How long does X take to break down?

May 20th, 2013.

(first published April 2009, last updated May 2013)

Reading that an item takes eleventy bazillion years to break down in the environment makes for great attention grabbing stuff when writing articles on green living, but the more I research various related topics, the more I find differences in estimations.

A lot of this is to do with the fact that decomposition is very dependent on the environment where the material is decomposing. For example, look at the difference between how fast steel rusts (a form of decomposition) in a humid salt air environment such as the coast vs. a dry environment like a desert.

Dry air really slows down decomposition generally. Another example is cardboard, something we consider very biodegradable. I have a sheet of cardboard out the back of a shed at my property in a semi-arid area and after 5 years it still hasn’t fully broken down even though it’s fully exposed to the elements.

Another factor is whether the waste is even exposed to the air or buried in a landfill. In the case of the latter, it can a lot longer for an item to break down; particular if the surrounds are dry.

Those are a couple of issues to bear in mind when reading statistics on how X or Y material breaks down. “Break down” is really a vague term and there’s also a big difference in the terms, biodegradable, degradable and compostable; not to mention the types of residues they leave behind, some of which can be toxic. It’s another good reason to recycle where we can, plus recycling energy savings for most types of waste are significant.

However, we can get a general guesstimate about waste decomposition and that can help in making purchasing decisions.

With all that in mind, here’s a list of common items and how long they take to “break down” in the environment.

Glass bottle 1 million years
Monofilament fishing line: 600 years
Plastic beverage bottles: 450 years
Disposable diapers: 450 years
Aluminum can: 80-200 years
Boot sole: 50-80 years
Styrofoam cup: 50 years
Tin can: 50 years
Leather: 50 years
Nylon fabric: 30-40 years
Plastic film canister: 20-30 years
Plastic bag: 10-20 years (???)
Cigarette filter: 1-5 years
Wool sock: 1-5 years
Plywood: 1-3 years
Waxed milk carton: 3 months
Apple core: 2 months
Newspaper: 6 weeks
Orange or banana peel : 2-5 weeks
Paper towel: 2-4 weeks

The above information was taken from the Pocket Guide to Marine Debris from Ocean Conservancy. It’s sources were the U.S. National Park Service; Mote Marine Lab, Sarasota, FL and “Garbage In, Garbage Out,” Audubon magazine, Sept/Oct 1998.

Judging by the figures, I’d hazard a guess these would apply when the item is exposed to sunlight and air. Stick some of those items into landfill and in the absence of light and oxygen, chances are they won’t break down for many generations. Even newspapers dumped in landfill have been known to be still readable after many years.

For disposable shopping bags, I’ve seen figures anywhere from 500 – 1000 years (but there’s many different types of plastics) and cigarette butts up to 12 years.

While it may seem odd for leather to take so long to break down, many leather products are treated with all sorts of nasty preservatives to extend their life. The figure for a glass bottle is incredibly long, but at least that’s an easily recyclable product. I have picked up old beer bottles on my bush block that are over 50 years old but look as though they were left there yesterday.

There’s a lot of ifs, buts and maybes in the above list, so if you have stumbled across a comprehensive list or study of  decomposition statistics of various forms of waste with detailed annotations about the conditions in relation to the timeframe, please let me know!

Tragedy Of The Commons – An explanation

October 30th, 2012.

The term “tragedy of the commons” pops up on many environmentally themed sites when discussing sustainability, but sometimes it’s not explained.

The tragedy of the commons refers to the diminishing of a shared resource by people acting based on their own self-interest. Simply put, it’s a form of greed, usually fueled by either ignorance or a feeling of self-entitlement.
While the general concept has been recognised for thousands of years, the common term came into being in 1968 via the pen of ecologist Garrett Hardin in an essay of the same name.
Tragedy of the commons scenarios are numerous – to some degree, most of us participate in one or more each day. 
For example, driving a gas powered vehicle erodes the quality of the air that we share with others. Buying goods we don’t need can steal resources away from future generations and impact the environment from which they are taken. 
Even the decision to have children, often seen as a right, is not one Nature has granted – and each extra person is an additional load on our already heavily stressed planet, competing for dwindling resources. Hardin didn’t pull any punches on this issue. 
According to Wikipedia, “Hardin argued that welfare provides for children and supports overbreeding as a fundamental human right, malthusian catastrophe is inevitable.”
Hardin went so far as to say:

“The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon.”

Ouch, that’s not going to sit well with some readers, but I understand where he was coming from as overpopulation is a pressing issue.

I’ve been a child sponsor for over a decade now. It’s wonderful to know the girl I sponsor in Africa now has opportunities she may never have had. But I also wonder if I’m just helping to perpetuate a cycle of future impoverished generations. However, the fact she is receiving an education encourages me as it’s education that has been shown to have a knock-on effect of reducing birth rates. In that respect, I’m not sure if Hardin was spot-on in his conclusion as welfare can be very beneficial if it’s properly directed, but the general spirit of his thoughts on overpopulation was probably – and unfortunately – correct. 
Another example he gave, from which the essay drew its name, related to herders grazing their animals on commonly-held pasture. One herder may allow his flock to grow as large as possible to generate as much personal benefit as he can, to the detriment of other herders and the landscape in general.
So there you have it – a basic understanding of the concept behind the tragedy of the commons. You no longer need to look bewildered when it’s mentioned and you can nod sagely when the topic is raised in dinner conversation.
But seriously, what is knowledge without the chance to apply or at least share it?
Regardless of some of the examples Hardin may have used (other scenarios have been hotly debated too), that’s all nit-picking really; the essence remains solid. The depletion of a resource by one individual can have a marked negative impact on the wider environment and all the organisms that live within it. And that’s something we can bear in mind as we go about our lives.
If you’re curious to learn more of what Mr. Hardin had to say back in 1968, read the full text of the Tragedy Of The Commons

Biopiracy Threatens The Future Of Food

September 22nd, 2012.

I was reading an article on heritage and heirloom seeds earlier on and came across the term “biopiracy” – something that happens when bioprospecting falls victim to good ole’ fashioned human greed. So what do these terms mean?
The natural world holds many answers to health problems and food issues challenging humanity; answers that can’t always be found in laboratories by boffins wearing white lab-coats. 
Bioprospecting is about utilising natural resources not already in wide use; at times drawing on the knowledge of indigenous peoples in how to use those resources – an example is preparations used in traditional medicine that have migrated into the mainstream use.
Bioprospecting isn’t always just doing good for good’s sake – there is often money involved, and a lot of it as it’s usually about commercialising ancient remedies and plant varieties. 
In a perfect world, many can benefit through commercially-oriented bioprospecting. The future of the species being utilised can be assured, the people responsible for the cultivar or who have unlocked how to use the resource effectively are rewarded, the company makes a bundle and we benefit from the product.
But it’s not a perfect world.
Biopiracy is where companies take ownership of that knowledge or resource without rewarding the people who pioneered it – or at times, not even recognising the resource was pre-existing. A company may even attempt to destroy the original resource by stealth in order to capture a bigger market share with a slightly “tweaked” version the company has created. 
.. and this is where the link to heirloom and heritage crops comes in. 
Heirloom and heritage seeds are basically seeds of “old world” varieties of plants with certain attributes that have evolved and are continuing to evolve through very careful selective breeding. These varieties are “owned” by no-one. These crops have been enhanced from generation to generation and can become very location specific. For example, one village’s variety of corn may be different to another’s. There is strength and insurance in biodiversity.
In this age where companies can patent genetically modified species, there have been attempts by companies to place patents on their own frankencrops based on an attribute. However, with some heirloom crops also displaying this attribute, it is not a new invention or innovation for that plant and therefore shouldn’t be patentable.
The danger is that the patents office won’t be able to discern this and by allowing these patents through, the farmer in a developing country that has harvested and propagated a certain heritage crop with these attributes for decades may suddenly find him/herself in “breach” of a patent.
We’ve also seen cases of Big Agriculture taking action against farmers for growing GM crops, but the problem is these plants weren’t sown purposely say some of the farmers being sued – the seed has been blown in from neighbouring properties or cross-pollination has occurred.
One season you’re growing 100% heirloom varieties, the next season they’ve been infiltrated by a patented crop – and you weren’t even aware it happened. It’s a very clever invasion strategy to force GM crops on the world in my opinion. Like pirated videos, these become ” pirated” crops, but the person growing them is the victim, not the perpetrator. 
Aside from legal headaches, GM crops also tend to attract less money than non-GM varieties. If a farmer’s crop has been hijacked by GM plants, and it doesn’t have to be a total takeover, it can turn a good season into a lousy one; sending the farmer to the wall.
Another reported instance of biopiracy is in connection to the “Doomsday” seed vault; officially known as the Svalbard International Seed Vault. I originally thought this was a wonderful idea as the facility is meant to safeguard hundreds of thousands of varieties of plant seeds, to be used in the event of a disaster where a species teeters on extinction.
According to Kent Whealy, many of the seeds in the Doomsday vault were “stolen” from the Seed-Savers Exchange, an organisation Mr. Whealy and Diane Ott Whealy founded decades ago. 

It’s a complex situation; but Mr Whealy says given the nature of the arrangement; additionally “Corporate breeders now can, as a right, request those varieties from SSE’s seed vaults at Heritage Farm, splice in GMOs, then patent and sell the seed.” If Mr. Whealy is correct, this means some of the well-intentioned folks contributing seed may be doing so to benefit seed companies; and perhaps without their knowledge. It sort of gets away from the original “people-power” focus of such groups.
The issue of seeds generally is a very important topic. As Henry Kissinger reportedly said: “If you control the oil you control the country; if you control the food you control the population.”
87% of the world’s seed supply is controlled by just a handful of companies. Seed is at the beginning of all our food – both plant and animal based.
This is why personal seed storage, exchanges and backyard vegetable gardens, based on heirloom and heritage varieties, are now more important than ever. It not only helps protect against losing species forever, but helping to deprive biopirates of the cash and control they crave.
By doing so, who knows – perhaps you may be the savior of not just your family, but your community – or even a species – if the poop hits the proverbial. After all, Norway is a very long way away for most of us.
Trivia: 90% of the vegetable species cultivated at the beginning of last century are now extinct.

Telecommuting for a greener workplace

September 5th, 2012.

First published July 2008, last updated September 2012

It’s tragic that in our modern society with all the labor saving devices we have, some parents have to spend more time commuting to and from work than they get to spend interacting with their children.

These so-called labor saving devices and gadgets that supposedly improve our quality of life are part of the reason so many of us work so hard and actually negatively impact on our lives (and the environment), but that’s another topic altogether (see The Story Of Stuff).

Additionally, people often aren’t being paid for the time spent travelling and the environment may also be paying a high price for this travel to and from work.
Working from home is a dream for many people, one that I’ve been privileged enough to achieve for the last 11 or so years. With so many jobs mainly based around computers these days, telecommuting is becoming increasingly popular. It saves employers and employees time, money and reduces travel related greenhouse gas emissions; as well as lightening the demand on oil.

My experience

Back in 2000, like many people, I was physically commuting to work. This consisted of a 22km (15 mile) commute each way daily, which wasn’t too bad I guess, but over a year, that amounted to over 9000 kilometres (over 5,500 miles). While that’s a short distance compared to the commute of some and it was mostly carried out via public transport; that’s still a lot of fuel to shuttle my butt back and forth.

I also *really* resented the time it was taking out of my life – over 10 full days of my life each year.. unpaid.. and time I’ll never get back. Over my remaining working career, that would have likely equated to 1 full year of my life! How much of your life will you lose?

I’d look around me each day on the train or bus at the sad, long faces and ask myself – why am I doing this when there’s an alternative?

I decided to make a major change in my life and started to work purely from a home office – and have never looked back. While telecommuting does present some challenges; it’s saved me time, money and impact on the environment. Think of the millions of people who commute each day around the world – the related oil consumption and emissions must be truly staggering.

According to a study from 2008, thirty-three million Americans hold jobs that could be performed at home. There has been some progress since then. In the USA, more than 10% of the workforce works from home at least one day a week. Full time telecommuting has grown from 2.3% in 1980 to around 4.3% in 2010.
Based on my previous commute and lets say a (very) conservative saving of just over 1 gallon of fuel per week if one million of those Americans worked from home; that would be 52 million gallons of gas saved a year; avoiding (again conservatively and based on a formula from the EPA) 1,008,800,000 pounds of carbon emissions annually! The real figure would be far, far higher as the aforementioned study suggests.

There’s just really no need for many of us to have to drag ourselves into a remotely located office for 40 hours a week. We have email, instant messaging, video conferencing and online collaboration software, VoIP (Voice over IP – Internet telephony) – all the tools we need to work effectively.

I spent 6 years telecommuting full time for a USA company from my home in Australia – and never once physically met any of my colleagues! While that sort of isolation doesn’t suit everyone, it’s just an example of how far technology has come to allow that sort of remote working capability for extended periods.

Employers – there is little to fear and much to gain

Can any of your staff work from home – even if just for a couple of days a week? Have you asked if any of your staff would like to do this?

Many companies fear that telecommuting results in a lack of productivity; but happy staff are generally more productive. You just need to ensure that the employee has a quiet space in their premises from which to operate, the appropriate online collaboration software tools and the equipment they will be using is properly secured.

An experiment carried out by researchers from Stanford University in 2012 found employees who volunteered to work from home led to a 13% performance increase and a job attrition reduction rate of 50%. The company estimates the experiment resulted in a saving of $2,000 per employee.

After the experiment, the company involved offered the program to all employees; which saw the performance impact from those working from home more than double.

Telecommuting employees require a different style of management too; based more on results rather than clocking in and out. A couple of great resources for learning more about how to implement a telecommuting program can be found at

If your company does decide to allow people to telecommute, it’s something worth crowing about too among your sustainability efforts.

Employees – ask about telecommuting

Would you like to work from home but there’s no telecommuting program in place at the company you work for? Maybe it’s because management just hasn’t had the time to investigate the option. Why not do a little of the groundwork yourself, gathering information from the resource mentioned above and submit a proposal. You could offer yourself as the trial subject :). At the very least, it might show your bosses you have initiative – perhaps you might even get a raise or promotion ;).

Are you a telecommuter or an employer with telecommuting staff? Please share your experiences below.

Tips for buying recycled paper products

August 22nd, 2012.

(First published March 2010, last updated August 2012)

As I was researching for my article on how different products are recycled, I was amazed to discover recycling paper can at times be a rather environmentally damaging affair and the promotion of recycled paper products somewhat misleading. 

This doesn’t mean we should stop recycling paper or buying products made with recycled paper – but perhaps just make more informed choices.
First is the issue of recycled content. There’s no hard and fast rules in most countries for how much a paper product needs to have in terms of recycled components to make the “recycled” claim – it could be as little as 5%. So when shopping for paper, look past the big “Recycled!” blurbs and search for smaller text on the package that should indicate the % of recycled content. The higher the %, the better.
The more people buy the higher percentage recycled content paper, the quicker those manufacturers offering the lower percentage varieties might lift their game and stop trying to pull a fast one on the consumer.
Then there are a couple of different variations of recycled content
Post-consumer content

This uses material that has previously been consumed as a product, whether it’s a newspaper or cardboard box.
Pre-consumer content
This is from waste generated by the manufacturing process. For example, around 20 years ago I used to work as a printer’s assistant for a company that printed copies of a local Yellow Pages. The amount of waste we used to generate was horrific – dumpster loads of telephone books that weren’t up to scratch were binned each day. 
Of the two types, I guess the post-consumer content could be considered the “greener” of the two as it has completed an entire consumption cycle. However, that doesn’t mean you should necessarily turn your nose up at pre-consumer content as its better the waste is reused than goes to landfill.
Some brands of recycled paper also may be a mix of post-consumer content and pre-consumer content; the amount of each should also be noted on the package as a percentage.
Recycled paper scams

There have been instances in the past where companies have been touting their paper is 100% recycled and it’s simply not the case. This hasn’t confined to small operators either. 

For example, in Japan in 2008, a major scandal involving one of the world’s largest paper produces hit the headlines. The company admitted copy paper it claimed to be 100 per cent recycled contained only 59 per cent recycled paper. Other products were also found to have lower than stated recycled content. This had been going on for 15 years. Some of the virgin fiber used in these “recycled” products was coming from old growth native forests of Australia.

I do think the scandal put all the major manufacturers on notice though, so this type of blatant greenwashing shouldn’t be a problem these days. Still, it doesn’t hurt to do a search around the web on brand names to see what you can uncover.
Recycled vs. recyclable paper
Another trick to watch out for is the term “recyclable”. This just means the paper can be recycled and has no bearing on whether it contains recycled content.
As mentioned in my article “How stuff is recycled” sometimes during the process of making recycled paper, nasty chemicals may be used. Try to avoid products that use chlorine in their production – chlorine bleaching creates highly toxic chemicals called dioxins.
As with all things green living related, remember it’s not just what you use that makes a difference, but how much – as recycling takes energy and resources too. Pick up some related tips – the paper reduction diet

The Precautionary Principle And The Environment

August 11th, 2012.

Most of us carry insurance; even though whatever we’re insuring ourselves against is unlikely to happen. The fact it could happen and the results being financially disastrous; it makes sense to take out coverage – just in case.
Insurance could be considered a form of observing the “precautionary principle”, a term you may have heard in connection to environmental issues.
However, insurance isn’t about avoiding events – just dealing with the outcome of a disaster.
The precautionary principle focuses on looking at the potential of any action or event for harm and if the chance of harm is too great or the harm too severe; to take evasive action.
While the precautionary principle has its roots in Germany in the 1930’s (Vorsorgeprinzip), when it related to household management, a more modern definition was developed at a meeting of environmental leaders in 1998, which states:
“When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”
A very good example of applying the precautionary principle environmentally speaking is in relation to climate change. Just a few years ago, we had far less information than what we have now on the phenomenon. 
While general consensus was building and further research being carried out, it was argued that the potential effects of climate change were so severe and the chances of those effects occurring so great; to put off taking action until we were 100% certain simply wasn’t an option as by that time it may be too late.
Where application of the precautionary principle is at its finest is where the results of the action taken are positive even if the threat it is designed to combat doesn’t materialize.
Harking back to climate change again, the rapid uptake of renewable energy isn’t only helping in that battle; it’s also addressing issues such as peak oil. A thriving green collar industry has also sprung up, providing jobs.
Additionally, banging some more nails into coal’s coffin – with the burning of coal and associated carbon emissions a major driver of climate change – has positive implications for human health generally.
I believe the climate change issue has also helped to make more people aware of environmental issues generally, or reawakened people who had let their concern for the environment wane. Using an example very close to home, Green Living Tips was started as a direct result of An Inconvenient Truth – Al Gore’s presentation on climate change. Love him or hate him, Mr. Gore is directly and indirectly responsible for a new generation of environmentally aware consumers.
In a nutshell, even in the very unlikely event it is determined human activity does not have a direct link to climate change; the actions being taken and their knock- on effects have a multitude of other benefits – and all thanks to the application of the precautionary principle. 

How Eco Friendly Is Your Bank?

December 5th, 2011.

Does your bank really care about the planet, or is it possibly bankrolling destruction?

Let’s say you’ve socked away a few thousand dollars in a term deposit for a rainy day. How would you feel if that money was being used to help finance deforestation, a coal fired power station, fracking for coal seam gas or other forms of coal mining?

During the December 2011 climate talks in Durban, South Africa, it was revealed that 20 of the world’s largest commercial banks are responsible for 75% of emissions from the coal industry, in that they provide the financial support for those emissions to be generated. 
The study, entitled “Bankrolling Climate Change“, names these banks and just for good measure, also notes their corp-spin in relation to their supposed commitment to battle climate change.
A really green bank is so much more than one that just uses recycled paper and energy efficient light bulbs in their branches. Banks can make or break polluting industries; so why are they continuing to assist them with finance? That’s a rhetorical question; we all know the answer. Profits. But it may be more than just that – in some instances it could just be because that is the way they have worked for so long.

Past the really filthy top 20 institutions, the “Bankrolling Climate Change” study looks at a total of 93 banks around the world and their support of coal – and there are some surprises in the list; including one of the banks I do business with.

Green vs ethical banking

So, these banks that say they are environmentally conscious are liars? Well, it depends upon your definition of “green”. To some, green banking is about their day-to-day business processes being environmentally friendly; such as the recycled paper I mentioned or a branch sticking solar panels on its roof. Some may even provide green loans that offer a lower interest rate if you’re using the cash to insulate your home, install a solar hot water system or carry out other energy efficiency measures. These things are great but..

Ethical banking is the big picture that builds on the warm and fuzzy green stuff – the understanding that funds are only channelled into investments that are environmentally friendly and also observe the principles of social justice.

What to do?

Figuring out which bank operates under green and ethical (as explained above) principles can be a really time consuming process; so perhaps the first thing to do is ask your bank if it invests in coal mines, coal fired power generation or other industries of concern to you. Tell them that if they do, it troubles you. Ask them how their investments in fossil fuels stack up against those in renewable energy.

If enough depositors start kicking up a fuss, this will filter through to the boardroom and may help facilitate change. I don’t expect they’ll drop their coal interests like a hot potato, but they may start at least offering more green investment options. The more people take up on these options, the faster portfolios and focus will shift.

Clean coal – don’t believe the hype.

If your bank comes back to you and state they are investing in the coal industry, but it’s next generation coal, clean coal, CCS or other similar spin – reject that explanation. Clean coal is an oxymoron and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is still unproven on a commercial scale. 

Banks that put their faith in these yet to be fully realised technologies may as well just be betting their depositor’s money on a horse race in my opinion and they are certainly betting against the planet. In the not too distant future, I believe coal based investments will be a liability, not an asset – and then some banks are going to find themselves in very hot water.

Time to change banks? To who?

This is the big question – and it really depends on where you live; but skimming over the list of 93 institutions listed in the report I mentioned above, I think the general rule of thumb is the bigger the bank, the more likely they support the coal industry. 

If you aren’t happy with the way your bank treats the environment, perhaps start looking at smaller banks, building societies and credit unions – you’ll often find they offer better interest rates on deposits and loans too. Some small banks have also started up in recent years with green and ethical banking has their focus rather than as a feature.

A good place to start looking for these really green financial institutions is via Google – and instead of searching on “green banks”, as that will bring up the shallow stuff, try using the search term : ethical banking.

Online shopping – a greener choice.

November 28th, 2011.

(First published August 2008, updated November 2011)

I was thinking back to childhood and how whenever we were looking to purchase an appliance or similar, we would flit from store to store and mall to mall to find the best product at the best price – burning up gas and cranking out all sorts of nasty stuff from the car exhaust as we went. It was just what we did back then as we didn’t have a great deal of easy access to information on products – and gas was dirt cheap.

Back then though, we didn’t have to face getting maced, shot, stabbed or crushed at big sales either and issues relating to the environment simply weren’t on the radar for most of us. How times have changed.

These days all the products you need are just a click away. You can buy just about anything online – and that can be a good thing environmentally speaking.

When gas prices spiked a few years back, many major stores reported losses in their “bricks and mortar” outlets (their physical ones), yet their online sales blossomed. Consumers and the environment had a win from the situation.

I’ve been involved with ecommerce and online marketing for many years now, so I guess I’m somewhat biased – but I really believe that shopping online instead of via bricks and mortar stores is not only cheaper (and safer judging by some of the Black Friday sales incidents), but a more eco friendly option. That is assuming of course you buy what you need rather than all your heart desires; which can be a bit of a risk when shopping online.

Saving gas and emissions

For example, I remember just about running out of a natural arthritis treatment  that really worked in alleviating pain for Niki the Wonder Dog.

I could have jumped in my 1.6 ton car and made the special trip to the place that stocked the stuff I needed some miles away, but I found it on eBay – and it was $20 cheaper even with delivery! It was sent to my post box (which is checked regularly and is on the way to other frequently visited destinations). So I saved twenty bucks, time, gas, plus the associated emissions.

There has been so many instances over the last few years where I’ve needed something rather obscure that would have taken me ages and many miles of travel to obtain in the “real” world – instead, I just buy it all online.

The freight and packaging issue

Some would say that the shipping of goods directly to purchasers isn’t exactly environmentally friendly, and that’s true; but back to the example above, what would you think would be the most efficient and greener of these two options:

a) 1 person jumping into a 1.6 ton vehicle to make a special trip
b) Spending 2 hours negotiating public transport to get to a location 15 minutes drive away
c) A parcel weighing 2 pounds being added to a delivery truck that’s headed for the post office or to the general area anyway.

One downside of buying online can be extra packaging; but I have noticed that many eBay sellers and smaller online businesses send their goods out in boxes they’ve recycled, or more accurately, reused.

You may also be able to actually reduce shipping miles by purchasing online. For example, Product X at your supermarket may come from across the country or from the other side of the world. By searching online, you may find the same product being made closer to home at a comparable price.

Buying direct from warehouses

Bricks and mortar stores are usually incredibly energy and resource hungry – all the lighting, air conditioning and elaborate stands designed to catch your eye. When you shop online, often your order will often be fulfilled via a warehouse that doesn’t have all the glitzy gimmicks and fixtures.

Additionally, sometimes warehouses are bypassed altogether. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon’s Green Design Institute found buying online from one of the USA’s major e-tailers resulted in 35 percent less energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions than the traditional retail model. This was due to the products being shipped directly from the online merchant’s distribution partners to customers; skipping first going to a warehouse and then the store before they get to the end consumer.

Greener products, more choices

While many supermarkets are now stocking more environmentally friendly lines, some products just don’t seem to be carried yet  – you can usually find these online. The world of online shopping also gives you wider access to smaller businesses run by very environmentally conscious people who are genuinely striving to make a difference – it’s great to support these folks rather than the shareholders of big-box stores all the time.

Product research

Even if you don’t like the idea of purchasing something sight unseen; the Internet can save you a great deal of time, money and resources by doing your initial research online. For example, looking to buy an energy efficient washing machine? You can read bundles of reviews posted online by people who have purchased the brands and models you’re interested in. The Internet helps you to make a more informed purchase decision on green products; rather than just relying on an in-store sales person’s knowledge.

Online shopping safety

I’ve been buying stuff online for so long, it’s second nature to me; but I do realize there are still quite a few people  very apprehensive about ecommerce; and it’s understandable given some of the stories you read in the press about credit card numbers being stolen and identity theft.

However, the sad fact is that even if you only use your credit card offline; your credit card numbers are in the systems of the stores where you use it and those systems are connected to the Internet – and more often than not that’s how hackers get the details.

Still, it does always pay to be cautious when shopping online – here are some quick tips:

– Don’t be dazzled by low prices; some sites are merely fronts and will grab your money and run. Check into the company, see what others have been saying about them. Look for a physical address and phone number.

– Check for a privacy policy so you know what the merchant will do with your details

– Read any terms of service carefully before proceeding with a transaction

– Using credit cards is actually one of the safest forms of payment as in most countries,  your liability for an unauthorized charge is limited to $50 – $100. If a merchant doesn’t deliver the goods, or the goods are defective or misrepresented, you can also issue a chargeback via your bank – and the chargeback process is heavily weighted in the consumer’s favor.

– Before providing your credit card details, ensure the page the form is on is SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) protected. SSL encrypts data during transmission, to thwart anyone from intercepting it. You can tell if a page has SSL protection as the web address of the checkout form page will start with https:// instead of http:// and check to see if a small locked padlock appears either at the bottom right of your web browser or in the address bar area.

– If you need to create an account with the online store, ensure you use a strong password; one with at least 8 characters and not a common word or name.

Online shopping is fun, there’s nothing like the thrill of hunting for (and finding) a bargain. While hyperconsumption is never a good thing, responsible shopping online can reduce the environmental impact of the goods you purchase.

Getting More From What We Have Helps The Environment

August 21st, 2011.

Waste not, want not is a saying I heard many times growing up and it’s taking on even more importance now with our environment under assault on so many fronts and many natural resources rapidly dwindling.

As I’ve so often mentioned in the past, going green isn’t just about the products we choose to buy, it’s how much of them we use and why we use them.

Nothing annoys me more than seeing a product that encourages waste and/or is being touted as environmentally-friendly without really having a valid purpose for most people – a product that creates a need rather than addresses one. Automatic insect sprays spring to mind.

But even in the products we do need, there’s usually a way to make them stretch further without undue inconvenience.

One of the most talked about resources we need to conserve is oil – and there are plenty of gas saving tips out there. Saving a bit of gas doesn’t only help environmentally speaking, but can also help your hip pocket. People are also becoming increasingly aware of many simple ways to save power as electricity bills skyrocket.

There are so many other ways we can cut down on waste and keep a few more dollars in our pockets. While some actions will seem quite minor, over time they do add up as I outlined in my article, “Simple Green Actions Work“.

Here’s a few examples of how easy it can be to observe the “waste not, want not” wisdom.

We go through a lot of tomato paste; pizza freaks that we are. That little bit of paste left at the bottom of the jar and all the smatterings on the sides of the jar, I put to use. I just chuck in a bit of oregano, a bit of hot water, put the lid back on and shake the jar. I wind up with enough sauce for my next pizza – and the jar is pretty clean so it takes even less water to wash it out before putting it in the recycling bin.

The same sort of approach can be used for tomato sauce and ketchup – but it only takes a tiny bit of hot water; otherwise you’ll just end up with a tomato-type soup.

Another clever food waste reduction related tip I saw was what to do with the smattering of butter left in a tub. Some keep the tub to one side and the next time they have mashed potatoes, add the mash to the tub and mix it around a bit – no further butter needed.

There’s also the issue of all the waste from vegetable preparation – but you can turn some of this waste into food.

In the bathroom, a little more toothpaste can be squeezed out of a tube not just by rolling it up, but by using your thumb to depress the area directly below the cap. A tiny bit of exertion can see you good for another couple of brushing sessions.

Similar to the tomato-paste approach, a splash of water added to shampoo and conditioner bottles when they appear empty can provide you with a couple more washes.

Soap slivers can be saved and melted or compressed to create another bar of soap. If you don’t wish to have these “mutant” bars of soap adorning your bathroom, they can be used for cleaning up after jobs in the garden or garage.

You might find your favorite non-green cleaning product that you just can’t part with works fine with a little water added also – particularly glass cleaners. By the way, making an all purpose green cleaner or earth friendly disinfectant is really easy to do.

Kitchen scourers and sponges can be put to further use once they get a little grotty for other jobs; such as cleaning – and the same goes for toothbrushes. While these will invariably still wind up in landfill, at least by repurposing them, it might prevent you needing to buy something specific for whatever cleaning task you’re doing.

Toilet paper is another item many of us could cut back a lot on, simply by reducing the number of sheets we use in each .. err, sitting. This can be also be a compromise if you simply cannot face toilet paper made from recycled materials for whatever reason (but if you haven’t tried recycled content toilet paper for a while, please consider giving it another go).

Often there is so much more we can do with what we have to make it last longer, either for its original purpose or by repurposing. The wonderful thing these days with being mindful is accusations from friends and family of being miserly can be easily deflected by saying you’re simply being environmentally conscious :).

With times again being so uncertain financially-speaking, every extra penny in your pocket can’t be a bad thing either.

Have some tips to help others in getting the most from common household products? Please add them below.

Plastic cards not so fantastic for the environment

May 8th, 2011.

I was going through my wallet yesterday looking for a particular debit card and it dawned on me how much plastic I carry around with me – debit cards, credit cards, membership cards, health care cards and others – 9 in total.

All these cards have a limited lifespan before they expire and are replaced with updated ones.

I searched for a resin code on all the cards to try and determine what sort of plastic is used. Plastic resin codes are usually represented by a number within a triangle made up of three arrows that is stamped onto the plastic.

I couldn’t find any indicators, but it turns out the plastic in these cards is mostly Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC).
PVC isn’t the most environmentally friendly plastic, either in its manufacture or as a final product. The way that PVC breaks down is through granulation, so the pieces just become smaller; which can cause problems for creatures that may ingest the pieces.

It may seem like a trifling issue, but according to the Sierra Club, six billion of these plastic cards are produced each year around the world. I’ve read other figures putting it at a staggering 17 billion when gift cards, cell phone top up and other cards are also incorporated into the figures.

Aside from PVC generally being non-recyclable; in some cases you certainly wouldn’t want to be putting cards into a recycling bin without at least attacking them with a pair of scissors first; particularly in the case of cards with information encoded on a magnetic strip on the back.

So, there’s certainly a problem here – the cards need to be durable; but usually only for a few years. Yet we have a product that will be around for many years more than it will be used. 

There has been some progress made in the area of gift cards. A few years back I wrote about a major retailer trialing bioplastic gift cards made from corn sugar and I believe a few other retailers have followed suit. However, this option also raises the thorny issue of using food crops, or crops on land suitable for food production,  for something other than food.

I’ve also read about PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) being used – PET is one of the easiest plastics to recycle and is most commonly found in the form of soda bottles. The barrier to uptake appears to be cost, with PET costing about 20% more. But really, how much would that add onto the cost of the base materials a card? Not much I suspect.

The International Card Manufacturer’s association says there is growing consumer and card issuer demand for green transaction and identification cards and has introduced the EcoLabel Standard Program

To receive the ICMA’s certification, cards need to be made with either a 25% reduction in used materials, contain 25% recycled content, be compostable or have a minimum of 40% biobased content. It’s a positive step, but one that looks to be still trying to gain traction as currently there are only a handful of licensed manufacturers it lists.

What can we do?

As so many big brands like to proclaim their green street cred, this is an area where we as consumers can apply a little pressure. A good place to start is with banks in relation to ATM and credit cards and stores that offer gift cards. 

If you visit the web sites of these companies, they will usually have a sustainability section and contact details for that department. Shoot them an email and ask them what they are doing about the plastics impact of their gift/credit/debit/whatever cards and perhaps point them to the ICMA’s EcoLabel Standard Program. This isn’t necessarily to get them to participate in that particular program, but just as a way of underlining that you’re not the only one who feels it’s an important issue within the power of the company to rectify.

Repurposing old cards

Quite a few people have found interesting ways to repurpose these cards. If you run a search on Google using terms such as “repurpose gift card” and “repurpose credit card”; a bunch of pages with ideas will show up.

As mentioned, for security’s sake, be a little careful how you repurpose cards that have a magnetic strip on the back as that strip may contain personal information that could be used in identity theft. You can “scramble” the information by running a strong magnet over the strip, but to play it safe, you really should just cut them up into little pieces. Hopefully in the not too distant future all plastic cards will be “green” and you’ll be able to recycle or maybe even compost what’s left.