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
- Beneficial Insects
- Brown Power
- Capsule Wardrobe
- Carbon Dioxide Equivalent (CO2e)
- Carbon Footprint
- Carbon Neutral
- Carbon Offset
- Carbon Sequestration
- Circular Economy
- Climate Change
- Closing the Loop
- Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
- Confirmation Bias
- Dual-Stream Recycling
- Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)
- Fairtrade Certification
- Fast Fashion
- Food Miles
- Food Scrap (or Waste) Recycling
- Fossil Fuels
- Geothermal Energy
- Greenhouse Effect
- Greenhouse Gases (GHG)
- Guerilla Gardening
- Hybrid Car
- Impervious or Impermeable Surface
- Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
- Invasive Plant Species
- Impervious Surface
- 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 (or Natives) Species
- Net Metering
- Non-Native Plant Species
- Non-Point Source Pollution
- Organic and the Organic Seal
- Peaking Power Plant
- Permeable Surfaces
- Point Source Pollution
- Polyethylene vinyl acetate (PEVA)
- Regenerative Agriculture
- Repair Cafe
- The Five (or Six) Rs
- Single-Stream Recycling
- Virgin Plastic
- Waste Incinerator
- 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.
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 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 the concept of waste as an end product doesn’t exist. Indeed, it becomes a valuable resource, as “food” for something else.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 — 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 that can carry accumulated pollutants and channel them into bodies of water. 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.
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.
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.
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 (or Natives) Species
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.
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.
Relevant to increasing global temperatures, permafrost in part contains soil and organic materials (as well as rock, sediment, and ice), which can decompose and release 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. And something we may be all too familiar with, permafrost also stores 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.
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.
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.
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).
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 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. In addition, there can be environmental repercussions in the disposal of potentially hazardous ash.
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.