7 "Sustainable" Habits That Aren't Actually That Eco-Friendly

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Tips on how to make your life more environmentally friendly are everywhere, from reducing your plastic waste to walking or biking rather than taking buses and cars. But some advice on greening your life is more complex than it seems. The supply chains and decisions that lie behind our consumption decisions and habits are often pretty complicated, and what can seem very eco-friendly on the surface can in fact have a bigger environmental footprint than you'd expect.

Of course, any change made for the betterment of the environment is, net-net, a good thing. Just because plastic straws aren't the biggest source of plastic pollution in our oceans doesn't mean that reducing their use won't be beneficial to marine life. But, at the same time, it should be noted that outright straw bans, such as the kind many different municipalities and companies have undertaken, have been criticized for not accommodating the needs of the disabled community. This debate shows that there is more to your daily habits than simply being good for the environment or bad. It pays to do your research, and make conscious choices when it comes to your daily habits. Here are seven habits that may not be as sustainable as they seem.


Buying Organic

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Organic vegetables and fruits are usually free of pesticides and insecticides (though that depends on your local interpretation of "organic"), but organic things may also have been imported long distance, and importation involves air miles and exhaust fumes. "Food miles", as they're called, aren't necessarily a guarantee that something isn't green; beans imported from Kenya to the UK, for instance, are farmed in a far more environmentally friendly way than UK-grown beans, according to an investigation by The Guardian, which makes them a greener option overall.

But pesticides themselves, which organic produce guards against, are part of a far bigger picture. Whether a food is eco-friendly depends on many different factors, from how it was grown to the way in which it was harvested, transported and cooked. "Organic" isn't an automatic signal that the food on your plate is the greenest option. Instead, look for locally-grown options when available and accessible, and do your research on where your food comes from.


Going Vegetarian

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Adopting a plant-based diet and reducing your meat consumption are definitely helpful in reducing your individual impact on the planet — but some aspects of vegetarianism aren't necessarily great for the environment. Dairy, for instance, has one of the biggest environmental impacts in the food industry. And "superfood" fads can also carry environmental costs. The demand for cacao, for instance, has meant that farmers are razing parts of the Amazon to plant farms. So while reducing the amount of meat on your plate can be helpful on the individual level, it's also not a one-stop shop for going green.


Recycling Plastic Without Doing Your Research

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While statistics reveal that recycling materials like cardboard and paper are definitely a way to reduce environmental footprints, plastic is more complex. The reason? We're just not very good at it yet. For one, a lot of plastic that we use is contaminated and can't be recycled. There are over 50 types of plastics, and whether they can be recycled depends heavily on what technology is available at your local plant and what sorting they're able to do.

It's more eco-friendly to avoid plastic altogether, and opt for items that are packaged in reusable, compostable, or easily-recycled materials, such as glass, metal or cardboard. Of course, if you do have plastic, definitely do try to reuse or recylce it — just be mindful of how it's best recycled, and call your local waste management facility if you're unsure.


Prioritizing Leftovers Over Single Servings

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If you avoid buying single-serve things in favor of ingredients in bulk, that can be a major boost for the environment, since it avoids all that packaging. But this is only works if you actually use the food; if not, you could be contributing to food waste. Reducing the amount of food we waste, whether it's left over, spoiled or stale, is one of the biggest steps that we can take to reduce our footprint. Food producers, too, can do their part to mitigate food waste by reselling or donating "unsellable" food that's perfectly edible, but doesn't meet the aesthetic standards of major retailers.

Food takes energy and resources to produce, and letting it go uneaten represents a waste. That means better meal planning — and not committing to that giant bag of pasta unless you think it's actually all going to get eaten.


Using Biodegradable Poop Bags

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This is an interesting one: you may think that the green poop bags provided for your pet are a good idea, but the science isn't quite on your side. Biodegradable plastics like these still end up in landfill, and when they're there they won't decompose like they would in compost; if they do biodegrade in landfill, it's likely they'll produce the greenhouse gas methane. Poop should be disposed of in poop-only bins, buried or composted in human-friendly ways.


Having A Hybrid Car

The environmental value of a hybrid car is a bit controversial. Yes, it's a good idea to have a car that doesn't consume as much diesel or conventional fuel — but there's also a lot of environmental damage involved in producing a new, specialty car from scratch. But studies have also shown that using a hybrid car for years produces a significantly lower environmental footprint than driving a conventional car, so it may all balance out in the end. Or you could just walk, bike, or use public transport, when available.


Using Tote Bags

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While avoiding plastic bags is definitely a boon for the environment, the replacement beloved by many people has its own costs. Cotton tote bags have a high environmental cost to make, and can't be reused for things like waste disposal (which is where a lot of plastic bags end up). Plastic bags take fewer resources to make than tote bags, according to the Atlantic, but are hard to recycle and so end up in landfill or clogging up waterways and oceans. The problem, scientists note, is that people view tote bags as "nice" and so don't reuse them as much as they do plastic bags, which means that their environmental impact is amortized less. So if you're going to commit to totes, make them a part of your everyday shop — or get the sturdier, recycled-plastic supermarket bags and use those as much as possible.

Of course, it's important to note that while individual consumers can make choices about their environmental impact, the real responsibility lies with corporations; just 100 companies are responsible for over 70 percent of climate change, according to the Guardian, meaning that whether or not you buy locally may have less impact on the environment than, say, calling your representatives to demand better regulations. So don't let anybody tell you there's a sure-fire way to reduce your carbon footprint without researching it first; do what's sustainable to you.