6 Ways to Make Sure Your Everyday Purchases Aren't Harming the Planet
Here's how consumers can help bring about change when it comes to some of the most pressing environmental issues of our time.
It seems that barely a day goes by lately without a new report or statistic about the acceleration of climate change or the harmful impact humans are having on the planet, particularly with regard to our ubiquitous reliance on plastics.
Just this week, more than 200 of the world's top health journals came together to issue a joint statement imploring global leaders to do more to cut greenhouse gas emissions, which are the primary driver of climate change. When making their plea, the health leaders called climate change the single greatest public health threat we now face.
Meanwhile, a flurry of recent reports has made clear that our use of plastics (which is a gigantic contributor to climate change, as plastics are made from fossil fuels) is growing increasingly threatening for the planet: by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. What's more, the recycling industry in this country is broken. Much of what consumers hope and believe will be recycled, is simply being incinerated, tossed into landfills, or is winding up in the ocean.
The myth of recycling is one that's been actively promoted by the oil and gas industry, which as the producers of plastic products earn billions of dollars selling new plastic items year after year after year. These industries have spent millions on their efforts to convince Americans that recycling works, when in fact recycling does very little to keep plastic out of landfills.
So, what can you as a consumer do to help bring about change and address these pressing challenges? One of the immediate actions you can take is to rethink and revise your daily shopping and consumption habits. Your household purchases—the items you select when you're walking down the aisle of Target, Rite-Aid, Walmart, Costco, or any other retailer— all play a role in our collective impact on the planet.
If all of us were to be more thoughtful and meaningful about the items we purchase while shopping, we could move the needle on some of the most critical challenges facing the planet. But it will take significant, collective action.
Sarah Paiji Yoo, CEO, and co-founder of the eco-friendly cleaning products start-up Blueland, has made it her personal mission to inform consumers about the changes they can make while shopping to be better stewards of the planet. Yoo herself embarked on a journey to reduce reliance on single-use plastics and make smarter environmental choices years ago after becoming a mom and discovering the disturbing level of microplastics in our tap and bottled water. She co-founded Blueland in part to help educate consumers about some of the easy tips and tricks that can be utilized when shopping to ensure that the purchases you're making each day protect, not harm, the planet.
Here are some of the ways you can be a more conscious consumer (and even save money in the process).
Conduct label critiques.
While it's unreasonable to expect consumers to research every single purchase, it is simple enough to become more educated shoppers who arrive at a store armed with the mental knowledge and tools needed for 'label critiques,' says Yoo. By label critiques, Yoo means looking for specific eco-friendly certifications and logos on the packaging of items you select when shopping.
A few of the most notable certification logos to keep your eyes peeled for when choosing a product include the Leaping Bunny certified symbol, the EPA Safer Choice logo, and the BCorp symbol.
The EPA Safer Choice program was created to help consumers find cleaning and other products that are not only safer for you and your family but also for the environment. These products should have safer chemical ingredients. As the EPA website explains: "Companies who make products carrying the Safer Choice label have invested heavily in research and reformulation to ensure that their products meet the Safer Choice Standard. These companies are leaders in safer products and sustainability."
BCorp certification meanwhile, indicates that the company responsible for creating the product you're about to buy is one focused on balancing profit with purpose. In order to obtain BCorp status, a business must go through extensive and rigorous review to ensure it meets "the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability." B Corps are focused on accelerating a global culture shift in a way that meaningfully redefines success in the business world and builds a more sustainable economy.
"It's important to pay attention to labels and look for these types of certifications, because there's a lot of 'greenwashing' going on right now," Yoo points out.
What that means is that product manufacturers are well aware that consumers are more eager than ever to purchase items they feel good about, that won't harm the planet, and that can be disposed of responsibly. To attract this type of consumer, many companies make sustainability claims on packaging that are not entirely legitimate.
"It's a completely unregulated space, and so it's really on consumers to parse through all of the marketing language, which is asking a lot of the consumer," says Yoo. "The average consumer has good intentions, but doesn't necessarily have the time or expertise to do a deep dive on all the products they purchase, which is why greenwashing is so rampant."
Searching for eco-friendly and sustainble certifications on products is at least one way to ensure that the company making the items you select is trying to do right by the planet.
This step alone, however, is not enough, particularly when it comes to reducing reliance on single-use plastics. It is merely the low hanging fruit.
Educate yourself about local recycling programs.
Just because a package says it's recyclable, doesn't mean it actually is recyclable, says Yoo.
"It may be recyclable at some recycling plants, in some states, depending upon each government's program and requirements," she explains. "However, a lot of packaging that people toss into their recycling bins is not something their local centers can actually take. For instance, a 'cardboard' milk carton is likely to have a plastic aluminum-paper blend film on the inside, and therefore cannot be disposed of so easily."
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the downfall of believing recycling can save the day. Many recycling programs across the country are simply not able to recycle much of what they receive. A report from Columbia's Climate School outlines a few of the reasons for this, including that many recyclables become contaminated when placed in the wrong bin, or when a dirty food container gets into the recycling bin. (Contamination can prevent large batches of material from being recycled.) Other materials meanwhile, can't be processed by certain facilities. Perhaps most importantly, the international market for recyclables has all but disappeared. There are too many different types of plastics being produced, and few viable markets for these items.
What's more, because recycling programs in this country were dependent on China for so many years, our domestic recycling infrastructure was never fully developed. As a result, there is no economical or efficient way to handle recycling in the absence of the international market for these items, says the Columbia report.
What does it all mean for you, the consumer, when walking the aisles of a store making purchases? Educate yourself as much as possible about what your local recycling program can handle. Call local recycling facilities and ask questions. According to the EPA, in 2017, 66 percent of discarded paper and cardboard was recycled, 27 percent of glass, and 8 percent of plastics were recycled. Glass and metal can be recycled indefinitely, while paper can be recycled five to seven times before it's too degraded. Plastic can only be recycled once or twice. Ultimately, six times more plastic waste is incinerated than is recycled.
Here's the key takeaway—the only plastic that's being recycled with any widespread regularity is that which is labeled with a No. 1 or a No. 2, according to a Greenpeace report. Meaning, you'll want to look for the recycling number on the plastic items you're considering purchasing. Unfortunately, many plastic items, especially beauty products, have no number at all on the packaging.
To step up your efforts even further when you're shopping, actively search for products that are not packaged in plastic but are instead packaged in glass, aluminum, or cardboard. There's a growing crop of start-ups challenging the status quo and offering all sorts of products packaged in alternative materials—from cleaners and laundry detergents to beauty products. Some of the names to become familiar with in this space (in addition to Blueland) include ThreeMain, Earthbreeze, Tru Earth, and HiBar. But these are merely a few examples, once you start googling away, you'll find there are many eco-friendly alternatives entering the market.
The search in your local Target, Walmart, or other retailer for eco-friendly, and climate-friendly consumer products can be discouraging. Once you start paying careful attention, you'll find aisle after aisle of plastic packaged products or items that contain chemicals harmful for the planet, or products that, through their creation, distribution, or end-of-life disposal (or all three phases)—are environmentally detrimental in some way. All of which brings Yoo to her next important tip for shoppers: Consumers need to start demanding accessibility when it comes to eco-friendly products.
"This is a less obvious one, but it's something we've thought lot about here at Blueland," says Yoo. "Products cannot make a large-scale difference if people cannot access them—whether that means they're unaffordable, or they are not available at a retailer nearby."
Not being accessible can also mean that the products don't work well, as can be the case with some cleaning products, making them not accessible or not practical.
"As consumers, we need to demand more of brands," continues Yoo. "We need to demand that brands be more accessible in all of these ways. Green products have had a bad rap for some time because finding them may be more work, or they're more expensive, or they're less effective. These things must change."
Here's how you can put that into practice as a consumer: Use social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to reach out to brands, and let your voice be heard. While you're at it, use these same platforms to reach out to the Targets, Walmarts, and other retailers of the world and request that they start offering more options on their shelves.
Strive for carbon neutrality in your purchases.
Carbon emissions are considered to be the No. 1 contributor to climate change, making it critical that the companies you support with your shopping purchases take accountability for their carbon emissions and engage in consistent, meaningful action to reduce them.
Product manufacturing companies that supply stores can go carbon-neutral by doing such things as purchasing high-quality carbon offsets from projects like wind farms. Taking this step helps to support the transition to a sustainable energy economy and provides added revenue to renewable energy developers.
Consumers, meanwhile, can seek out companies that are making clear on packaging (or on their website) that they are carbon-neutral. While you're at it, look to see if they have a certification to back their carbon-neutral claim, says Yoo.
"We've been seeing this claim of being carbon-neutral more and more on packaging," says Yoo. "It has been a more recent phenomenon and is becoming increasingly commonplace."
Refuse, reduce, reuse.
Above and beyond all of the tips Yoo has already provided, she offers one final but critically important bit of advice: refuse, reduce, reuse. This is, of course, a slightly updated take on the slogan many of us have heard for years now: reduce, reuse, recycle.
Refusing to purchase items that are environmentally harmful has become more important than our reliance on recycling. Refusal can be followed by reusing items before purchasing new.
"We must think before consuming," says Yoo. "Do you really need that item you're considering purchasing? Can you borrow something? Can you reuse something? We must refuse and reuse over recycling."
This is where the financial savings may be realized. If you make a mindful shift to reusing items more, or borrowing them, or even begin purchasing secondhand items more regularly, it can reduce your daily and monthly cost of living, along with helping the planet.
Postscript: Demand change, and begin that change at home.
Change can be hard, it can cumbersome, and we can all be dogged by inertia. What's more, change takes time, which can be discouraging. But governments around the world are lumbering giants that are failing to act speedily enough in response to the climate crisis or pollution of the planet. Furthermore, many attempts at progress on a legislative level are thwarted by industry lobbyists with a vested interest in maintaining their profits.
Consumers far and wide must demand more aggressive action from elected leaders. But in the meantime, or simultaneously, we must engage in bolder actions ourselves on a daily basis. The good news is, Yoo already sees small examples of this happening, including in the form of an increased level of awareness among consumers who want to lead a more eco-conscious lifestyle.
"I'm hopeful that future is within reach," concludes Yoo. "It's been really interesting to watch what's happened even over just the past two years and just within the category of cleaning products. This concept of refillable cleaning products has become far more widespread. In Target, you're now starting to see a lot of refill options available, and this change is being driven by consumer demand. Businesses will follow the consumer."
"People are increasingly feeling that climate change is real, that it's here, and that we have an increasingly short period of time to address it," says Yoo.