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
- Beneficial Insects
- Carbon Dioxide Equivalent (CO2e)
- Carbon Footprint
- Circular Economy
- Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
- Fast Fashion
- Food Miles
- Food Scrap (or Waste) Recycling
- Greenhouse Effect
- Greenhouse Gases (GHG)
- Invasive Plant Species
- Linear Economy
- National Sword Policy
- Natives/Native Plant
- Non-Native Plant
- Polyethylene vinyl acetate (PEVA)
- Repair Cafe
- The Five (or Six) Rs
- Zero Waste
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.
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 is 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.
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.
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.
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 a 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.
Food Scrap (or Waste) Recycling
The greenhouse effect is actually a natural process in which greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trap heat from the sun.
The problem is that human activities are increasing the amount 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 green-washing 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.
Invasive Plant Species
This is a plant species that’s a non-native plant. It can grow and spread quickly, causing environmental harm or harm to human health.
For more, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture page on Invasive Species.
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 isn’t really a green phrase, but it’s one 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 their 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 has 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 depend 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.
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.