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A Pocketbook Dictionary – Environmental Key Terms

When starting out on the path to living a more sustainable life, you may become bombarded with many new terms and words. It is important to understand the terminology that is used in the environmental industry so you know what the product or service you are using is doing. In recent years there has been an increase in companies “greenwashing” their products, claiming they can “save the earth”. This can cause a lot of confusion when navigating the environmental world. 

What is greenwashing you may be asking yourself? Greenwashing is a marketing tactic in which companies use green PR and green marketing to claim that their products are environmentally friendly. Oftentimes the information conveys a false impression or even provides misleading information on the company’s “environmentally friendly” products. One very popular example was when Volkswagen, who claimed that their cars had reduced emissions, later admitted to having a device installed in some vehicles so that the cars would present as low emitters when undergoing emissions tests. There are many examples of the large corporations we know and often use, essentially cheating us out of a true sustainable product.

To help you better navigate your journey in the environmental consumer world, we have compiled a list of common terms seen on products. These terms are used fairly often, by both legitimate environmental friendly products and by greenwashers.

Biodegradable: refers to any products that break down into natural elements such as carbon dioxide and water vapour by other organisms in the environment. They can be beneficial as they break down much faster than other products, however when disposed of in a landfill, anaerobic (no oxygen) breakdown occurs which produces large amounts of methane. The best way to dispose of these products is in an industrial compost setting or recycling them.

Bioplastic: refers to materials that are biodegradable that are made from renewable sources such as plant materials or agricultural byproducts instead of petroleum. However, not all bioplastics are made equally, some may biodegrade naturally, others may need some sort of composting facilities to break them down, so it is important to understand what type of product you are using. 

For example Coca-Cola has a PlantBottle program that makes their beverage bottles from PET which is formulated from petrochemical processes, however 30% of their formulation comes from sugar ethanol. This low percentage means that the bottle is not biodegradable and is a prime greenwashing example.

Compostable: refers to any product that breaks down into  natural elements but ONLY in a compost setting. This means that they need large amounts of microorganisms as well as heat to fully break down, meaning they take much longer to break down in a traditional landfill.

Degradable: refers to products that are oil-based, such as plastics, which break down by chemical reactions. However these products can be broken down in anaerobic environments but only into microscopic pieces and not into organic materials. These products should be sent to a recycling facility. 

Eco-friendly: refers to any product or service that is not harmful to the environment.

Ethical: refers to the conditions of workers who produce products as well as how well they are paid for their work by the large corporations they work for. This is not a certified or precisely defined term but can be useful for making conscious buying decisions.

Fair trade: refers to the movement that promotes better prices, quality working conditions and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers. 

Green: applies to anything that is related to benefitting the environment, from clothing, cars, energy sources. 

Organic: refers to products that are created or grown without any artificial pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides or other additives. Organic products must meet strict standards and guidelines in order for them to be labelled organic by a governing body. Look for the logos to be sure you are using true organic products.

Natural: refers to products that are free of synthetic or artificial additives.

Recyclable: refers to waste that can be converted into new materials or objects by breaking down the product into usable parts. This process is actually very complex and is dictated by market demands, price for the materials and many other factors. Check with your local waste and recycling programs to make sure you are recycling properly for your area.

Sustainable: actions or activities that meet the needs of the current generation without compromising future generations ability to meet their needs. It has much higher standards applied to it than “eco-friendly” or “green” products.

Zero waste: a lifestyle philosophy that follows sustainable cycles where discarded materials are repurposed and used for other purposes which results in very little to no trash being sent to landfills. The ultimate goal is to use the product in its entirety so no waste is generated.

While this is only a mere selection of some of the most commonly seen terms, there are many more that you may run into. If you find one and are curious about its meaning, send us a message and we’ll help you decipher its meanings, as well as add it to this list! Hopefully this gives you some clarity on your next sustainable shopping trip, and remember to always be on the lookout for greenwashed services and products!