Justifying Your Eco-Purchases: A Checklist

If you shop at grocery stores, pharmacies, specialty stores, or pretty much anywhere that sells goods, you have been beckoned to be a green consumer with promises that the product you’re buying is “compostable,” “biodegradable,” or “natural.” If you’ve purchased these products I am sure you have left the store feeling as if you have done your green deed for the day, maybe even turning your nose up at the consumer behind you who bought the tired looking tinfoil bag of potato chips. It’s ok, I’ve been there too. But, are we really worthy of the do good feeling we get as we dole out the extra $0.50 for our contribution to the environment?

In order to help you truly justify the extra expense for the environment, I have developed three questions you should ask yourself before you grab the product that appears to be the friendliest to mother earth.

1. Where will you be throwing the product once you’re done with it?

If you’ve watched a commercial created by a certain potato chip manufacturer you might be tempted by the brilliant illustration of a potato chip bag disintegrating into the soil to litter your “eco-purchase.” Or, you may, as an habitual person, throw the remnants into the nearest garbage can. Or, if you’re living in San Francisco, California, or Portland, Oregon, where Recology offers food waste collection separate from regular garbage pick up, you may throw the product in the composting (green) bin (we hope you do!).

Whichever disposal path you choose for your product, you are either doing your eco-purchase justice or, you’re simply cutting your good deed short. Compostable, or biodegradable products are only as good at helping the environment as the effort we put in to making sure they’re disposed of properly. So, if you are throwing your compostable products into the Recology provided green bin, or into an at home composting bin, kudos to you! You can breathe a sigh of relief that you haven’t simply paid an additional cost for your product to end up in a landfill, you are helping to complete a cycle and bring your compostable product back to the earth where it was once derived.

2. How, exactly, is the product labeled?

“Eco-Friendly” products have taken on a huge array of good feeling names since they have become popular on the market. I mentioned a few before, “compostable,” “biodegradable,” “natural,” or simply “green,” can lead a consumer to believe that the product they are purchasing is manufactured using no synthetic materials. But, sadly, this is only true for a handful of natural products you see on the market today. The truth is, a lot of the biodegradable products on the shelves are still manufactured using petroleum based substances. If these products are thrown into the compost bin they’re not being fully broken down in the composting process. For a product to completely break down, it must be labeled compostable, and be approved using ASTM standards. There are a number of policy related efforts underway to ensure products are being labeled correctly so we know where and how to dispose of them properly.

3. Is it worth your while?

I had to add this last pre-purchase checklist requirement in to the mix because of a personal disaster I will only share with you anonymously. I was recently at a meeting where they distributed “compostable pens.” As a tried and true pen chewer, I was happy to accept the gift and promptly begin to chew on the tip which almost immediately snapped in half, leaving me wondering if there was blue ink on my face as half of the room turned to stare at what had made the loud noise (wasn’t me!). Even though I had my original doubts as to how a pen could really pass as compostable (the tagline reads: makes more compost than regular pens! Duh), I decided that the integrity of the product didn’t really live up to my pen chewing habit standards. Compostable pens are, clearly, not worth my while.

So the next time you feel like releasing your inner tree hugger by purchasing a well marketed product, make sure you go through the checklist above. Purchasing compostable products is a terrific way to contribute to the environment, as long as it is done correctly!

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