Many of us are striving to be more environmentally-friendly in our everyday lives, but that isn’t the easiest thing for today’s consumer. Here are several common traps you may be falling into without even knowing.
Buying into Brownwashing: These days, there is a lot more brown everywhere you look: in your favorite fast food restaurants, grocery stores, and on TV ads. But I’m not referring to brown skin; the most popular brown in the corporate world is the packaging on your favorite products. This is part of a practice called brownwashing. Companies have realized that to consumers brown equals eco. Companies have started adding natural imagery, trees, flowers, etc. to their products to make them appear more environmentally friendly – even when the product itself isn’t really.
The Fix: Ignore the images and read the packaging. If the company has taken steps to truly go green, they’ll include it (proudly) on the packaging.
Buying compostable: After nonconsumption, composting is the pinnacle of environmentalism. Since we all consume, what could be better than turning our purchases into fertilizer? However, buying compostable is not the same as composting. If you throw these products in with the rest of your trash, they will not biodegrade. That’s because aerobic composting simply doesn’t happen in landfills. Food and other biodegradable products in landfills may degrade anaerobically, which produces not only a stench, but also methane. Even worse, a lot of recycling programs won’t accept compostable materials.
Buying “degradable” plastics: If you can’t compost or recycle them, at least your plastics can degrade in the landfill, right? However, degradable doesn’t equal biodegradable. Being truly biodegradable means that microorganisms will break down the materials for food production using oxygen, something in short supply in landfill piles. Therefore, many products marketed as ‘degradable’ may simply break down into pieces you can no longer see. These tiny pieces can be ingested by animals, and get concentrated in their tissues and fat as they progress up the food chain.
The Fix: Buy products with the Biodegradable Products Institute logo (click the link on the left-hand side to search for certified products). Buy recyclables instead.
Recycling non-recyclables: This varies by state, but there are items that aren’t recyclable, despite their rampant use. Both styrofoam and plastic bags require specialized equipment to be recycled. Since recycling plants anticipate contamination, they may remove a few non-recyclables. However, severe contamination could result in the batch being thrown out. Also, if the plant isn’t equipped for them, any plastic bags that slip through can clog up the machines.
The Fix: Visit your city’s municipal website to learn about their recycling capabilities (what number of plastics they accept, and whether plastic bags are okay). Ask grocery stores you frequent if they accept plastic bags for recycling, and find a store nearby that does. Use less styrofoam.
Originally from Miami, Florida, Yessenia Gutierrez is currently completing a double major in Biology and Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.