?
We can also read ingredients lists, recognise what the natural ingredients are, and how far down the list they appear. If they’re right at the bottom, then the percentage is very small.
EILEEN, ON CLOTHING
So, why clothes?
I moved from the United Kingdom to Abu Dhabi before coming to Singapore, and my wardrobe had undergone so many changes. I needed to purge old items and get new ones, so I initially bought second hand clothes to save money, rather than to save the planet.
I was accustomed to recycling in the United Kingdom. Most people brought their own reusable shopping bags, and homes separated their waste in recycling bins. It was a shock to move to Abu Dhabi where they didn’t have this culture, but even more so in Singapore, where there are so many plastic bags — even buns are wrapped in individual bags! It seemed such a contrast to the lovely blue skies and greenery here, and made me think about my consumption in general.
So rather than donate all my clothes to a charity shop (I figured shops must be overwhelmed), I chose to rehome my clothes through clothes swops. I take out clothes that I no longer wear, and swop them for pre-loved items that I need and like.
Are all your family’s clothes pre-loved?
I have the most pre-loved clothes, but with children it’s always tricky because they’re still growing out of their clothes. I do buy clothes for them, but I make sure that they are cotton rather than synthetic fibres, which release microplastics when washed. I also prefer not to buy clothes with cartoon characters so they are easier to hand down or sell (in case their next owner doesn’t like My Little Pony!).
That being said, I think it’s all about how much wear you get out of an item. If a child really loves My Little Pony and wears that shirt all the time, I would rather buy that shirt, rather than five plain cotton shirts she doesn’t love as much.
I tell my kids that I’m not precious about their clothes, but to please respect them, because they might go to someone else in the future. When I do find pre-loved clothes for them, I say, “Look, the previous child has done a really good job in keeping this shirt in a good condition so you can wear it too.”
But don’t you miss the rush of retail therapy?
It’s funny because in my younger days, my mum called me a shopaholic because I was constantly buying things. So I totally understand the excitement you get when you come home with something new.
But I realised that after the first week or so, it goes back into the wardrobe and before you know it, you think that it might be worth donating because you don’t wear it anymore. Everyone has their own weakness for what’s new and pretty, and you can still absolutely have nice things. But if you buy 10 new things, do they truly bring you joy that’s long lasting?
I do occasionally buy brand new things, but I have found that if I buy that one nice thing that I really need and constantly use because I love the item so much, I can open my wardrobe and see that it’s full of items that make me happy.
It’s been a journey to discover what does make me happy deep down inside, other than material things. Over time, I found that joy in nature, exercising, and being outdoors with my family.
I’m happy in my own skin, and content with what I have.
How would you encourage people who aren’t quite convinced?
JASMINE: People are creatures who are reluctant to change. Unless we have that light bulb moment, using plastic and other disposable items don’t seem like something that we need to change, because we’ve normalised it. Especially for the older generation — not all members of my family are converts.
But I believe that everyone has their own difficulties in life, and I don’t want to tell them how they should live. I can gift people around me ‘tapao kits’, but if they’re not going to use them, then it would be a waste. All I can do is do what I can, and show people that it’s not as hard as they may think. When they come around and want sustainable alternatives, they know that they can come to me.
And how would you encourage those who want to go green but aren’t sure how to start?
EILEEN: The main message that I want to share is: pay attention to what you’re doing.
Most of the time, you’re already making a sustainable choice, but you just haven’t made that connection. Maybe you bought a second hand item to save money, or you instinctively tell your kids not to waste food. Once you make this connection that these very easy lifestyle choices are in fact good for the environment, it doesn’t seem like an inconvenient thing.
To follow Eileen’s journey, head over to her Instagram account at @ecomamakao.
For more information about clean products and to find out more about their eco-initiatives, visit Wellness Within at https://wellnesswithin.sg/.
My name is Clara, and you can find me at @clarahow on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I write about the steps I’ve taken to curb my shopping habits, how my period cup has been a lifesaver, and realising that having less is truly enjoying so much more.
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