Dear EarthTalk: What’s the skinny on essential oils? I love them, but a friend told me they are no good for the environment. — Mary M., via e-mail
Essential oils are more popular than ever for medicinal and therapeutic purposes, as well as in fragrances and flavorings for food and drinks. Typically produced by harvesting and distilling large amounts of various types of plant matter, essential oils are in many cases all-natural and can take the place of synthetic chemicals in many consumer applications. But some wonder whether our fascination with essential oils is so good for the planet, now that their popularity has turned them into big business.
“It often takes hundreds of pounds of plant material to make one pound of essential oil,” reports aromatherapist and author Mindy Green of GreenScentsations.com. She adds that it takes 50-60 pounds of eucalyptus to produce one pound of eucalyptus oil, 200-250 pounds of lavender for one pound of lavender oil, 2,000 pounds of cypress for a pound of cypress oil and as many as 10,000 pounds of rose blossoms for one pound of rose oil. Production of these source crops takes place all over the world and is often organized by large multinational corporations with little regard for local economies or ecosystems.
“Growing the substantial quantities of plant material needed to produce essential oils results in a monoculture style of farming, with large swaths of land dedicated to a single species,” says Green. “These systems are most efficiently managed by intense mechanization, and irrigation is frequently used for optimal oil production of the plants.”
“As global citizens we have not learned how to equitably distribute vital resources like food, and water resources are trending toward a crisis of the future,” adds Green, “so there are deep ethical concerns about devoting croplands to essential oils destined for use in candles, bath oils, perfumes, or lavish massage and spa purposes.” Green also warns that many essential oils are not produced from sustainable sources. “Some species are at risk, particularly those occupying marginal habitats such as dwindling tropical forests,” she reports, adding that the poverty-stricken in developing countries will harvest and sell whatever they can, in order to put food on their own tables.
Cropwatch, a non-profit that keeps tabs on the natural aromatics industry, maintains a list of wild species threatened by the fast-growing essential oil trade. Of particular concern are essential oils derived from rosewood, sandalwood, amyris, thyme, cedarwood, jatamansi, gentian, wormwood and cinnamon, among others, as they may well be derived from threatened and illegally harvested wild plant stocks.
Also, some essential oils must be treated as hazardous if spilled and should be kept out of sewers and local waterways. Mountain Rose Herbs, a leading retailer of essential oils, reports that if its tea tree oil spills, it should be absorbed with inert material and sealed in a container before disposal at a hazardous waste collection site. Such information is included on the company’s Material Safety Data Sheet for every essential oil and includes information about flammability and chemical composition. Consumers would be well served to check the MSDS for any essential oils they might like — Mountain Rose will supply them to customers by request — to make sure they are using (and disposing of) them correctly.
Dear EarthTalk: I saw an article on sugar’s effects on the environment. Has anyone compared different sweeteners (artificial or natural) for their environmental impacts? — Terri Oelrich, via e-mail
The production of sugar has indeed taken a huge environmental toll. “Sugar has arguably had as great an impact on the environment as any other agricultural commodity,” reports the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), citing biodiversity loss as a result of the “wholesale conversion of habitat on tropical islands and on coastal areas” to grow sugar. WWF adds that the cultivation of sugar has also resulted in considerable soil erosion and degradation and the use of large amounts of chemicals across the tropics and beyond.
Some natural food markets now carry sustainably harvested sugar that does not fit this profile, though sugar’s ugly history has led many eco-conscious consumers to look elsewhere to satiate their sweet teeth. Fortunately there are several natural and artificial options that are safe to eat and relatively benign for the environment. Perhaps the most popular choice is stevia, a sustainably harvested herb from Latin America that is 30 times sweeter than table sugar but without calories. Other natural alternatives include coconut palm sugar, barley malt syrup, brown rice syrup, agave nectar, maple syrup and raw honey. These choices may not save on calories like stevia, but they do sweeten without environmental guilt.
As for synthetic sugar alternatives, there has been considerable talk of how dangerous they may be for our health, but little evidence of harm has actually come forth and their environmental impacts may be more reason for concern. Aspartame, for example, used in Equal and also in diet sodas, is made by fermenting corn and soy, the two biggest genetically engineered crops in the U.S. Environmentalists are concerned that such tinkering with nature could have unexpected and potentially disastrous results down the road.
Another common sugar alternative, sucralose (trade name Splenda) has its issues, too. A study released in 2013 by researchers from the University of North Carolina (UNC) found that the majority of Splenda used around the world ends up in the Gulf Stream, the fast-moving ocean current that starts in the Gulf of Mexico and flows into the Atlantic Ocean and beyond into the coastal waters of Europe and Africa.
“Sucralose cannot be effectively broken down by the bacteria in the human digestive tract,” reports UNC. “As a result, the body absorbs little or no calories and 90 percent of the chemical compound leaves the body through human waste and enters sewage systems.” Since this sucralose cannot be broken down by most water treatment systems, it ends up in the oceans, where the long-term effects remain unknown.
Saccharin (trade name Sweet’N Low) got a bad rap in the 1970s when rats exposed to large amounts got bladder cancer, but it has since been vindicated: The Food & Drug Administration removed warning labels in 2000 and the Environmental Protection Agency removed it from its lists of hazardous constituents and commercial chemical products in 2010. Nonetheless, saccharin can cause problems for pregnant women and infants who consume large amounts, and also gets a veto as a petroleum derivative.
CONTACTS: WWF, www.wwf.org; “Fake sweetener Splenda fills our oceans, scientists find,” www.naturalnews.com/039156_splenda_ocean_pollution_environment.html, “The Sweet Side of Fair Trade,” Green America, www.greenamerica.org/livinggreen/SweetFairTrade.cfm.