On this page you can find definitions and explanations of the language used to describe ‘eco-friendly’ products.
Whilst we are a website focussed on dental health products, many of these definitions can be applied when scrutinising other products.
Below is a list of all the terms covered in this post. Clicking on an item will jump you to its definition and explanation.
- Information on labelling
- Zero waste
- Circular economy
- Ethical consumerism
- Fossil fuels
- Life cycle analysis
- Organic ingredients
- Renewable material
Information on labelling
The words and terminology used for so-called ‘eco-friendly’ products can be baffling.
In many circumstances, there are no legal definitions for the terms used in relation to products advertising themselves as ‘environmentally friendly’.
When writing about products targeting the eco-friendly market, I want to be able to have consistent messaging. So I’ve put together a guide about the words that come up across products and ideas that aim to help the environment.
Many of these terms actually have some overlap because of the lack of clear definitions.
However, around the world there is some advertising legislation available which should aim to reassure you that a product is what it says it is.
There are some international standards available, such as ISO (International Standards organization). Where available, definitions have followed those used in ISO documentation.
In the United States, there are explicit rules regarding what claims can be made by companies who sell environmentally friendly products. The Federal Trade Commission produced the Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (“Green Guides”) which can be enforced under the FTC Act if a marketer makes an environmental claim inconsistent with the guides.
Other places to look for information about labels are websites such as Global Eco Labelling and the Ecolabel Index.
Despite this, lack of legal definitions can lead to some misleading claims.
Really, the take home message is that you do need to think critically about the labels – do they mean what they say? I will highlight some of this below.
Read on to find out definitions, explanations and dental examples for key terminology across dental products and the series of articles I have written about dentistry and the environment.
What does it mean to be “eco-friendly”?
Eco-friendly is a general term and is a shortened version of environmentally friendly.
Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (“Green Guides”) explains: “Unqualified general environmental benefit claims are difficult to interpret and likely convey a wide range of meanings. In many cases, such claims likely convey that the product, package, or service has specific and far-reaching environmental benefits and may convey that the item or service has no negative environmental impact. Because it is highly unlikely that marketers can substantiate all reasonable interpretations of these claims, marketers should not make unqualified general environmental benefit claims.”
Where I use the term eco-friendly, I refer not only to the materials used, but also the broader impact of the product or company. I try to justify how this is an eco-friendly alternative and compared to what standards.
For example, when considering an “eco-friendly” bamboo toothbrush, how the material is sourced is a consideration, as are factory policies for recycling and shipping methods – and should all be taken into consideration when comparing this to another brush.
“Sustainable” – what does it mean?
Sustainable is another very general term, often overused and without explaining exactly what is meant. It is used interchangeably with eco-friendly.
Referring back to the “Green Guides” again, “Unqualified general environmental benefit claims are difficult to interpret and likely convey a wide range of meanings. In many cases, such claims likely convey that the product, package, or service has specific and far-reaching environmental benefits and may convey that the item or service has no negative environmental impact.”
Where I use the term sustainable, I refer not only to the materials used, but also the broader impact of the product or company. I try to justify how this is a more sustainable alternative and compared to what standards.
Sustainability is the concept that the processes used to make a product can carry on long term without negative impact on the environment. This is the slight difference between ‘sustainable’ and ‘eco-friendly’ – it is more specific about the long term viability.
This is because even renewable resources need to be managed carefully. If careful consideration is not given to how and where these resources are grown and removed from, there is potential for harm to the nearby environment.
For example, palm oil trees are a renewable resource. They are relatively quickly replaced after they are cropped. However, the mass deforestation of the rainforests of Borneo to make way for massive crops of palm oil trees is harmful to the planet (as explained by the WWF, World Wide Fund for Nature). To plant them, trees are removed which contributes to the overall global CO2 emissions, removes habitats for endangered species such as the orangutan, and disrupts water flow over wide areas.
Long term, this is not sustainable as the land becomes less fertile and cannot support the plants nor the local inhabitants.
According to the Rainforest Alliance, to regenerate the resources we have already used up and require, we need 1½ Earths. This is why reducing the need for new materials is so important.
This is also why renewable resources need to be managed sustainably.
The Rainforest Alliance goes on to define sustainable forestry as that which “balances the needs of the environment, wildlife, and forest communities—supporting decent incomes while conserving our forests for future generations.”
Sustainable management of resources will ensure that they can continue to meet demand well into the future. In practical terms, it includes:
- Avoiding deforestation in areas with significant importance for biodiversity, to protect waterways, to protect native trees and animals.
- Using certification schemes such as FSC, PEFC, SFI to provide guidance on best practices for sustainable forestry (see below for more information on these).
- Working with local communities when cutting and planting trees.
- Using the land available in as productive a way as possible to maintain profits but without expanding into new areas of forest.
- Ensuring that trees that are cut down are replaced with seedlings which will be able to grow into mature trees.
There are a number of schemes which could help you to identify sustainable practices.
|International Sustainability & Carbon Certification (ISCC)||Evaluates the entire chain from farming to sale, to meet International Sustainability & Carbon Certification (ISCC) system. It is a sign of sustainability practices.||ISCC EU: European market. ISCC PLUS: other unregulated markets.|
|Cradle 2 Cradle CertifiedTM Products Program||Evaluates the whole chain to promote products that use safe, circular and responsible materials and products.|
Specifically promotes reusing materials in a circular economy.
|Measured by varying levels, judged on how they perform during audit: Basic, Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum.|
|The Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC)||FSC Chain of Custody Certification tracks FSC® certified material through production.|
FSC Forest Management Certification shows that the wood comes from a well-managed forest.
The Rainforest Alliance is one of the founders of the FSC.
|CoC Certification has 3 different categories: 100% Products only contain material from FSC certified forest, Mix Products (FSC certified products are mixed with other materials), FSC Recycled Products contain recycled content.|
|The Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification™||PEFC is an umbrella organization that has oversight of other national forest certification schemes. |
National stakeholders include SFI and ATFS in the US.
There are many other, less common labels which are also used. See the Ecolabel Index and Global Ecolabelling Network to find out more.
What does “natural” mean in the context of products?
In its most basic sense, a natural product can be defined as one that uses materials derived from nature. They would avoid artificially made materials and ingredients (those made by humankind).
It could mean a number of other things such as:
- Plant based materials and ingredients
- Plastic free materials and ingredients
- Only a small number of materials used
- Minimal ingredients list
- Using sustainable materials.
Generally, labelling a product as natural is very vague and should be supported by evidence or more specific claims.
When it comes to dental products, examples of how the term “natural” is used includes:
- Use of wooden handles and boar bristles for toothbrushes, referring to materials found in nature which are largely unchanged apart from cleaning and shaping.
- Use of silk for floss. This naturally occurring fibre will have needed to be treated or altered in some way to be used in the mouth.
- Vague usage when talking about toothpaste – meaning any number of things. As toothpaste needs to meet specific safety standards, it is likely that very few of the ingredients remain unchanged from their natural state.
Companies producing natural products are most likely trying to lessen their impact on the environment.
They will source ingredients and materials found in nature – renewable materials. This reduces the use of fossil fuels and the problems they bring.
Products labeled as natural may also be easier to dispose of without going to landfill. For example, they may be compostable.
By using the term “natural” without explanation, a company is trying to be perceived as having a lower impact on the environment, but without making specific promises.
It is possible that the company is greenwashing.
Try to avoid products labelled as natural and which do not make specific statements about what that means.
What is a “zero waste” lifestyle?
A zero waste lifestyle is one that eliminates rubbish from packaging and products.
There are different interpretations as there is no official definition.
But the idea is to buy, consume, and throw away less. It is seen as a sustainable way of living with less of an impact on the planet.
Some people try to exclude all waste, with the exception of compostable waste or recyclable and compostable waste.
The core principles (as summarised by National Geographic) are:
- Refuse – refuse to buy things with lots of packaging
- Reduce – don’t buy things you don’t really need
- Reuse – repurpose worn out items, shop for used goods, and purchase reusable products like steel water bottles
- Compost – up to 80 percent of waste by weight is organic. But this rarely decomposes in landfills
- Recycle – It still takes some energy and resources to recycle, but it’s better than sending stuff to the landfill or allowing it to become litter
See Kathryn Kellogg’s blog going zero waste for more information.
What is a “circular economy”
A circular economy aims to keep products that have already been made “in the loop”.
The idea is to reduce the need for new raw materials to make products and packaging. This means we will use up fewer of the earth’s finite resources, such as fossil fuels.
It also minimises the waste produced when making and disposing of products when someone is finished with it. Even recycling requires energy input, and the less that is required, the better for the environment.
A good explanation can be found on this website by the Canadian Government.
One example of a circular economy is a milkman. He delivers milk in glass bottles. Later in the week, he collects the empty bottles which are washed and then reused for another customer.
A dental example would be reusing the packaging from dental toothpaste tablets. The tablets you purchase come in a jar. You could take the far back to a shop to refill with tablets from a bulk supply, or send it back to the manufacturer for them to refill.It is a complex process with many different schools of thought, but you can find out more by visiting the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
What does “bio-based” mean?
A product or material that is labelled as bio-based is one that is derived from biological origin.
These renewable resources of biological origin include plants, trees, or animals and are land based or marine based.
It can be partly made from these products or biological origin, or can be 100% made from them.
An example of a bio-based product is plastic which is made from bio-based materials instead of petroleum based plastics (also known as bio-based plastics or bioplastics).
This information sheet gives a good explanation of how bio-based products can be classified.
In the US, bio-based products can be assessed by the USDA BioPreferred®️ Program. The United States Department of Agriculture uses independent laboratories to assess the bio-based content of a material or product. A USDA Certified Biobased Product and Package will have a label containing the following information:
You are able to search for oral care products with the mark here.
In addition to the US-specific USDA Certified Biobased Product label, products might also contain one of the following European-based labels:
|DIN-Geprüft Biobased||Owned and awarded by DIN CERTCO||Identifies how much of the product is bio-based. There are three different % categories.|
|Owned by the Royal Netherlands Standardization Institute NEN. Awarded by DIN CERTCO or TÜV Austria Belgium||Analyses how much of the produce is bio-based.|
|OK biobased||Owned and awarded by TÜV Austria Belgium||Labels are one, two, or three stars depending on the percentage of bio-based content.|
Possible benefits of bio-based products and materials are that:
- The materials of biological origin might be less resource intensive to produce.
- Bio-based products can be an efficient use of natural resources. This contributes to a more sustainable economy.
- Bio-based products are an alternative to conventional petroleum derived products (with petroleum being a finite resource).
- Investing in new bio-based products and technologies encourages economic development by creating new jobs and providing new opportunities for farms.
Bio-based materials are not always a perfect solution to reducing our reliance on finite resources (petroleum based products).
The word “bio-based” gives the impression that the product is made from natural materials. This may be true. But only part of the product must be made of natural materials for it to be labelled bio-based.
With bio-based plastics:
- Plastics with a “bio” prefix, such as bio-polyethylene, are identical in chemical composition as polyethylene from petrochemical sources.
- The prefix “bio” relates only to the feedstock used to manufacture the material (it comes from a biological source rather than a petrochemical source).
- There is no difference in biodegradability between plastic and it’s “bio” version (e.g. polyethylene and bio-polyethylene).
- “Bio” based plastics from a biological source are relatively carbon neutral, compared to their petrochemical equivalent.
- “Bio” based plastics (e.g. bio-polyethylene), which have the same chemical structure as a conventional plastic (e.g. polyethylene) perform identically in industrial processes and can be recycled alongside their fossil-fuel based counterparts.
- “Bio” based plastics are not risk free and testing is need to ensure there is no possible contamination with naturally produced contaminants (e.g., mycotoxins), organic compounds (e.g., dioxins) or inorganic compounds (e.g., lead and arsenic), nitrates, pesticide and veterinary medicines residues, and plant toxins
The biological content can be treated with chemicals and combined with plastic before being made into the final product.
Therefore your bio-based material might not be as environmentally friendly as you first think.
In fact bio-based materials can still have the same structure as their petroleum based equivalent. So even though the source materials are more environmentally friendly, the final product is still just as difficult to recycle. A bio-based product is not automatically biodegradable or compostable.
Also, a bio-based material can be derived from animal and marine sources and is not necessarily vegan or cruelty-free.
Does this word mean what you think it means?
A bio-based material or product can be less resource intensive when it comes to making it. However, it’s end of life processes are much the same as their conventional counterparts.
They are an alternative to petroleum based materials and products where there is no other more environmentally friendly product, for example where single use plastics are required in healthcare settings.
What are “bioplastics”?
Bioplastic is an ambiguous word used to describe many “bio” based plastics, where bio is an abbreviation for biological.
European Bioplastics defines “bioplastics” as a plastic material that is either biobased OR biodegradable OR both. Some other types of plastics that are included in the umbrella term bioplastics include:
- bio-based plastics: plastics which are derived from natural/plant-based resources instead of fossil fuels. The end structure is the same, it is just a different starting block. E.g. castor oil based nylon instead of traditional nylon floss.
- biodegradable plastics : either fossil fuel derived plastics or bio-based plastics, but which biodegrade in specific environments. These need to be sorted out from conventional plastics for recycling as they can contaminate the recycled product and damage existing equipment.
- oxo-biodegradable plastics: break down in the presence of light due to chemical additives. These need to be sorted out from conventional plastics for recycling as they can contaminate the recycled product and damage existing equipment.
- compostable plastics : either fossil fuel derived plastics or bio-based plastics, but which are compostable. This means they break down, under specific conditions, into biomass, carbon dioxide and water. These need to be sorted out from conventional plastics for recycling as they can contaminate the recycled product and damage existing equipment.
At a glance, the name sounds promising, with a prefix that hints at an Earth-friendly product. But is bioplastic really the panacea for our environmental woes? An easy-to-use single-use item that feels like plastic minus the guilt? This post discusses some of the pitfalls of bioplastics.
What does biodegradable mean?
A product or material that is labelled as biodegradable is one that can be broken down into smaller bits by natural processes.
This breakdown occurs with the help of microorganisms such as bacteria, algae and fungi.
Some biodegradable materials are also compostable.
Biodegradable products are those which will break down under landfill conditions (as opposed to compostable products and materials which require much more specific environments to decompose and which leave behind nutrients for the earth).
The term biodegradable can apply to organic materials as well as man-made materials.
Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (“Green Guides”) explains certain criteria should be used when using this term, including:
“A marketer making an unqualified degradable claim should have competent and reliable scientific evidence that the entire item will completely break down and return to nature (i.e., decompose into elements found in nature) within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal.”
“It is deceptive to make an unqualified degradable claim for items entering the solid waste stream if the items do not completely decompose within one year after customary disposal. Unqualified degradable claims for items that are customarily disposed in landfills, incinerators, and recycling facilities are deceptive because these locations do not present conditions in which complete decomposition will occur within one year.”
Biodegradable materials and products can be broken down into small and smaller pieces. The change in their chemical makeup also means that the final product should be almost fully reabsorbed into the surrounding environment.
According to A Review of Standards for Biodegradable Plastics, some bioplastics are more amenable to biodegradation or compostability.
Biodegradable can be a misleading label. That is because in theory, almost everything will break down into smaller pieces. It’s just that some things can take a very long term (hundreds, or even thousands of years).
There are no widely recognised standards for the label “biodegradable” (unlike the label “compostable“, which I cover in more detail below).
The final products of biodegradation also vary, and can include metal residues. Ideally, there should be no pollution to the local environment when a biodegradable item has finished being broken down. But this is not always the case.
Even though they are labelled as biodegradable, the materials need specific conditions to actually break down and leave no trace. A good label will tell you how long an item will take to biodegrade, and what conditions are required.
At present, biodegradable plastics used for dental products (e.g. corn PLA) need industrial composting facilities. You can’t just throw it on your home compost pile, as it will take years as a lump in the shape of a toothbrush head (studies done on the breakdown on these plastics do not automatically apply to plastics of different shapes. The shapes can affect the rate of breakdown).
At the moment, there is a lack of these industrial composting facilities world wide.
So whilst many companies are now making “biodegradable” plastics, we just don’t have the facilities to get rid of them yet. Some food and garden waste goes to industrial composting facilities, but this varies from council to council. If you know your waste goes to such a facility, biodegradable plastics could in theory be thrown in with this waste. However at the sorting plant, it may be confused for conventional plastic and be removed anyway.
Biodegradable plastics such as PLA cannot currently be recycled with other plastics (for example milk bottles, which are collected as part of your household collection). It can damage the recycling equipment in existing facilities.
Ironically, without proper recycling facilities, these plastics may well end up with general waste. If this waste goes to landfill, the biodegradable plastics break down and release methane, a gas with a greater environmental impact than carbon dioxide. In some respects this is worse than conventional plastics going to landfill!
The take home message is that bio-based plastics have a smaller carbon footprint. Biodegradable plastics at present pose a challenge for recycling, and their environmental impact could be even less if waste streams were changed to recycle the materials properly.
Does this label mean what you think it means?
Items labelled biodegradable probably don’t mean what you think they mean.
It is important to differentiate between biodegradable and compostable, although the two are often used interchangeably.
Unhelpfully, some labels mark items as biodegradable in home compost, which means they meet the criteria for being compostable.
All compostable material is biodegradable, but not all biodegradable material is compostable.
What does compostable mean?
The process of composting is described as: “controlled biological decomposition of biodegradable materials under managed conditions that are predominantly aerobic and which allow the development of thermophilic temperatures as a result of biologically produced heat.”
A product or material that is labelled as compostable is one that can be totally broken down, almost without leaving a trace.
Compostable materials and products will break down into biomass, carbon dioxide and water.
Biomass is plant or animal based material (i.e. organic material) that can be used as an energy source.
The biomass remaining after composting will be beneficial to the earth.
Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (“Green Guides”) states that “marketers should possess competent and reliable scientific evidence showing that ‘‘all the materials in the product or package will break down into, or otherwise become a part of, usable compost (e.g., soil conditioning material, mulch) in a safe and timely manner in an appropriate composting program or facility, or in a home compost pile or device.”
Actual qualities of the compostable material vary, but expect that the materials need to meet criteria such as:
- Minimum of 90% breakdown within 180 days in compost.
- Minimum of 90% of breakdown into less than 2mm pieces in compost within 12 weeks
- No toxic effect of the resulting compost on plants and earthworms.
- Maximum limits for hazardous substances present.
- Minimum limits for the amount of biobased material in the product.
The US follows guidelines for testing and labelling products as compostable, and this can vary between states. Legislation ensures there is no contamination of the final compost product. Items should be clearly labelled as home compostable or suitable for industrial compost. Each of the labels follow the relevant legislation, and you can find out more about that by going to their pages.
|BPI Compostable||Owned by BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute) and awarded by DIN CERTCO||BPI only tests for industrial composting standards.|
|OK Compost Home||Owned and awarded by TÜV Austria Belgium||Identifies that the product or material can be added to a home composting pile.|
Note that these are the most significant labels. There are many others available worldwide and which may be on your product. You can find out more information by going to the Ecolabel Index website.
Having compostable materials and products reduces the amount of waste sent to landfill. Instead, it is turned into a useful product – compost.
Compostable materials go one step further than biodegradable materials. That is, they are able to provide the earth with nutrients once the material has completely broken down.
Also, because there are strict testing criteria to be able to label something as compostable, so you know what you are getting.
Where items are sent for industrial composting the final compost product is also tested for quality and safety.
Compostable materials and products are normally biobased and so this reduces reliance on fossil fuels (a finite resource).
Even though they are labelled as compostable, the materials (including plastics) need specific conditions to actually break down. They cannot simply be thrown onto a conventional compost heap.
It is important to separate home and industrial compositing. This is because home compositing generally has a lower temperature, and is often a slower-paced process.
There is potential for people to consider these as more environmentally friendly and not dispose of them properly. If not disposed of correctly, they will not breakdown.
Biodegradable and compostable are sometimes used as interchangeable terms. This is problematic because although anything labelled as compostable must be biodegradable, not all biodegradable items are compostable.
There can be confusion between the two terms from consumers. There can also be misinformation on packaging from producers.
The end result is contaminated waste (e.g. plastics found in compost, which then makes it unusable).
Does this label mean what you think it means?
A compostable label is usually thoroughly researched and tested. It turns waste into a useful product and is one of the most environmentally friendly end-of-life options for products.
A compostable label is self-explanatory. But take care to avoid unverified claims which could mean the product is not suitable for composting.
What does “cruelty-free” mean?
A cruelty free material or product is one that has been produced without harming animals or performing experiments on animals.
Recognised labels include:
|Leaping Bunny Program||Cruelty Free International||Logo indicates that the whole brand is cruelty free.|
|PETA bunny||People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)||Has two different logos available.|
|Choose Cruelty Free “Not Tested on Animals” bunny||Choose Cruelty Free||Has separate grading for assessing whether a product has animal products or not.|
|Certified Vegan||Vegan Action||All personal care products with this label are vegan and cruelty free.|
|Vegan Trademark||Vegan Society||All personal care products with this label are vegan and cruelty free.|
Opting for cruelty free products is a personal choice, and depends on an individual’s ethics. But choosing such products can have some unintended benefits for the environment too.
Cruelty free products often have a shorter list of ingredients, which may have less of an impact on the environment (but not necessarily).
Where man made materials are required, companies which seek to be cruelty free will choose those safe options already available rather than investing resources finding unnecessary alternatives.
Companies which are committed to creating cruelty-free products are normally also the ones that are also committed to using sustainable ingredients and materials. Look into the company’s values and you are also likely to find commitments to other causes, such as the environment.
Animal testing requires resource intensive laboratories and care of animals. There are cruelty free alternatives to testing which do not need these resources.
Even with a cruelty free label, there may have been historical testing on animals.
Manufacturers may label their products as cruelty free without defining what this means.
Not all cruelty free products are vegan. Products labelled as vegan are not always cruelty free.
What is ethical consumerism?
Ethical consumerism is the idea that we as consumers drive changes in the market by selecting companies that use ethical practices or that produce less harmful products compared to alternatives.
In the context of dental products, we can choose companies that use less packaging or recyclable packaging. For example, the buying choices of the general public have led to Colgate investing in recyclable toothpaste tubes and making a vegan and minimal ingredient toothpaste (Smile for Good).
What are fossil fuels
Fossil fuels are made from decomposing plants and animals. They take millions of years to be made.
They include coal, oil and gas.
Because fossil fuels take so long to be made, they are a non-renewable energy source. They are being used up faster than they are being produced. As a finite resource, they will run out before stocks can be replaced.
Renewable materials are an alternative to fossil fuels.There is a lot of information about fossil fuels on the National Geographic website here.
What is “greenwashing”
Greenwashing is when companies mislead customers by suggesting their products are environmentally friendly than they actually are.
Companies that are greenwashing will launch products, adverts, and campaigns promoting their products as good for the environment in order to gain sales.
The claims are unproven and are often vague but entice consumers into buying them as an alternative to traditional products.
The claims also contradict the company’s own environmental and sustainability practices, which are not environmentally friendly.
These claims generally do not follow the policies laid out by Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (“Green Guides”).
Visit the Ethical Consumer website to find out more.
What is life cycle analysis?
Life cycle analysis, or LCA, sometimes also called life cycle assessment, is a scientific way of measuring the environmental impact of a product.
LCAs use a standard method around the globe for a fair comparison.
They look at all the processes involved in making, using, and disposing of a product. Calculations also look at energy required for making and extracting raw materials (e.g. oils for plastics), and the distribution and transportation of a product.
The impact of the product is looked at based on 15 different categories of environmental effects, such as:
- Global warming potential
- Air, water and soil pollution
- Water and land use
The final number is usually expressed in kg CO₂ equivalent, taking into account the different types of greenhouse gases that have been produced.
Because of the international standards used, LCAs are a good way to directly compare products. Unfortunately, these numbers are often not made available.
For more information about LCAs, see this guide from Ecochain.
What is off-setting / offsetting?
Off-setting, or carbon off-setting is a process for compensating for the carbon footprint of a product.
The company will calculate the carbon footprint of an item and then prevent the release of the same amount of emissions elsewhere.
The end result is a carbon neutral product.
As an individual, you can also pay a company to offset your carbon emissions.
Businesses should state how they provide off-setting services, in fact the Green Guides state “marketers [should] to have competent and reliable scientific evidence to support their carbon offset claims, including using appropriate accounting methods to ensure they are properly quantifying emission reductions and not selling those reductions more than once.” There are also other specific rules regarding off-setting which you can find in the document.
For a better understanding of carbon dioxide, greenhouse gases, and the environment, see The Carbon Literacy Project.
Some amount of carbon emissions are inevitable, and offsetting can counter effect those unavoidable emissions.
Offsetting is not as effective as preventing carbon emissions in the first place. Carbon offsetting does not necessarily encourage a company to reduce their carbon emissions, as they can simply pay to neutralise them.
Some companies may use carbon offsetting rather than invest in more sustainable methods of production. Despite offering offsetting, companies may not have other environmentally friendly initiatives and so this may act as greenwashing.
Friends of the Earth have more information about carbon offsetting.
Companies that offer offsetting include:
What does organic mean?
There are several different ways in which the term organic can be used.
In chemical terms, an organic compound is one that contains carbon-hydrogen bonds. Organic compounds as single units are monomers. When many of the same compounds come together to form one larger compound they are called polymers. A plastic is a synthetic material made of polymers of organic compounds.
Organic is often used to describe organic ingredients. This refers to plants that are grown and certified as organic, such as an organic apple that you might buy at the supermarket. Organic describes the farming technique which avoids the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals. There is more information about this below.
We also talk about organic matter – this describes something that is derived from, or related to living matter. For example, food waste is an organic matter, as are pure bamboo toothbrush handles.
What are organic ingredients?
Ingredients grown using organic techniques. Organic farming techniques avoid the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals.
There are strict criteria for labelling food as organic, which do not always apply to There are strict criteria for labelling food as organic, which do not always apply to non-food products. However advertising guidance such as the Green Guides does state that there is still an expectation that a product labelled as “organic” does contain a reasonable amount of organic content.
Independent labelling and verification will confirm ingredients and processes are what you expect them to be.
What does “plant-based” mean?
Plant based could have two different interpretations.
There are potentially two different interpretations when something is labelled as “100% plant-based”.
The first option is that the materials made are all derived from plants, as opposed to fossil-fuel based plastics. Plant based can describe a material that is derived from plants, as opposed to fossil fuels. This could be clarified by using the term bio-based instead.
The second option would be saying that the product is derived from plant based products, and not animal based products. Similar to vegan but without meeting strict expectations of avoiding cross contamination with other products which may contain animal based ingredients.
It is difficult to determine which of these a company is referring to sometimes. It can depend on the type of product they are talking about. E.g.
- “100% plant-based toothbrush handle” refers to the fact that the material is derived from plant based material. This could be anything from bamboo to bioplastic, to bio-based plastic.
- 100% plant-based toothpaste is more likely to be describing a product that has no animal derived products (e.g. excluding the use of propolis which is made by bees). This sort of claim is similar to the term vegan.
- 100% plant-based bristles could be describing bristles that are not derived from animal products (excluding the use of boar hair for example) or that are made from plant-based plastics (bioplastics/bio-based plastics).
Does this label mean what you think it means?
You will need to use your best judgement when seeing this label. When I talk about such products I will differentiate between them.
What is plastic?
Specific characteristics of plastic are that they can be moulded into shape while soft, and then set into a rigid or slightly elastic form.
Plastic, as we think of it, is a man-made material. This includes plastics like polystyrene and polyethylene. But there are also naturally occurring plastics, such as latex and cellulose.
The most simple explanation is that a plastic is made from repetitions (polymers) of organic molecules (monomers).
These molecules can be bio-based (e.g. come from plants) or can be taken from petrochemicals (from fossil fuels).
When the plastic is ready to be thrown away it can be biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable. If a plastic does not meet these criteria then it will need to go to landfill.
The problematic plastic we try to avoid is that made from monomers extracted from petrochemicals, or oil. This uses up finite resources, which could one day run out. It causes damage to the environment to extract the materials too. The final problem with some plastics is that they do not break down and some can’t be recycled, leaving an impact on the planet for a long time.
The Science History Institute has more information on the science of plastics.
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are very small particles of plastic, less than 5mm in diameter.
Microplastic can be introduced into the environment directly from, for example, cosmetic beads and clothes fibres from laundering, or indirectly via breakdown of larger plastic pieces (mechanical degradation).
The problem with microplastics is that they are eaten by a range of organisms at almost all food chain levels, especially those found in seas, oceans and lakes e.g. zooplankton, coral, fish, birds and marine mammals. The plastic accumulates, can cause starvation and death, as well as poisoning the animal directly. As animals are eaten by others, the plastics accumulates – bioaccumulation. This can have an effect on humans who eat animals who have previously ingested plastics.
Polyethylene in the form of plastic microbeads was previously added to toothpaste to improve the appearance of the toothpaste.
Plastic microbeads in toothpastes can be detrimental to gum health, as well as proving harmful for the environment.
The use of microplastic beads in cosmetics is banned in the US but toothpastes imported from other countries could still have them.
Microplastics may also develop from breakdown of other dental products such as dental floss or toothbrush bristles.
What does “recyclable” mean?
Recycling is taking a waste product and converting it into a new useful material or objects.
If something is recyclable it is able to go through the recycling process.
The US government’s Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (“Green Guides”) recommends that the label recyclable should only be used where the marketers are able “to qualify recyclable claims when recycling facilities are not available to a ‘‘substantial majority’’ of consumers or communities where a product is sold”
This is because in theory most materials are recyclable to some extent, but these facilities may not be accessible to you.
In fact, Green Guides clearly defines recyclable as something that can be:
“collected, separated, or otherwise recovered from the waste stream through an established recycling program for reuse or use in manufacturing or assembling another item.”
Recycling prevents products going to municipal solid waste landfills at the end of their useful life. But it also means that it is reused as something else.
What is recycled depends on what state you are in. It can differ, even between cities. There is currently a draft National Recycling Strategy.
You should visit your local authority website for an up to date list about their recycling service. You can also find local recycling information here.
Individual items may be labelled as recyclable. Some items may be recyclable but are not labelled.
The most common labels are:
|How2recycle label||Recyclable for 60% of households.|
May also contain further information e.g. the material and if lid should be kept on or taken off.
|How2recycle label||Not Yet Recyclable (or fewer than 20% of Americans can recycle this package).|
|Der Grüne Punkt||The Green Dot is a European mark that indicates that if the manufacturer is in Europe, it has made a financial contribution towards the recovery and recycling of packaging in Europe (PRO-Europe).|
In the US though, it is simply a trademark and whilst there is a license fee, its use does not indicate a financial contribution.
This label does not mean that the packaging is recyclable, will be recycled or has been recycled.
|The Mobius Loop||An international label that indicates that an object is capable of being recycled.|
It is not guaranteed that the area you are in is able to recycle this material.
Sometimes there is a percentage figure in the middle to indicate how much of it is made from recycled material.
|Society of the Plastics Industry Symbols||Identifies the type of plastic resin used.|
This does not indicate that the material is recyclable.
Other labels may also be used, and you can find out more about these on the Ecolabel Index or the Global Ecolabelling Network.
100% is sometimes used to describe plastic products, which can be misleading as plastic cannot be infinitely recycled and a lot of plastic isn’t even recycled once — it is burned or goes to landfill.
If a plastic product is recycled, as in it is converted into a new product, that product will also then need to be disposed of or recycled. Plastic can only be recycled two or three times before it loses its integrity and then becomes waste that cannot be repurposed.
So while a plastic toothbrush or toothbrush head at least has the potential to be recycled once or twice, to call it 100% recyclable could give the impression that it can be recycled again and again, which isn’t the case with current recycling technology.
Some environmental specialists take the view that recycling plastic only delays its ultimate fate as pollution, since plastic can only be recycled a few times before it is unusable.
What does “recycled” mean?
Recycled content uses recycled materials. These are waste products from other processes. which are diverted from landfill and treated so that they become a useful material again.
Recycled content can come from pre-consumer waste or post-consumer waste. Some recycled content may not tell you which type of recycled material it is.
Pre-consumer recycled content is made from manufacturer’s waste. The waste has never made it to the consumer for one reason or another such as off-cuts, rejected products and scrap material. It’s the stuff that ends up on the factory floor. This waste is taken and repurposed into something new rather than being sent to landfill.
Post-consumer waste takes waste from consumers (in other words household waste). Things such as aluminium cans and plastics that are sorted for recycling instead of being sent to landfill.
At the time of writing there is not much evidence to support using one type over the other. There are pros and cons to both.
Look for labels that state what % is recycled content, and where it comes from. Ideally, the amount of recycled content a product contains would be verified by third party sources.
What is “renewable material”?
A renewable material is a material that is composed of biomass and that can be continually replenished.
For example, renewable bio-based products include:
- Agricultural – crops, such as sugar cane.
- Forestry – wood.
- Marine – algae.
Using renewable materials prevents using up finite resources such as fossil fuels.
Renewable materials may be used in their original form, such as bamboo toothbrush handles. Or they may be used to replace conventional sources such as bio-based plastics.
Renewable materials are not necessarily biodegradable, or compostable. They may also need to be recycled differently compared to conventional materials.
Even renewable resources need to be managed correctly so that they are not used up faster than they are produced. It is also important to ensure sustainable development of such resources so that a negative impact is not left on the environment (for example, by destroying mixed forests to plant monoculture).
What does reusable mean?
Something reusable can be used more than once. It could also be repurposed in its current form (needing only very minimal adaptations).
What does vegan mean?
Vegan means a product without animal products.
When people think of veganism, often it is just the diet that comes to mind. However vegan stretches far beyond just what you eat.
Veganism refers to a lifestyle which includes choosing health and beauty products which also fit into the category.
The evidence base for supporting a vegan diet when it comes to reducing your impact on the environment is strong. Articles such as this one by Wired and this one by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine explain some of the benefits, whilst this article from the Harvard Political Review is more critical.
In the US, there is no federal legal definition of “vegan”.
Different organizations have slightly different approaches to veganism and vegan living. You can look to The Vegan Society, PETA or vegan.org.
Vegan products are those which do not contain animal products, or any derivatives or by-products of animal products.
In most cases, vegan products also must not have been tested on animals. Although this isn’t always always the case (such as medicines) and so cruelty-free labels should be considered separately.
Certified vegan products must meet strict criteria to prevent cross contamination with non-vegan products.
Examples of possible non-vegan materials and ingredients in dental products include:
- Pig and boar hair bristles for toothbrushes.
- Silk floss (including ahimsa silk), from silk worms.
- Beeswax for coating floss.
- Glycerin/glycerol in toothpaste, which can be plant or animal derived.
- Propolis in mouthwashes in toothpaste, which comes from beeswax.
- Casein, a milk derivative, found in some toothpastes as casein phosphopeptide.
- Red food coloring – cochineal/E120/natural red 4/carmine/C.I. 75470 – comes from a beetle.
Common labels for verified products include:
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)
|Vegan Action Certification|
|The Vegan Society|
|The Vegetarian Society|