11 'Green' Habits (That Aren't Actually Green at All)

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Despite the surfeit of so-called “eco-friendly” options that exist today, it isn’t easy being green. Even products boasting “all natural” or “green” labels often carry hidden environmental costs you probably hadn’t considered. Looking to clean up your act? Here are 11 habits that aren’t as green as they may appear.


A package that comes with a green “Organic” sticker isn’t necessarily the best choice. Certified organic farms are greener in some regards: They refrain from using synthetic pesticides and practice sustainable farming methods like crop rotation. But these aspects are small pieces of agriculture’s total environmental impact. Organically-raised beef still produces methane, which is a major contributor to global warming, and organic labels have nothing to do with how far the food traveled to get to your plate. Instead consider buying from local farms, which are sometimes too small to afford organic certification even when they qualify.


When corn ethanol first started to gain popularity in the U.S., it was hailed as a sustainable alternative to fossil fuel. Today most scientists are in agreement that the environmental impact of ethanol production cancels out its benefits. Farming corn requires plowing into habitats and spraying fertilizer that could potentially contaminate water sources. On top of that, the process used to convert corn into fuel burns more energy than it’s worth.


It’s true that hybrid cars do produce fewer emissions than their gas-guzzling counterparts on the road, but that doesn’t automatically make them easy on the environment. More energy is required to manufacture a hybrid than a conventional car, which results in greater amounts of air pollution. Gathering the materials for a hybrid’s car battery can also leave a negative impact. Most hybrid batteries are made from materials like lithium, cobalt, and nickel—elements that are difficult to mine without leaving whole landscapes disrupted. If you commit to owning a hybrid vehicle, do what you can to get your money’s worth. Its lower emissions will begin to offset its environmental costs at around 160,000 miles. In the meantime, the only truly Earth-friendly way to get around? Your own two feet.


It’s easy to feel good about yourself after hauling a bag of bottles to the recycling center, but perhaps those warm-and-fuzzy feelings aren’t as well deserved as we’d like to think. High recycling rates are a symptom of our mass consumption of disposable goods. It also takes a huge number of items to reap even small rewards. (According to one 2015 article, you’d have to recycle 40,000 plastic bottles to offset the environmental cost of one passenger’s flight from NYC to London. If they’re flying first- or business-class, that number jumps to 100,000.) What’s more, turning recyclable materials into new products also burns energy and adds to air pollution. And that’s assuming that they make it to the plant in the first place: Some facilities will toss out recyclables that are less easy to process.


Carrying around one water bottle is certainly greener than buying the disposable ones by the case, but that doesn’t mean reusable water bottles don’t leave behind a damaging carbon footprint of their own. Even bottle companies that spin themselves as earth-friendly will often forgo using recycled materials for virgin aluminum. Processing a ton of aluminum creates 10 times the amount of carbon dioxide that’s produced by a ton of steel. In comparison, recycled aluminum requires just 5 percent of the energy of the virgin material.


Don’t be fooled by deceptive packaging when perusing the aisles of your grocery store. If a product has a picture of a leaf, a globe, or an endangered animal on the label, that doesn’t make it any eco-friendlier than the product on the shelf next to it. The FDA has a very loose definition of what qualifies as “all-natural,” so food manufacturers will often slap the label on a box in order to convince consumers that what they’re eating is healthy and better for Planet Earth. Sometimes all it takes is some strategic use of the color green: According to one 2013 study, consumers were more likely to choose a candy bar with nutrition info printed on a green label than one whose nutrition info was printed on red or white—even though the two bars had the exact same calorie count.


When used properly, there’s no question that compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) outshine the alternative. They use 75 percent less energy than traditional incandescents, but when disposed of incorrectly they can cause harm to the environment and your health. The mercury content of CFls makes them a hazard when tossed out with the regular trash. Instead, take your bulb to your local recycling center once it’s expired and let the experts handle it.


Composting offers plenty of benefits: It keeps your scraps out of the landfill while nourishing your garden at the same time. But just because a compost pile is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s free of health risks. A pile of decomposing waste can quickly turn into a hotbed for dangerous pathogens like legionella (the culprit behind Legionnaires’ disease). They’re also known to breed tremorgenic mycotoxins, which can cause neurological problems like tremors and seizures in people, pets, and wildlife. Protect your pets by keeping your compost pile in an enclosed (but not airtight) container. To protect yourself, always avoid direct contact with skin when handling compost and make sure to wash up thoroughly afterwards.


Home cleaners are great at getting rid of tough stains, but they can also be responsible for releasing harmful chemicals into the air you breathe. But the alternative, so-called “green” cleaners, aren’t required to meet any industry standards. The only way to know that the product you’re using is truly earth-friendly is to make it yourself. The good news: DIY-ing your own cleaners is actually a pretty simple process, and usually involves harnessing the power of household staples like vinegar, baking soda, rubbing alcohol, and citrus.


The main benefit of cloth diapers over disposable ones is that they’re meant to be better for the environment and easier on your wallet. Research has shown that at least the first half of that equation isn’t necessarily the case. When the effects of washing cloth diapers were taken into account, they were found to have pretty much the same environmental impact as the disposable versions. What’s more, cotton production comes with numerous environmental costs (the fertilizers required to grow it are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions). So if you’re responsible for diapers that need to be changed, don’t feel guilty about going with the more convenient option.


Solar panels have become synonymous with “green energy.” In theory, they’re a great way to provide your home with clean, renewable power, but the process that goes into producing them is a little more complicated. Manufacturing solar panels requires water, electricity, and chemicals, and produces waste products and greenhouse gases. While this is partially unavoidable, some solar companies go out of their way to leave less of an impact. Do your best to research manufacturers before making the decision to go solar.

Still feeling smug about your dedication to eco-friendly living? To get the truth about the “green” life, plus other misconceptions around the everyday stuff we take for granted, tune into an all-new episode of Adam Ruins Everything, Tuesday 10/9C on truTV.