Drinking water instead of a sugary soft drink is good for your health, but bottled water is definitely bad for the planet's health. According to nonprofit research group the Pacific Institute, producing the plastic bottles for Americans' annual consumption requires the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil and creates more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide. Going with a reusable bottle and filtered tap water instead may be the more eco-friendly route.
Deciding whether a product is eco-friendly isn't always easy. You need to consider the entire life cycle of the item and look at the impact of each phase. This includes thinking about the following aspects:
- Materials: What is it made of? Does it include recycled material? What about toxic substances?
- Energy content: How much energy went into making it?
- Delivery: How much energy was used to get it to you?
- Efficiency: How much energy does it use when operating?
- Durability: Will it wear out quickly and have to be replaced?
- Disposal: Will it create pollution when discarded? Can the materials be recycled?
- Packaging: Does it include excess packaging that has to be thrown away?
Some products are eco-friendly from one perspective but not from another. For example, they may be made recycled materials but include lots of unnecessary packaging or use a large amount of energy.
Some consumers look at other criteria. You may want to be sure that no animals were used to test the product. Products labeled as "fair trade" refers to those where the producers and workers are not exploited by middlemen. "Vegan" products contain no materials derived from animals. You might look for tuna that has been caught without harming dolphins or "shade grown" coffee that helps maintain forest habitats.
Whatever criteria are important to you, there are some general, simple rules to follow when shopping. Buy large sizes to minimize packaging. For example, a large box of corn flakes is definitely more eco-friendly than the ones that come packaged as individual servings. The packaging should be recyclable, and you should choose reusable products like rechargeable batteries or cloth napkins. Opt for durable, long-lasting products to avoid the waste of "disposable" items. Steer clear of throwaway cameras, pens, razors and similar items.
When you go to the store, always bring a reusable shopping bag (or several) with you. A simple net or cloth bag eliminates the need for paper or plastic bags, saving energy and resources.
On the next page, we'll learn about where you can look for eco-friendly products.