9 Things You Think Are Environmentally Friendly — But Aren’t

Hopefully that new reusable bag isn’t made out of organic cotton.

By Anna Funk
Aug 9, 2019 4:07 PMJun 2, 2020 9:39 PM
Tote Bag - Shutterstock
(Credit: Vasiliy Ptitsyn/Shutterstock)


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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 avoid them.

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 trash.

The Chicago 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 recycling facility.”

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 plastic-based lining 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 *most* single-stream recycling bins

This one deserves its own number, because it’s still SUCH a common practice. Unless you are absolutely certain your city allows it: 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, reuse it.)

Dump those bags out! (Credit: WillemijnB/Shutterstock)

Plastic bags like you get at the grocery, drug or big box store are recyclable, but you usually 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 if not recycled properly. You could break the recycling center.

Tote bags

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 totes.

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 #5.)

Organic cotton

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 resource-intensive crop.

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.

Buy with caution. (Credit: Svetlana Cherruty/Shutterstock)

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.”

Especially cars

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 car.

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.

How many miles are you really saving? (Credit: MikeDotta/Shutterstock)

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 traffic worse.

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 counterparts.

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 super-efficient 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 “indoor 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 peers.

Editor's Note: This story was updated to reflect that there are some cities that accept plastic bags in their single-stream recycling. We apologize for the error. When in doubt, please check your city's recycling collector's website to learn what's recyclable and what's not.

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