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 green-washing 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
- Beneficial Insects
- Brown Power
- Carbon Dioxide Equivalent (CO2e)
- Carbon Footprint
- Carbon Neutral
- Carbon Offset
- Carbon Sequestration
- Circular Economy
- Climate Change
- Closing the Loop
- Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
- Fairtrade Certification
- Fast Fashion
- Food Miles
- Food Scrap (or Waste) Recycling
- Fossil Fuels
- Geothermal Energy
- Greenhouse Effect
- Greenhouse Gases (GHG)
- Hybrid Car
- Invasive Plant Species
- Impervious Surface
- Linear Economy
- National Sword Policy
- Natives/Native Plant
- Non-Native Plant
- Permeable Surfaces
- Polyethylene vinyl acetate (PEVA)
- Repair Cafe
- The Five (or Six) Rs
- 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.
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. Learn more from this video from Vox.
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.
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.
Carbon sequestration is the process of converting atmospheric carbon into stored carbon. Carbon can be stored in carbon pools 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.
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 waste becomes a valuable resource.
It is a novel approach to the traditional linear economy and calls for a rethinking of our prevailing economic system.
Climate change is the long-term change in the earth’s climate due to increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Climate change 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 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.
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.
What’s a “compost environment”? As explained by World Centric, it’s typically a commercial facility that adheres to the following set of 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.
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. Cradle-to-cradle design also ensures that a product can be reused once its primary use has ended. Cradle-to-cradle design is an essential part of a circular economy.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 energy created using the heat within the earth’s crust. The most common form of geothermal energy pumps water deep into the earth, which is then turned into steam and used to drive a turbine. Geothermal energy is classified as a renewable source of power.
The greenhouse effect is a natural process in which greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trap heat from the sun.
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.
The act of greenwashing is a manufacturer’s attempt to create the impression, through deceptive marketing efforts, that a product is natural or has environmental benefits, even when it doesn’t.
For greenwashing examples and ways to avoid green-washed products, see my post on green cleaning products.
A hybrid car is a type of car that is run on both gas and electric power. A hybrid car charges a battery using energy created by the rotation of the wheels and can use this electricity for driving.
Hybrid cars typically have lower levels of emissions and higher miles per gallon than gas cars.
Invasive Plant Species
This is a type of plant species that is a non-native plant. 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.
Impervious surfaces are surfaces that do not allow water to permeate, or pass through them. Surfaces such as pavement and asphalt are examples of impervious surfaces. Impervious surfaces create runoff during rain events which can be damaging to ecosystems when runoff carries pollutants and litter into water bodies.
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.
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.
These are plants 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.
Also known as an exotic or alien plant. This is a plant introduced by humans (on purpose or accidentally) from its native origin into a non-native habitat. Some, but not all, non-native plants are invasive species.
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.
Polyethylene vinyl acetate (PEVA)
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.
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.
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.
This is really just a fancy term for 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 Rye Sustainability Plan contains a more descriptive definition.
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.
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).
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.