We all care about the environment at least a tiny bit. Some
of us more than others. But there are things a few of us do with the best
intentions that, it turns out, fall somewhere between not helpful and
completely counterproductive. Here are some of the worst offenders and how to
Recycling something “just in case”
Yeah, sadly, “aspirational
recycling” is not helpful at all. Although recycling centers do have ways
of sorting recyclables from non-recyclables — called residuals — you’re just
making more work for them. And recycling centers still have to deal with your
Tribune reported that average contamination rates are about 16 percent
across the country. In urban areas, they’re more like 20 percent.
After China announced it would no
longer accept imports of plastic waste — a.k.a. our recyclables — recycling
programs are even more strapped than usual. Some cities, like Philadelphia,
have been forced to institute new policies. As the New
York Times reported, they “identified the neighborhoods with the most
contamination in its recycling bins and started sending their material to an
incinerator in nearby Chester, Pa. The rest still send their material to a
What’s recyclable also varies from place to place, so be
sure you know what your town actually accepts. Not everything with a recycling
symbol may be recyclable in your area.
Of course, there are things that are almost never recyclable
that tend to make their way into bins, too. Common offenders are disposable
paper cups, like the ones you might get to-go from a coffee shop. The
that makes them liquid-proof is too hard to separate from the paper.
Other offenders are paper towels, Styrofoam, glass from
things like windows or mirrors, plastic bags (more on that in a sec), greasy
pizza boxes and really anything that’s covered in food (I’m looking at you,
empty peanut butter jar.)
When in doubt, your city should have a complete list of what
they do and do not accept posted on their website.
Putting plastic bags in any single-stream recycling bin
This one deserves its own number, because it’s still SUCH a
common practice. Cut it out! Don’t. Put. Plastic. Bags. In. The. Recycling.
If you put all your recyclables in a big plastic
trash bag and put it in the bin — guess what — that could mean the whole
thing is going to the landfill. If you must collect recyclables in a
plastic bag, dump them out loose into the bin when you take them to the curb,
and then toss the plastic bag in the trash where it belongs (or, you know,
Plastic bags like you get at the grocery, drug or big box
store are recyclable, but you have to bring them back to a designated
plastic-bags-only receptacle. There’s often one right inside the door at
grocery stores or places like Walmart. A few other bags can get recycled here,
too, like the bag a loaf of bread might come in.
But other soft filmy plastics, like your sandwich baggies,
the film you peeled off your lunch meat container or the cellophane that held
your muffin from the coffee shop — sorry to say, these are trash.
Why does this matter? Besides making more work for recycling
centers (see #1), the
soft plastics clog up the machinery. You could break the recycling
Ah, sorry to break it to you. I know reusable grocery bags
are one of the most popular ways people try to minimize their environmental
footprint — whenever we actually remember to bring them in from our trunk.
Although cutting out plastic bags from your life is a good move, most people
don’t stop to think about the impact of the tote bag itself.
Last year, the Administration of Environment and Food of
Denmark put together a big assessment of the environmental
impacts of different types of shopping bags, from the thin, flimsy
polyethylene bags all the way up to the most “eco-friendly” organic cotton
As it turns out, It takes exponentially more resources to
make a tote bag compared to the cheap polyethylene. The report analyzed how
many times you’d need to use each type of bag to equal the environmental impact
of a plastic one. Paper bags, and plastic-based reusable totes, required
between 35 and 85 re-uses. A cotton tote, though, had to be used 7,100 times to
make up for the resources that went into it. Organic cotton? 20,000 times. If
you used your organic cotton bag twice a week for the rest of your life, it’d
be worth it after 192 years.
Of course, if you’re already stocked up on tote bags —
organic cotton or otherwise — the best thing you can do is keep using them (see
Well, if an organic cotton grocery bag is 20,000 times more
resource-hungry than a flimsy plastic bag, that’s a pretty good hint that
organic cotton is not a sustainable choice.
How could this be? Conventional cotton has been genetically
engineered to increase yields and decrease the need for water. Plus, without
pesticides, more of the crop is lost to pest damage. That means it
takes way more organic cotton plants to make a t-shirt than it does
conventional plants. That’s on top of cotton already being a fairly
Buying new, more sustainable versions of anything you already have
This one is easy to get wrong, even when your heart’s in the
right place. Have you purchased a new tote bag, reusable water bottle, metal straw,
storage containers or coffee mug lately? What about those cute cutlery sets to
keep in your bag, so you don’t have to use disposable plastic utensils if you
eat out? Though I admire your efforts, sadly, if there was a cup, bottle,
utensil or container at home — or at a thrift shop — that you could’ve used
instead of buying something new, you messed up.
That’s because any new product requires resources to
make. Some are worse than others, sure, but anything new you buy has been made
and probably shipped halfway around the world to get to you. It’s reduce,
reuse, recycle for a reason. First and foremost, use less stuff.
Instead of buying a new bamboo cutlery set for your purse,
just grab a fork and spoon from your kitchen. Instead of buying new mason jars,
re-use the glass jars that your pickles and jam came in and the plastic
containers from your take-out. And if you already have 10 water bottles, maybe
don’t get an 11th, no matter if it’s labeled “eco-friendly.”
If you thought a new water bottle was bad, how about that
new Prius? Yeah, we’re happy about cutting our miles-per-gallon in half, but
replacing an okay-mpg car with a shiny new one doesn’t come without its own
environmental costs. A ton of materials are (literally) required to make a new
Don’t worry, researchers at the Argonne National
Laboratory crunched the numbers, and the resources required to create a
hybrid car do
cancel out over the long run. But whenever possible, buying used and not
new will keep your impact at a minimum.
Taking ride shares
City dwellers are increasingly foregoing car ownership. Making
the switch to walking, biking and taking public transit is cheaper, more
sustainable and can mean you don’t have to sit in rush hour traffic or circle
for parking spots ever again.
But as ride shares like Uber and Lyft have gained
popularity, more attention is being given to the environmental blight that is
cars that never stop driving.
People tend to think of ride shares as almost on par with
public transit. But they’re not. They’re worse than taking a personal vehicle because
they roam around between fares. This means the total number of miles your
trip takes up is more than just the distance you travel. One study in Denver found
that using ride shares increased the average miles driven by 84 percent for
each trip. Plus, all these extra cars on the road are making
Assuming anything vegan, organic, local or non-GMO is environmentally innocent
Hey, almond milk drinkers: This one’s for you. A lot of
environmentally-conscious people will gravitate toward products with some sort
of “green” labelling like vegan, organic or non-GMO. But these labels don’t
guarantee the products are better for the environment than their conventional
We met organic cotton already, and it’s lately become
apparent that almond milk isn’t a great choice, either. Although the nuts do
have a smaller carbon footprint than cow’s milk, they’re still super water
hungry: it takes more
than a gallon of water to grow one almond. Oat and soy milks are better for the
environment. (Okay, and dairy milks are still the worst.)
In some places, buying a local version of a product can
reduce its environmental impact by reducing the number of miles it had to
travel to get to you. But this concept has diminishing returns, because of how
it is to ship things like produce in huge batches. The local farmer
bringing a couple crates to the market might actually have a bigger carbon
footprint per tomato.
Worse, some people are so obsessed with “buying local” that
farming” is becoming a thing: literally replacing free sunshine and rain
with electric bulbs and water hoses. The Guardian
reported on an analysis
by Cornell University professor emeritus Louis Albright, which crunched the
numbers on how impractical the practice really is. They estimate it would take
about three Empire State Buildings-worth of space to grow enough wheat to meet
the bread needs of the citizens of New York City. Another
study found that growing lettuce under artificial lighting caused five
times the carbon emissions compared to just shipping it in.
Putting compostable or biodegradable stuff in the landfill, not the compost
With an upsurge of restaurants making the switch to
compostable, biodegradable bowls, cups and serving wares, one might assume that
these are successfully reducing waste.
But, sadly, most landfills are set up so that even
biodegradable stuff doesn’t biodegrade. That’s because most decomposition comes
from bacteria and fungi which require oxygen to do their thing. Landfills are
tightly packed, anaerobic places where decomposition just doesn’t
happen. Worse, once they get “full,”
landfills are often sealed off with layers of clay and plastic to prevent
liquids from seeping in or out.
That’s why composting food waste is so important. The EPA
estimates that most composting
households send 30 percent less trash to the curb than their non-composting
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