I realized I needed to create a Terms and Phrases page when I shared my post on disposables recently with a friend. Her first question was, “What’s a disposable?”
I’ve been using words like disposable, single-use, and greenwashing for so long that I’ve forgotten how odd they sound.
So here’s my list of commonly used Green Terms and Phrases with accompanying definitions. Check in regularly as I’ll update and revise as needed.
Table of Contents
- Alternative Energy
- B Corporation Certification
- Beneficial Insects
- Brown Power
- Capsule Wardrobe
- Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)
- Carbon Cycle
- Carbon Dioxide Equivalent (CO2e)
- Carbon Footprint
- Carbon Neutral
- Carbon Offset
- Carbon Sink
- Carbon Sequestration
- Carbon Source
- Chemical Recycling
- Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)
- Circular Economy
- Climate Change
- Closing the Loop
- Community Choice Aggregation (CCA)
- Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
- Confirmation Bias
- Dual-Stream Recycling
- Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)
- Fairtrade Certification
- Fast Fashion
- Food Miles
- Food Scrap (or Waste) Recycling
- Forever Chemicals
- Fossil Fuels
- Geothermal Energy
- Global Warming
- Greenhouse Effect
- Greenhouse Gases (GHG)
- Greenhouse Gas Protocol
- Green Hydrogen
- Guerilla Gardening
- Hybrid Car
- Impervious (or Impermeable) Surface
- Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
- International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
- Invasive Plant Species
- Justice40 Initiative
- Keystone Species
- LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)
- Linear Economy
- LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability)
- Materials Recovery Facility (MRF)
- Municipal Solid Waste (MSW)
- National Sword Policy
- Native Plant Species (“Natives”)
- Net Metering
- Net Zero
- Non-Native Plant Species
- Non-Point Source Pollution
- Organic and the Organic Seal
- Peaking Power Plant
- Permeable Surfaces
- PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl) Chemicals
- Point Source Pollution
- Polyethylene vinyl acetate (PEVA)
- Regenerative Agriculture
- Repair Cafe
- The Five (or Six) Rs
- Single-Stream Recycling
- Soil Amendment
- Sustainable Development
- Virgin Plastic
- Waste Incinerator
- Wish-Cycling or Wishcycling
- Zero Waste
Alternative energy is energy created from renewable or otherwise “green” sources. Some examples of alternative energy are hydroelectric, solar, and wind energy. Though not renewable, nuclear energy is considered by some as a form of alternative energy because little to no carbon emissions are created through this process. Alternative energy seeks to alleviate the environmental repercussions of conventional energy production.
B Corporation Certification
B Corporation Certification is a certification designation of private companies and businesses made by the non-profit, B Lab. B Lab “creates standards, policies, and tools for business, and [it certifies] companies—known as B Corps—who are leading the way.”
To be certified, companies must “meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.”
To receive certification, companies must submit a B Impact Assessment that evaluates how the company interacts with its workers, customers, community, and environment. B Lab verifies the company’s score to determine certification. Once certified, B Corps update their BIA every three years.
A biodegradable item is one that “undergoes degradation resulting from the action of naturally occurring microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and algae.”
A few other points that distinguish biodegradable from compostable items:
- Timing. A biodegradable product doesn’t specify the length of time it takes to degrade. But when you think about it, everything biodegrades over time. It’s just how long it takes that’s key. So if that plastic cup is labeled “biodegradable” it could take 1,000 years for it to decompose and technically the label would be correct. But it certainly wouldn’t help with our increasing waste problem!
- Method of Breaking Down. A biodegradable product doesn’t specify the type of environment in which it will break down.
- Confusion. In short, the product label “biodegradable” carries with it a lack of clarity. And for this reason, many items labeled “biodegradable” may be intentionally misleading and designed to green-wash the consumer.
Biodiesel is a type of diesel fuel created from organic sources, such as plant and animal fat. Biodiesel is considered a biofuel and can be used in existing vehicles without the need for an engine conversion.
Biodiesel is often blended with conventional diesel for use in cars and trucks. This type of fuel is cheaper than conventional diesel in some countries. In the United States, however, the price has fluctuated over the last decade.
Biomass is a type of fuel consisting of plant and animal matter that is burned for energy. Biomass is typically burned to create steam, which drives turbines to generate electricity.
One of the most common forms of biomass used in the United States is wood. A recent biomass innovation is the use of energy production of combustible biogas created from rotting organic matter found in landfills or farms.
Biomimicry is a design philosophy that encourages the imitation of natural systems and structures in human creations by mimicking natural forms and shapes, including natural processes and entire ecosystems. The concept of a circular economy is an example of biomimicry, in which the economy mimics nature’s cyclical model of renewal and reuse.
In many cases, evolution has created the most efficient forms for certain uses and biomimicry can offer solutions to numerous design problems.
A bioswale is a planted water-retention ditch (aka “swale”) used to capture and filter stormwater. Bioswales are a form of green infrastructure that seeks to supplement or replace conventional stormwater treatment interventions. Bioswales utilize plants to filter contaminants out of stormwater and allow it to recharge into groundwater, as opposed to being channeled through conventional sewer systems.
Brown power (or brown energy) is a term depicted to denote power created through the use of non-renewable resources such as coal, oil, or natural gas. Unlike energy derived from renewable resources (“green power”), brown power typically results in much higher levels of carbon emissions and other environmental externalities, including acid rain and air pollution. Brown power also harms the environment during the extraction of the resources needed for power production.
Cage-free is a term used to describe eggs laid from hens that are not kept in cages. Although cage-free hens are not confined to cages, they may not be allowed to leave the chicken coop that they are kept in. With their ability to leave the chicken coop, free-range hens have more freedom than cage-free hens.
A capsule wardrobe (or eco-wardrobe) comprises a limited collection — typically 30-40 pieces — of classic clothing that is meant to be mixed and matched. There are a number of benefits to a capsule wardrobe, including cost savings, more wardrobe space, and the environmental benefits of reduced waste from unwanted clothing.
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)
Carbon capture and storage (or carbon capture and sequestration) is a process for reducing carbon emissions from various carbon-intensive activities, including electrical generation fired by fossil fuels and industrial activities, such as steelmaking, synthetic fuel plants, or cement production. Carbon dioxide is captured before it enters the atmosphere, separated from other gases, transported, and then stored (or sequestered).
A number of technologies have emerged for carbon capture, grouped broadly as:
- pre-combustion processes that remove CO2 from fossil fuels before the completion of combustion.
- post-combustion processes that capture CO2 from exhaust gases using a liquid solvent or other separation mechanisms.
- oxyfuel combustion processes that use oxygen, rather than air, to combust fuel.
Once separated, CO2 is compressed and transported to the storage site where it is injected into rock formations deep underground for permanent storage.
See the Clean Air Task Force for an interactive map of U.S. carbon capture activities and projects.
The carbon cycle is the process by which carbon atoms cycle or circulate through the Earth’s atmosphere plants, animals, soils, oceans, and rocks.
The natural carbon cycle has been disturbed by human activity, accelerating the release of carbon from the earth to the atmosphere through the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. This activity has caused global warming, the disruption of ecosystems, and ocean acidification.
This video by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History shows How Carbon Affects Nearly Everything on Earth – Including Our Future.
Carbon Dioxide Equivalent (CO2e)
The definition from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development is perfect and worth replicating here:
Carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) is a measure used to compare the emissions from various greenhouse gases based upon their global warming potential.
For example, the global warming potential for methane over 100 years is 21. This means that emissions of one million metric tons of methane are equivalent to emissions of 21 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.
Carbon Footprint is the total of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with human activity over a set time period. In short, it’s the mark humans, or human-related entities leave on the environment.
Carbon neutral means that the carbon footprint of a person, organization, good, or process is offset in some way such that the net carbon output is at or below zero. Several companies and organizations have announced plans to achieve carbon neutrality in the coming decades to reduce their impact on the climate. Achieving carbon neutrality can be accomplished through the reduction of emissions and the purchasing of carbon offsets.
A carbon offset is a measure used to offset the carbon footprint of a good or service through the development of carbon-reducing processes. Carbon offsets can be purchased by individuals or organizations. The money is typically used to fund renewable energy projects, forest conservation, or other carbon-negative activities. A variety of organizations provide carbon offsets for sale and use the money in different ways.
A carbon sink is a natural or artificial reservoir — or pool — that accumulates and retains carbon, preventing it from being released and thus lowering the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A carbon sink absorbs more cargo than it releases.
Examples of carbon sinks are oceans, forests, plants, soil (stored in wetlands, peatlands, or permafrost).
Compare with Carbon Source.
Carbon sequestration is the process of converting atmospheric carbon into stored carbon. Carbon can be stored in carbon sinks in soil or in the ocean. One of the most basic forms of carbon sequestration is the planting of trees and other plants that store atmospheric carbon in their cells. Other forms of carbon sequestration that can reduce atmospheric carbon levels include sequestration in soil or algal carbon capture.
A carbon source is a process that releases more carbon into the atmosphere than it absorbs. It is the opposite of a carbon sink. Examples of carbon sources include burning fossil fuels, excessive deforestation, and industrial livestock farming. Other natural carbon sources include volcanoes, decomposition, and fires.
Chemical recycling — also known as advanced recycling or recovery technologies — refers to a collection of different processes that transform the chemical structure of used plastic. Chemical recycling is employed to recycle plastics (such as plastic utensils and mixed material packaging) that cannot be recycled using traditional mechanical recycling methods.
These plastics are processed using a variety of technologies to break down (or “depolymerize“) the polymer chain into its component monomers. Outputs from chemical recycling include new plastics, Naptha, fuels, waxes, and various specialty chemicals.
The most established chemical recycling technologies are:
- Pyrolysis, which converts plastic waste into synthetic crudes, such as diesel and Naptha.
- Gasification, which heats waste at a high temperature using steam or oxygen to produce synthesis gas (“syngas”). Syngas can be used as a raw material in the production of other fuels or for petrochemical processes.
Competing technologies that are still in development or pilot stages include glycolysis, hydrogenation, hydrolysis, methanolysis.
CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons, are a group of chemicals that have a detrimental impact on the ozone layer in the earth’s atmosphere. The depletion of the ozone layer allows more solar radiation to reach our planet. This depletion is harmful to plants and animals and also contributes to the loss of polar icecaps.
A circular economy is an economic model that envisions a closed system of continual resource use. The goal is to reduce waste, reuse or up-cycle what we have, and recycle those elements that cannot be reused. This redesign of the current operating system finds its roots (no pun intended) in nature’s cyclical model, where there exists a continual cycle of renewal and reuse, and where the concept of waste as an end product doesn’t exist. Indeed, it becomes a valuable resource, as “food” for something else.
The three principles of a circular economy are:
- designing out waste and pollution
- keeping products and materials in circulation
- regenerating natural systems
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation provides an in-depth video explanation of the basics of the circular economy.
Contrast the circular economy, which calls for a rethinking of our prevailing economic system, to the traditional linear economy.
Climate change is the long-term change in the earth’s climate due to increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Climate change can occur naturally, as evidenced by glacial and interglacial cycles.
Climate change that is occurring now is a human-made phenomenon resulting from the burning of fossil fuels, global deforestation, and other factors. In the next century, climate scientists predict the average temperature on earth will increase anywhere from two to over four degrees celsius.
Closing the Loop
Closing the loop is the concept that products’ life cycles can be converted from a cradle-to-grave process into a cradle-to-cradle model. Closing the loop often refers to processes for finding alternate uses for what would typically be waste.
Community Choice Aggregation (CCA)
Community Choice Aggregation is a bulk power purchasing program that gives communities, municipalities, and other entities the ability to purchase electrical power as a group. CCAs choose the power source–typically renewable energy sources–while the local utility continues to transmit and distribute the electricity. The utility also maintains the responsibility for infrastructure maintenance.
Through the aggregation of a community’s purchasing power, CCAs work to lower electricity rates and determine the power source for the group. To date, eight U.S. states have enacted CCA enabling laws: California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Virginia.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
These are networks that offer consumers regular deliveries of locally-grown farm products. See the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a directory of CSAs.
Compost is a natural fertilizer made from decayed and decomposed organic material, such as plant matter, paper, and food waste. Compost is a soil amendment that contains nutrients and beneficial organisms to condition and fertilize potted plants, gardens, yards, and even agricultural operations.
Compostable means that within a compost environment, a product can break down into natural elements (carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass) in around 90 days.
A “compost environment” is typically a commercial facility that adheres to national and international standards and these general criteria:
- Timing. The product must achieve 90% disintegration in around 90 days.
- Disintegration. The product must demonstrate a 60% conversion to carbon dioxide within 180 days.
- Toxicity. The product leaves no toxicity in the soil.
Confirmation bias (or confirmatory bias) is the tendency to interpret information to complement our preconceptions of the world. Instead of scrutinizing our existing beliefs or ideas, we often seek sources that only serve to confirm our opinions.
Often without premeditation, we construe data in certain ways, pay attention to a small set of sources, and ignore or forget contradictory information and examples. It is much easier to enforce previously held ideas than to evaluate the evidence anew, especially at the risk of a sense of security. We have not evolved to handle the excess of information and complex decision-making in daily life, so confirmation bias and other biases act as cognitive shortcuts to conserve mental energy.
According to the behavioral psychologist Daniel Khaneman, co-author of the seminal work Thinking Fast and Slow, there is, unfortunately, little we can do to curtail our individual confirmation biases. Even with awareness and understanding of the phenomena, confirmation bias is an ingrained habit. It can be identified in other individuals or groups.
Conservation is a philosophy that calls for the protection of natural landscapes, wildlife, or resources. Governments often play a role in conservation by passing laws that prohibit the extraction or utilization of resources or land in certain areas.
At the federal level, the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Forest Service are the key regulatory bodies that conserve land and resources across the country and regulate land usage.
Private entities and not-for-profits also play a vital part in helping to conserve open spaces. The main organizations include The Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, National Audubon Society, and Ocean Conservancy.
Cradle-to-cradle design is a philosophy that reduces waste generated through the production of goods. Cradle-to-cradle design makes use of material that would otherwise be a byproduct of production or waste. This design approach also ensures that a product can be reused once its primary use has ended.
Contrast with Cradle-to-Grave.
Cradle-to-grave design is the conventional lifecycle of a product, where it is disposed of once it has served its purpose. Cradle-to-grave goods often have a much larger environmental impact because they deplete resources faster than cradle-to-cradle design methods.
Contrast with Cradle-to-Cradle.
Decomposition is a biological process where organic matter breaks down into more simple forms. Products that are able to decompose are considered safer for the environment because they have a shorter lifespan when compared to products that do not decompose. Inorganic materials such as plastic take many thousands of years to decompose. Composting is an intentional form of decomposition.
Products designed to be thrown away after a single use or a few uses.
Examples include razors, cameras, plastic, and paper shopping bags, diapers, dryer sheets, plastic snack bags.
See also Single-Use.
The opposite of up-cycle. Also known as downstream recycling.
This is the process of recycling material into one of lesser quality or value. In other words, its quality and value are downgraded through the process of recycling. Most likely, this down-cycled product will not be recyclable when discarded.
Many plastic products, such as plastic bags and bottles, are downcycled. Other examples include recycled paper or even creating rags from clothing.
While the process of downcycling is a form of recycling, a downcycled item soon makes its way to the landfill.
Dual-stream (vs single-stream) recycling is a type of recycling in which recyclable materials are separated by the consumer into different recycling bins for pickup; typically one bin for commingled materials (containers, bottles, cans), and a second for mixed paper (cardboard, paper).
An ecosystem is all of the living and non-living natural features of a particular area. Ecosystems include populations of animals, plants, and other living creatures as well as non-living components such as bodies of water. Understanding the role that humans play is an important part of ecosystem ecology.
Effluent is waste–typically in the form of liquid refuse or sewage–that is discharged from industrial sites or wastewater treatment plants, into a body of water. Effluent can be the treated water that is released into a water body regularly, or in overflow, events can also be untreated sewage. In combined sewer systems, effluent also includes treated or untreated stormwater.
Eutrophication is the excessive growth of algae in water bodies due to increased nutrient input. Bodies of water are prone to eutrophication when nutrients are deposited into them at high rates. The most common nutrients that end up in water bodies are nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff. The increasing use of synthetic fertilizer in conventional agriculture has resulted in the eutrophication of several bodies of water throughout the country.
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)
EPR is a policy model that shifts responsibility from consumer to producer. First proposed in 1990 by Thomas Lindhqvist of Lund University, EPR is an incentive strategy for producers to create more environmentally friendly products by making them bear the internal end-of-life costs of their products and packaging. The main goal of EPR is to connect end-of-life waste management costs to the companies that manufacture plastic products and packaging.
For a detailed look at EPR as a policy tool for combatting plastic pollution, see Green That Life’s post: Targeting the Real Plastic Pollution Culprits: Extended Producer Responsibility
Fairtrade certification is a product certification method carried out by a third-party organization. The certification sets standards for the production of goods without the economic exploitation of producers and ensures that producers are paid a living wage.
Food Scrap (or Waste) Recycling
“Forever Chemicals” is the common term used for PFAS chemicals, a class of chemicals known for their persistence in breaking down in the environment and the human body.
Fossil fuels are sources of fuel that are created over millions of years from the decomposition of organic matter. Some examples of fossil fuels are coal and petroleum. Fossil fuels are sources of sunk carbon, so burning them adds carbon into the atmosphere that was previously buried.
Freeganism is an ideology that promotes the reuse of wasted food and other goods. Freeganism aims to reduce the number of new resources needed to support oneself. Freeganism has emerged as a response to the growing trend of consumerism throughout the world.
Free-range animals are animals that have access to land and are not confined to a barn or coop all day. Free-range can refer to animals that have unlimited access to pasture land but also can refer to animals that spend the majority of their lives indoors with only occasional access to open-air pens.
Animal advocates argue that free-range animals are treated more fairly than those raised using conventional agriculture techniques.
Geothermal energy is a form of renewable energy created from the heat generated by the radioactive decay of materials deep within the earth’s crust. It can be tapped to generate electricity or used in residential and commercial buildings for heating or cooling purposes.
A variety of technologies are employed to generate electrical power from geothermal energy, including dry steam, flash steam, and binary steam. These geothermal power plants use steam from underground wells to drive a steam turbine that in turn, activates a generator to produce electricity.
In residential or commercial applications, geothermal heating and cooling can replace existing HVAC systems by drawing upon the thermal energy naturally stored below ground to provide heating and cooling. The thermal energy is exchanged with a fluid circulating through an underground loop of pipes and then passes through a heat pump to provide heated or cooled air to the building. In winter, the heat pump extracts heat from the subsurface to warm the building. In summer, the process works in reverse by transferring heat from the building to the fluid to the ground and then returning cool air back into the building.
Global warming is the gradual increase in the temperature of the Earth’s climate system since pre-industrial levels primarily due to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities.
By contrast, climate change is the change in weather conditions due to human and naturally-induced warming.
Grasscycling is a landscaping technique where grass clippings are left on a lawn after mowing. Grasscycling is meant to build soil health by allowing grass clippings to decompose and enrich the soil. Grasscycling is one of many organic landscaping methods that can reduce the need for artificial fertilizers.
Grass-fed means that an animal, usually a cow, was fed on a grass diet as opposed to a grain diet before being slaughtered or begins producing milk. While most cows start their lives on a mixture of milk and grass, most cows are moved to a grain diet after their first year of living. Grass-fed cows are fed on a mostly grass diet and some advocates believe this is a more natural diet for cattle.
“Greenhouse effect” is one of those green terms and phrases that you’ve heard of but aren’t quite sure of its meaning. The greenhouse effect is a natural process in which greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trap heat from the sun, warming the surface of the Earth. Without the greenhouse effect, the Earth would not be warm enough to sustain life.
The problem is that human activities are increasing the level of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. The increase in greenhouse gases causes the earth’s atmosphere to trap more heat and contributes to global warming.
This infographic from the Australian Government provides an excellent visual explanation of the greenhouse effect.
Greenhouse Gases (GHG)
A greenhouse gas (GHG) is a gas that absorbs and traps heat in the atmosphere.
Since it represents the largest share of GHG emissions, it’s tempting to speak of carbon dioxide as if it’s the only GHG. In fact, there are a lot more, listed here:
- Water vapor
- Carbon Dioxide
- Nitrous Oxide
For a more in-depth overview of greenhouse gases, see the EPA site on GHG Emissions.
Greenhouse Gas Protocol
The Greenhouse Gas Protocol, which was created by the World Resources Institute and World Business Council for Sustainable Development, is the global standard framework for measuring and managing greenhouse gas emissions from private and public sector operations, value chains and mitigation actions.
The GHG Protocol employs a number of different greenhouse gas accounting standards that are used by governments, industry associations, NGOs, businesses, and other organizations. These include the Corporate Standard, the GHG Protocol for Cities, the Mitigation Goal Standard, the Corporate Value Chain Standard, the Policy and Action Standard, the Product Standard, and the Project Protocol.
The GHG Protocol categorizes greenhouse gas emissions into three scopes:
- Scope 1 covers direct emissions from core operations: owned or controlled sources, such as on-site combustion or company-owned transportation fleets.
- Scope 2 covers indirect emissions, such as emissions from a company’s purchased electricity, steam, heating, and cooling.
- Scope 3 includes all other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain, including upstream and downstream business activities.
Green hydrogen is a type of hydrogen that is produced from renewable energy sources — including wind and solar power — to split water molecules (H2O) into oxygen (O2) and hydrogen (H2) via an electrochemical reaction.
Since no greenhouse gases are emitted in the production of green hydrogen, it is considered a cleaner source of hydrogen than industrial hydrogen, which employs fossil fuels for production and power.
Green hydrogen is one of several types of color-coded hydrogen gases. The assigned colors are used to differentiate the type of production process employed. Due to high production costs, green hydrogen represents a small percentage of total hydrogen gas.
The act of greenwashing is a manufacturer’s attempt — through deceptive marketing efforts — to create the impression that a product is natural or has environmental benefits, even when it doesn’t.
Green That Life covers a few examples of greenwashing in these in-depth posts:
- Green or Greenwashing? How to Clean Up Cleaning Products Confusion
- The Green Starbucks Cup: Green or Greenwashing?
- 3 Surprising Greenwashing Examples: Keep America Beautiful campaign; recycling; and “natural” gas
- Are Compostable Products Really Compostable? How to Tell and Which to Get
- Greenwashing Alert: Is Chemical Recycling the Solution to Plastic Pollution?
“Greenwash” is one of those essential terms and phrases that pops up in every industry or business sector. It’s important to understand and learn how to spot it. As such, I’ve written an entire post about greenwashing that includes tips for how to avoid it.
Greywater is (non-fecal) water that is produced from sinks, showers, baths, and other appliances. Greywater is not safe for consumption but recently has begun to be recycled for use in toilets. Greywater can also be used to water ornamental plants.
Guerilla gardening is a type of gardening where gardeners do not own the land they work on. Common forms of guerilla gardening involve spreading seeds on public or vacant land for aesthetic or environmental purposes.
HVAC is the acronym for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. HVAC systems are some of the most energy-intensive systems within the built environment. Investing in building insulation can reduce the need for large, energy-intensive HVAC systems.
Hybrid cars are run with a traditional internal combustion engine and electric motor. The electric motor is charged through a process called regenerative braking that generates power from the car’s wheels. Hybrid cars typically have lower levels of emissions and higher miles per gallon than gas cars.
Hypermiling is a group of techniques one can use to improve your car’s efficiency. Hypermiling can improve fuel efficiency by over 30%. Some examples of hypermiling techniques include maintaining appropriate tire pressure, coasting instead of braking, and minimizing the loads that are kept in your car.
Impervious (or Impermeable) Surface
Impervious, or impermeable, surfaces are surfaces that cannot absorb water. Examples include sidewalks, streets, parking lots, driveways, patios, and roofs. Impervious surfaces are a major cause of excess stormwater runoff during rain events which can be damaging to ecosystems when runoff carries accumulated pollutants and litter into water bodies. In general, urban areas have higher concentrations of impervious surfaces than rural or natural landscapes.
Contrast with Permeable Surfaces.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
Integrated pest management (IPM) is a form of pest control in agriculture that limits the use of pesticides and other harmful practices by integrating a variety of biological, organic, cultural, mechanical, and chemical tools. Types of controls include:
- Biological, including the use of beneficial insects as a natural pesticide to keep unwanted pests at bay.
- Mechanical, including mulching, weeding, and/or improving drainage.
- Cultural, including planting native plant species in appropriate locations.
For more information about IPM, see Cornell University’s IPM page.
International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change. It was created in 1988 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to provide government entities and political leaders with periodic scientific assessments concerning climate change and its implications and risks, as well as to propose adaptation and mitigation strategies. The IPCC currently comprises 195 member states.
IPCC authors, who are experts in climate science and other relevant fields, volunteer their time to assess and summarize the findings of thousands of scientific papers published each year on the drivers of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and how adaptation and mitigation can reduce those risks.
The IPCC has three working groups and a task force:
- Working Group I deals with the physical science basis of climate change.
- Working Group II deals with impacts, adaptation and vulnerability.
- Working Group III deals with the mitigation of climate change.
- Task Force on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories that develops methodologies for measuring emissions and removals.
Temporary task groups are formed from time to time to address a specific topic or question.
Invasive Plant Species
This is a type of plant species that is a non-native plant and has been introduced to a region outside of its native range. It can grow and spread quickly, causing environmental harm or harm to human health.
For more information on invasive plant species and how to control them, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture page on Invasive Species.
Justice40 Initiative is the Biden Administration’s whole-of-government effort to ensure that Federal agencies work with states and local communities to deliver at least 40 percent of the overall benefits from Federal investments in climate and clean energy, including sustainable transportation, to disadvantaged communities.
The Justice40 Initiative was created on January 27, 2021, with President Biden’s execution of Executive Order 14008, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.
Just as the wedge-shaped keystone at the top of an archway supports the structural integrity of the entire archway, a keystone species is the species upon which all others within a particular ecosystem depend. Removal of the keystone species would significantly alter the ecosystem in which they exist.
A keystone species can be any living organism — from a predatory wolf to a specific fungus — and they typically fall into three general categories:
- Predators that maintain a balance in the ecosystem through population control. Examples: grizzly bears, sea stars, sharks, jaguars, wolves.
- Ecosystem Engineers that maintain the structure of the ecosystem through their ability to control their physical environment. Examples: prairie dogs, beavers, African savanna elephants.
- Mutualists that comprise two or more species engaged in mutually beneficial interactions. Examples: pollinators, such as hummingbirds, or bees
A landfill is a plot of land designated for the disposal of solid waste. Also known as a “dump,” landfills are constructed to dispose of non-recyclable waste. Organic waste that is left in landfills generates greenhouse gases, primarily in the form of methane. In fact, landfills are the third-largest source of methane in the U.S., accounting for 17.7 percent of all U.S. methane emissions.
In addition, landfills are a contributor to local pollution by creating smog, water, and soil pollution. Landfills lower land values in nearby properties because they are unattractive and can be a health hazard.
LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)
LEED is an internationally recognized sustainability certification program developed by the US Green Business Council for the built environment. Buildings are assessed across a number of metrics, including location, materials and resources, water efficiency, energy performance, CO2 emissions reduction, and improved indoor air quality.
Though most well known as a certification system for buildings, LEED also has designations for neighborhoods and communities. LEED certifications are assessed using a point system across four categories: certified, silver, gold, and the highest, platinum. The rating system can be applied to both new and existing buildings.
The linear economy is our traditional economic model of “take, make, and dump.” Instead of reusing valuable resources, products are disposed of – or dumped – when their useful life has ended.
Contrast with a circular economy.
A locavore is someone who only eats food grown or produced from a local area. The term was coined by Jessica Prentice in 2005 as a project to encourage residents in the San Francisco Bay Area to consume food grown or harvested within a 100-mile radius. The definition of what constitutes “local” has since changed with some arguing for a tighter radius of 50 miles while others advocate expanding the radius to as much as 150 miles.
Locavores contend that eating foods sourced locally ensures a more nutritious and fresher meal, but is also more environmentally friendly as locally produced foods typically have a lower carbon footprint than foods that need to be shipped from locations that are farther away.
LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability)
LOHAS stands for lifestyles of health and sustainability, which is a demographic identified by consumers who place more value on personal wellbeing and sustainability. Certain types of products and services are popular among the LOHAS demographic, such as organic produce, hybrid and electric cars, and ecotourism.
Materials Recovery Facility (MRF)
A Materials Recovery Facility (MRF, pronounced “murf”) is a facility that is designed to separate, sort, and package recyclable materials for sale. MRFs follow the same general process of receiving mixed waste, which is then dumped on a conveyor belt. Magnets and cameras sort material based on size, weight, electromagnetic properties, and other features.
There are two broad MRF categories:
- “Clean” MRFs process commercial or residential unsorted (single-stream) recyclable materials.
- “Dirty” MRFs process commercial or residential trash to recover recyclables that were incorrectly thrown away in the trash. Dirty MRFs require more manual labor and cost to sort through the trash. A sub-component of a Dirty MRF is a “Wet” MRF that incorporates water to process and clean recyclables.
Municipal Solid Waste (MSW)
Municipal solid waste is the trash or garbage generated by residents of a municipality. According to the EPA’s definition, MSW includes bottles and corrugated boxes, food, grass clippings, sofas, computers, tires, and refrigerators. It does not include construction and demolition (C&D) debris, municipal wastewater sludge, and other non-hazardous industrial wastes.
According to the EPA, the total generation of MSW in 2017 was 267.8 million tons or 4.51 pounds per person per day. Of the MSW generated, approximately 67 million tons were recycled and 27 million tons were composted, representing a 35.2% recycling and composting rate. In addition, more than 34 million tons of MSW (12.7%) were combusted with energy recovery and more than 139 million tons of MSW (52.1%) were landfilled.
One component of MSW that is increasingly being separated from landfill waste is unwanted food, or “food scraps.” In a number of towns and cities, food scrap recycling programs have been created to divert food waste from landfills to special composting facilities that can transform the scraps into natural fertilizers.
National Sword Policy
This doesn’t really qualify for Green Terms and Phrases, but it’s a term that impacts our recycling policies nationwide and is worthy of an explanation.
For decades, the U.S. and other countries had shipped various types of solid waste to China. In fact, as of 2018, China consumed 55% of the world’s scrap paper and was a major importer for many recyclables.
In 2018, however, China passed its National Sword Policy that imposed bans and impossibly low contamination standards on 24 types of waste material that it typically imported from the U.S.
The new purity standards for imported recyclable products have increased from 90-95% to 99.95%. Products covered in the ban include plastic, paper, and solid waste.
What does this mean for the industry? Commodity prices for these types of materials have plunged, making the business of selling recyclable materials unprofitable.
What does this mean for Americans? In many areas of the country, you could see an increase in recycling costs. Or municipalities may choose to keep costs down by incinerating recyclables.
While National Sword is bad news for recycling, it also is an opportunity for us to rethink our lifestyle habits and reduce consumption.
Native Plant Species (“Natives”)
Native plants are species that have evolved naturally in a specific region and have developed over hundreds or thousands of years in that region. In short, they are part of the region’s particular ecosystem, such that wildlife depends on them for their sustenance and survival.
A negawatt is a shortened term for “negative watt.” It is a theoretical measurement of energy that refers to units of saved energy made by a consumer through conservation measures. In other words, it is watts of energy that the consumer has not used due to the use of various energy-saving methods, such as reducing the use of heat or electricity in one’s home.
The term was coined in 1989 by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute in response to his observations of excessive energy use. Over half of all energy generated in the United States is estimated to be wasted. Lovins outlined ways to achieve energy efficiencies that would also realize cost savings.
Net metering is a service that provides credits to owners of onsite renewable energy systems — typically solar panels — for their surplus power. Excess power generated by the system is transferred back to the electrical grid, enabling the owners to offset their utility bill for the amount added to the grid. The customer is thus billed for their “net” energy usage.
Net metering mechanisms, implementation, and procedures vary widely from state to state. To date, 41 states have implemented some type of net-metering policy for roof-top and/or community-solar owners.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines net zero as that state when “anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere are balanced by anthropogenic removals over a specified period.”
Simply put, attaining net zero emissions means that residual, or unavoidable, greenhouse gas emissions emitted by an entity–person, company, nation–are canceled out by mechanisms that absorb or offset those emissions. So, when a company makes a pledge of net zero emissions by a future date, it is committing to achieving a balance of zero emissions in its operations by that date.
Following the Paris Agreement’s goal of rapid decarbonization to limit global warming to a preferred 1.5 degrees Celcius (compared to pre-industrial levels), many companies have targeted 2050 as their net zero target date. This is the date by which climate scientists believe the world must achieve carbon neutrality in order to avoid the catastrophic effects of human-caused climate change.
The key point to remember is that making a net zero pledge is not the same as making a pledge to end activities that produce greenhouse gas emissions. Think of a net zero corporate pledge as more like an emissions management program that allows continued emissions but removes them from business operations via other means.
Non-Native Plant Species
Also known as an exotic or alien plant species. This is a species introduced by humans (on purpose or accidentally) from its native origin into a non-native range. Some, but not all, non-native plants are invasive species.
Non-Point Source Pollution
Non-point source pollution (NPS) refers to pollution that originates from an unidentifiable source or a variety of sources. NPS pollution occurs when excess stormwater or snowmelt runoff mixes with pollutants and travels over and in the ground, eventually making its way into lakes, rivers, coastal waters and other waterways.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, NPS can include:
- Excess fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides.
- Oil, grease, and toxic chemicals from urban runoff and energy production.
- Sediment from improperly managed construction sites, crop and forest lands, and eroding streambanks.
- Salt from irrigation practices and acid drainage from abandoned mines.
- Bacteria and nutrients from livestock, pet wastes, and faulty septic systems.
Contrast with Point Source Pollution.
Organic and the Organic Seal
The “organic” seal is a certification system created by the US Department of Agriculture to designate produce and food products that have been produced without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, irradiation, or genetic engineering techniques.
According to the USDA, organic products use production methods that use “cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”
To obtain certification, a product undergoes an organic certification process that follows established production, handling, and labeling standards, including soil quality, animal raising practices, and pest and weed control. The enforcement entity, the National Organic Program, ensures the integrity of products with the organic seal and that manufacturers follow proper production methods.
There are four labeling categories for organic products:
- 100 percent organic. Products must be made of 100% certified organic ingredients.
- Organic. Product and ingredients must be certified organic, except where specified on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.
- “Made with” organic ingredients. These are products made with multiple ingredients, some of which are organic. In this category, at least 70% of the product must be made using certified organic ingredients.
- Specific organic ingredients. These are products that use less than 70% certified organic ingredients. They can list their certified organic ingredients but cannot use the USDA Organic Seal.
Peaking Power Plant
A peaking power plant — “peaker plant,” for short — is a power plant that is called upon to generate electricity when demand is high, or at its peak.
Permafrost is a portmanteau word: the combination of ‘permanent’ and ‘frost.’ It is defined as ground that stays frozen for a minimum of two years. Almost a quarter of the terrain in the North Hemisphere is considered permafrost, as this type of terrain is most commonly found in mountainous regions or near the North and South Poles.
Permafrost has been Earth’s largest terrestrial carbon sink — containing soil and organic materials (as well as rock, sediment, and ice). Rising temperatures due to climate change, however, have caused the permafrost to thaw and fracture, releasing greenhouse gases.
Similar to a bag of frozen vegetables, the dead plants and animals frozen in permafrost for thousands of years decay or rot once de-thawed. The warmed permafrost in turn releases carbon dioxide (CO2) in the presence of oxygen and methane (CH4) in the absence of oxygen. This process is autocatalytic or self-reinforcing: the release of greenhouse gases, particularly methane, contributes to the climate crisis and the resulting warmer temperatures thaw more permafrost, and so on.
The changing terrain of melting permafrost has negatively impacted the infrastructure of many arctic communities and the ability of subsistence indigenous people, such as the Intuit, to find food. Permafrost can also store ancient pathogens. Human and animal populations, immunologically unfamiliar with these microbes tucked away in ice sheets for millennia, could become very sick.
Permeable surfaces are surfaces that allow water to pass through them. The most obvious permeable surface is dirt, however, engineers have now created permeable pavements that will allow water that lands on them to recharge into groundwater. Permeable surfaces prevent the runoff of stormwater and other liquids.
Contrast with impermeable or impervious surfaces.
PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl) Chemicals
PFAS — also known as “forever chemicals” — are a class of manufactured fluorinated chemical substances found in consumer products, drinking water, and industrial practices. Technically known as per- and polyfluorinated compounds, there are nearly 5,000 of these forever chemicals, all grouped into one category, known as PFAS.
The most common and widespread chemicals in the PFAS group are perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Used for their non-stick (PFOA) and cleaning (PFOS) properties, these chemicals are no longer manufactured but have been replaced by other PFAS substances, such as GenX.
Point Source Pollution
Point source pollution refers to pollution that originates from one identifiable source. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines point source pollution as “any single identifiable source of pollution from which pollutants are discharged, such as a pipe, ditch, ship, or factory smokestack.”
Examples of point sources of pollution:
- effluent from sewage treatment plants and factories
- emissions from power plants
- toxic chemicals from oil and chemical refineries
- waste from wood, paper and pulp mills
- automobile, and electronics manufacturers
Point source water pollution is regulated by the Clean Water Act through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). Per NPDES, point source emitters must obtain a permit from their state and EPA before they can discharge waste or effluents into any body of water. Point source air pollution is regulated by the Clean Air Act.
Contrast with Non-point Source Pollution.
Polyethylene vinyl acetate (PEVA)
Post-consumer waste is waste that is created after a product is used. An example of post-consumer waste is paper that is discarded after it is printed on. Post-consumer waste can be recycled or diverted to a landfill.
Pre-consumer waste is waste generated in the production of a product before it reaches a consumer. An example of pre-consumer waste would be scrap metal created by a metal press that is discarded.
A preemption law is a law passed by a higher legislature that overrides — preempts — the law or ordinance of a lower governing body. The lower legislature is thus restricted in its ability to implement and pass local regulations, ordinances, and laws.
Examples of preemption laws include ones related to workers’ rights, gun control, marijuana decriminalization, and even budget reductions in police departments. Preemption laws in the area of environmental protection include those related to plastic bag and packaging bans, disposable straw bans, and regulations on pesticides.
For a list of preemption laws in the U.S., see the Policy Surveillance Program’s state preemption laws map and profile descriptions.
Regenerative Agriculture is a form of agriculture that emphasizes the remediation of depleted soils through organic and non-synthetic processes. Regenerative agriculture goes beyond sustainable agriculture by improving ecosystems rather than trying to maintain them. This form of agriculture rejects pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and instead seeks to mimic natural cycles.
These are community workshops with tools and materials to repair broken items yourself. Or you can enlist an expert to help.
Visit the Repair Cafe site for a list of locations, or to start your own.
Rewilding is a conservation method that lets nature take its course by reestablishing natural ecosystems and native species. The term was popularized by conservation biologists Michael Soulé and Reed Noss in their paper, Rewilding and Biodiversity, in which they prioritize a “three Cs” method as a solution for biodiversity loss:
- cores, or pockets of uncultivated land, to expand habitats;
- corridors to connect open spaces, allowing movement and migration; and
- carnivores, to play a top-down role in managing and regulating ecosystems.
For a detailed and broader look at rewilding and how you can add elements of this method into your own gardening practices, see Green That Life’s post on How to Create a Wildlife-Friendly Yard. For further reading on natural landscaping techniques, see Green That Life’s book selections on green and healthy gardening.
The Five (or Six) Rs
In descending order of importance:
- Refuse, when you can, single-use disposables and unnecessary packaging.
- Reduce your reliance on items – mainly single-use disposable ones – that generate trash, litter, and can pollute our environment.
- Rot applies to composting, or food scrap recycling. This is an excellent way to divert food waste from the landfill and recycle it into nutrient-rich compost. For further reading, I cover the what and how of composting in my food waste post.
- Reuse those long-lasting items made from durable products (cloth, wood, metal, glass), such as reusable straws, bags, containers.
- Recycle what you’re unable to refuse, reduce, or reuse.
My personal addition is Rethink, as in rethinking how we live our lives and the lifestyle choices we make. The goal should be to minimize waste and what we have as much as possible. Simple changes that we make to our everyday lives can have a big impact.
This infographic from the Environmental Protection Agency gives you an excellent visual of how much waste we generate. It also includes some tips on how to rethink our behavior to reduce that waste.
Single-stream (or commingled or single-sort) recycling is a type of recycling in which all collected recyclable materials (such as plastics, paper, metal, and glass) are mixed together and then transported to a Materials Recovery Facility for processing. The advantages of single-stream (vs dual-stream) recycling include the convenience of not needing to sort recyclables, and reduced organizational and collection costs. The ease of single-stream was designed to encourage people to recycle more.
The disadvantages to single-stream, however, likely outweigh its advantages:
First, recyclables must ultimately be sorted and separated at some point; single-stream merely shifts the separation process from consumer to processing facility. Specialized processing plants designed to accommodate single-stream must be constructed, increasing capital expenditures and the requisite level of expertise and specialization needed by workers.
Second, single-stream increases cross-contamination and jeopardizes the quality and purity of recyclables, and ultimately its marketability. Recyclables are a commodity and demand is determined by the quality of the end-product.
The single-stream process has contributed to increased contamination rates, culminating in a decline in the market for recyclable materials and the imposition by China — once the main importer of recyclables — to institute its National Sword policy that sets low contamination standards on 24 types of imported waste material.
See also Disposable
Describes an item that is designed and made to be used only once. Although single-use items are typically made of plastic, there is a wide variety of products made from different materials.
Examples of single-use products include plastic and paper bags, plastic straws, plastic cutlery, plastic water bottles, plastic, and paper cups, produce bags, plastic coffee pods.
A soil amendment is any substance added to the soil to improve and enhance the soil’s properties, such as water and nutrient retention, drainage, absorption, and structure.
Examples of soil amendments that act as natural fertilizers:
- Wood chips
- Grass clippings or straw
- Peat moss.
- Manure: poultry, horse.
- Meal supplements: Bone, blood, feather, corn gluten, cotton seed.
- Fish and seaweed.
Sustainability is a goal or the ability to plan for a future in which environmental, societal and economic considerations are in balance.
From an individual lifestyle perspective, sustainability means living within one’s means. It’s the act of meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
The benefits of living a more sustainable lifestyle include:
- health benefits, by using more natural products, free of harmful chemicals and toxins.
- environmental benefits, by creating less waste, using fewer natural resources and reducing pollution.
- cost savings, by using fewer resources, and/or using them more efficiently.
See also: Sustainable Development.
The United Nations Brundtland Commission defines sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
There are four intertwined dimensions to sustainable development:
The United Nations distinguishes between sustainability and sustainable development in this way: “Sustainability is often thought of as a long-term goal (i.e. a more sustainable world), while sustainable development refers to the many processes and pathways to achieve it.”
The opposite of “downcycle.” This is a form of recycling where you transform materials and products into better quality products. You are essentially repurposing an old, used product into a more desirable item.
Examples of up-cycled products include those you make yourself (clothing to dish rags) or those you purchase (footwear and yoga mats made out of cork, from ReCork).
Virgin plastic is newly manufactured plastic pellets that have not been recycled. It is produced directly from petrochemical — fossil fuel-derived — feedstocks.
Due to the purity of their composition, virgin plastic pellets have wider use in manufacturing processes than recycled plastics. Once used, the degradation of recycled plastics renders the properties of these materials less stable and safe, and recycled plastics are ultimately downcycled and disposed of.
Waste incinerators are facilities that dispose of municipal solid waste through combustion heat. Acting like an enormous furnace, waste is burned at extremely high temperatures and reduced to ash. Some incinerators are waste-to-energy plants, using the waste as a fuel source to make steam and electricity.
While incineration plants can provide an effective method of reducing waste, critics have pointed to potential air pollution from released toxins — dioxin, lead, and mercury — and greenhouse gas emissions that can result from the combustion process. There can be additional repercussions, including
- challenges related to the proper disposal of potentially hazardous ash;
- economic incentives to feed incinerators that are at cross purposes with waste reduction goals;
- environmental justice issues related to disproportionate siting of facilities in disadvantaged and low-income communities.
Wish-Cycling or Wishcycling
Wish-cycling is the act of putting a non-recyclable item in the recycling bin with the hope it will be recycled. A wish-cycling example is placing a takeout coffee cup in the recycling bin, when it is not recyclable.
In addition to wish-cycling an item that’s not recyclable, it’s possible to wish-cycle the process. That is, the material is recyclable, but, uncertain of the recycling rules, it’s disposed of improperly. An example of this is placing broken glass in the recycling bin. Glass is recyclable, but broken glass is not.
For more detail about wish-cycling and tips for how not to wish-cycle, see Green That Life’s post: Are You Wish-Cycling? 10 Simple Tips to Recycle Right
This is a way of life that encourages rethinking product lifecycles so that all products are reused instead of tossed in the garbage.
In short, the goal of Zero Waste practices is to reduce consumer consumption to such a level that nothing gets wasted and sent to the landfill or incinerators.