You’re ready to incorporate eco-friendly items into your day-to-day life, but what does all of the terminology actually mean? Is there a difference between “natural” and “organic,” or “sustainable” and “renewable?” Check out our handy Green Dictionary to find out!
A form of plastic derived from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable fats and oils, corn starch, pea starch or micro biota. These renewable sources replace fossil fuel plastics which are derived from petroleum. Some, but not all, bio-plastics are designed to biodegrade. (See Biodegrade below)
Biodegradation occurs when under the right conditions the microbes in the environment can break down the material and use it as a food source. Not all products listed as biodegradable will fully break down in air-deprived landfills. Organizations such as BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute) offer scientifically tested certifications for biodegradable products. (See also: “Compostable”)
BPA (bisphenol A):
BPA is an industrial chemical used in the production of certain plastics and resins. Scientific research suggests that BPA can seep into food or beverages from containers that are made with BPA. Exposure to BPA may cause possible health effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate glands of fetuses, infants and children. The FDA is continually reviewing and testing the effects of BPA consumption and exposure. For those wishing to avoid BPA, look for plastic products certified as BPA-free, or switch to glass, porcelain or stainless steel containers for foods and liquids rather than plastic containers.
The total amount of greenhouse gases produced to directly and indirectly support human activities, usually expressed in equivalent tons of carbon dioxide (CO2). Products with a low carbon footprint create fewer CO2 emissions in production.
Carbon Neutral Products:
The net amount of carbon dioxide or other carbon compounds emitted into the atmosphere from the production of the product is zero because it is balanced out by actions to reduce or offset these emissions.
The materials in the product break down into, or become part of, usable soil or compost in an appropriate composting program or facility, or in a home compost pile or device. NOTE: Many biodegradable products will not break down in a landfill, because it is an oxygen-deprived environment, and oxygen is essential to the degrading process. Biodegradable plastics should be sent to a composting facility, not a landfill.
A broad-spectrum term to describe environmentally-friendly products or practices. This term can apply to manufacturing, energy use, distribution, packaging, and products. When shopping for “green” products, it’s best to identify what aspect of the product, or the creation of the product, makes it “green.”
Products listed as organic must contain 95% organically sourced materials. Organic products cannot have synthetic chemical inputs, including fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, food additives, genetically modified organisms, or irradiation. To determine if a product is truly organic, look for a USDA Organic seal, or a certification from GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard).
“Natural” is a claim that requires no set criteria or legal definition. A natural product is generally considered to contain less chemical inputs than those without a natural label. Many manufacturers gain certification through NPA (Natural Products Association), whereby the manufacturer agrees to comply with designated natural standards, including peer-reviewed safety standards, biodegradable ingredients, products free of harmful chemicals, and ingredients that come from a purposeful, natural source.
The product can be reused in the manufacture of another package or product through an established recycling program. A recyclable claim can apply to a product’s packaging, the product itself, or both.
A reclaimed material is re-used from its original intended usage. For example, with reclaimed wood, lumber pulled from a barn could be re-purposed into another object, such as a wooden toy. Similarly, when you toss a plastic water bottle into a recycling bin, the recycling facility is “reclaiming” the material, and then breaking it down to make a new product, instead of creating a new plastic product from scratch.
Reforested products come from the replanting of a forest that had been reduced by fire or cutting. Trees are often replanted on land that has been damaged by inefficient agricultural practices or deforestation. By continuously reforesting the land, soils become richer and more fertile, and products made from reforested trees promote a dedication to re-use specific parcels of land, rather than clear-cutting untouched forests, reducing the destruction of our tropical rainforests.
Any natural resource (such as wood, solar energy, or plant materials) that can be replenished naturally at a sufficient rate for sustainable economic extraction in meaningful human time-frames.
Repurposed products are altered from their already created form to create a new item, without using new materials. For example, an old t-shirt could be easily cut and re-stitched to create a market tote bag, or metal pipes could be reshaped to create an art sculpture. This method allows manufacturers to create “new” products while still adhering to eco-friendly production practices.
Sustainability is a characteristic of certain products that provide environmental, social and economic benefit. Sustainable products are produced with minimal energy and packaging. They are considered eco-friendly as they are capable of being maintained at a steady level without exhausting natural resources or causing severe ecological damage. A popular example of a sustainable product is bamboo. Bamboo (which is technically a grass) will automatically regenerate without replanting, essentially creating a non-stop cycle of sustainable growth.
Upcycling is similar to repurposing. Upcycled products make use of post-consumer products, and then are altered to create a unique new product.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs):
VOCs are carbon-based gases emitted from liquids or solid substances which may cause short and long term harmful health effects. These compounds can be found in air fresheners, cosmetics, paint, building materials, moth balls, and cleaning and disinfecting products, to name a few. To avoid inhaling VOC’s in your home, look for products that claim they do not use VOCs in their labeling or product descriptions.