10 Things You Think Are Sustainable, But Are Not

Tips on how to make your life more sustainable are everywhere. But some advice on greening your life is not as black and white as it seems – some of our efforts to care for the planet are actually doing more harm than good. Supply chains, life cycles of products, and decisions that lie behind our consumption are often complicated, and what seems sustainable on the surface, might in fact have a large environmental footprint. Surely, any change made for the betterment of the planet is a good change. For example, although banning plastic straws will not get rid of our plastic pollution problem, it is still a step in the right direction. It pays to do your research and make conscious decisions to your daily habits and lifestyle. Here are some lifestyle changes that may seem sustainable, but in reality are not: 

  1. WishCycling: WishCycling is the term given for when individuals place non-recyclables in the recycling bin, hoping that they will get recycled. Most of us are guilty of having done this, but it is always a bad idea! Often, if recyclables reach a certain threshold of contamination (i.e. there is too much non-recyclables mixed with the recyclables), the entire batch gets sent to the landfill. If you are unsure if an item is recyclable, check out the City of Lethbridge’s Ins and Outs or call the local waste management facility. Just be mindful of what you put in your blue bin, and as always, consider reducing and reusing before recycling! 
  2. Buying new, sustainable versions of things you already have: We all get swept up into the consumerism associated with sustainability – it is not unusual for consumers to be told to swap out their items for sustainable versions and get tricked by greenwashing tactics. Even when your heart is in the right place, it is best to use what you have first, instead of buying sustainable swaps. Instead of that bento box, simply use glass containers or tupperware you already own. Instead of new bamboo cutlery for your purse, use utensils you already have. The point of sustainable living is to be mindful of your purchases, reduce the amount of resources you consume, and to limit your environmental impact wherever you can; buying new, unnecessary products does not fit into this! Any new product, no matter how sustainable, requires resources to make, to package, and to ship. You probably already have everything you need to live sustainably! 
  3. Imported Organic and Vegan Foods: Just because something is labelled as “organic” or “vegan” does not necessarily mean it is better for the environment. Sure, your organic and vegan pineapple from Costa Rica might seem like it is healthy and eco-friendly. But unless you live in Costa Rica, you are probably doing more harm than good; your food has to travel thousands of kilometers, creating a large amount of carbon emissions. Not to mention the packaging and storing that goes into ensuring your food lasts on its long journey! Instead, buy locally-grown and in-season options at our local Farmers’ Market; this will not only reduce your environmental impact, but also boosts the local economy. If you are interested in learning more information about how your food is produced, do not be afraid to ask about their farming methods.   
  4. Houseplants: You might think that your houseplants are eco-friendly since they are natural, but they are becoming the fast-fashion equivalent of the gardening world. Our obsession with houseplants is endangering several plant species and is a driving force behind the illegal plant trading market. Not to mention the large environmental footprint that comes with producing houseplants, from water, to peat (whose extraction is very environmentally-damaging), and fertilizers. If you still want the nature-feel in your home, buy from growers that you know implement sustainable practices, or grow your own succulents from a leaf or propagate your houseplants. 
  5. Donating Clothing: It is normal to believe that when you donate your old textiles, that they will be resold and reused. Unfortunately, that is not the case; the majority of your donations are not actually ending up in someone else’s closet. Many of our donations end up in domestic landfills or even landfills abroad, and are being baled and exported to other countries to be repurposed (causing large quantities of carbon emissions from the shipping and making our garbage the concern of other nations). If you have any textiles that are no longer bringing joy to your life, consider reselling them on your own via yard sales or Facebook Marketplace, donate to local charities that you know will put them to good use, and be sure to think through your purchases before buying!
  6. Synthetic fibres: Once hailed as an eco-friendly alternative to plastics, synthetic fibres are now being recognized as a threat to the environment. Synthetic fibres require chemical processing in their production, which uses different toxins and carcinogens that threaten environmental and human health. Some synthetic fibers are petroleum byproducts (nylon and polyester) while others require wood-pulp and cellulose (rayon and acetate) which is often sourced from receding forests. The dyeing process of textiles also has adverse effects on the environment and dyes are being drained down sewers and waterways. Unfortunately, even when washed, these fibers are bad for the environment, because they release microplastics into the water. When you can, always choose organic fibres such as cotton, wool, hemp, cashmere, silk, linen, and bamboo fibres. 
  7. Buying in bulk: Buying in bulk is a great option for families who wish to reduce the amount of waste they create from food packaging. However, if you are a single individual, buying in bulk might not be the greenest option – especially, if you are going to contribute to the food waste problem. It is important for you to assess what decision is most sustainable for your lifestyle. 
  8. Essential Oils: Although they may seem like a natural option to good-smelling things, essential oils are actually terrible for the environment. Enormous quantities of natural resources like plants and also energy are needed to produce small amounts of these oils. Also, the glass bottles they come in cannot be recycled. If you want something good smelling in your house, simply opt for eco-friendly candles made from coconut or beeswax. 
  9. Rideshare Services: People tend to think of Uber and Lyft on par with public transportation, but, long story short, it is not. In fact, it is even worse than taking your own personal vehicle, because they roam between fares, idle, and contribute to traffic congestion. So, it is safe to say that it is better for the environment to stick to the bus or ride your bike! 
  10. Putting compostable/biodegradable materials in the landfill: There is an upsurge in compostable and biodegradable materials used on both an individual level and business level (i.e. restaurant using biodegradable straws). Sadly, most landfills are designed so that even biodegradable and compostable materials cannot break down; landfills are too tightly packed with all our trash, making aerobic decomposition virtually impossible. This is why composting your food waste and biodegradable alternatives is so important! 

This article was not designed to shame you, overwhelm you, or make you feel guilty; simply it was created to highlight the need to reflect on your consumption habits, as everything you buy has some sort of environmental impact. It is up to you, as an individual, to decide what you value. It is important to be a conscious consumer, and to not trust every “sustainable” option and brand you come across – be scrutinous, ask for transparency from corporations, and do your research. To the best of your ability, consider the life cycle analysis of everything you buy and consider only purchasing items that bring value into your life. And most importantly, focus on reducing and reusing! 

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