Careful shopping requires fluency in 'greenspeak'

November 18, 1991|By Liz Bowie

Have you learned "greenspeak" yet? It's the clever new language created by marketing departments in hundreds of companies trying to use environmentalism to sell their wares.

The problem is how to find the truth amid the hyperbole of a green vocabulary that includes terms such as recycled, biodegradable and ozone friendly.

The best way to begin making a difference in buying habits, said Hannah Holmes, a contributing editor at Garbage magazine, is to ask yourself a few questions before you pull a product off the store shelf, such as "Do I really need it? Can I borrow it? Can I make do with something else?"

Generally, the best approach is to try "to reduce the flow of stuff" through your home, she said.

If you do really need the product, try to find it in a package that is recyclable or get something that can be reused, such as a sponge instead of a paper towel.

Here is how to interpret claims on packages:

Recyclable. A package may be recyclable, but it may not be recyclable in your area. For instance, not all plastic bottles are recyclable in the Baltimore region. Check the bottom of the container. If there is a "1" or "2" in the "chasing arrow" symbol, it is probably recyclable.

Recycled. Many companies say their products are made of recycled material, but it is impossible for consumers to tell how much raw material was mixed with the old recyclable material in the manufacturing. And only a few states have set minimum percentages for making a claim that a product is "recycled."

Ozone friendly or ozone safe. This should mean that the product doesn't contain chlorofluorocarbons, which destroy ozone in the upper atmosphere, where it protects the Earth from ultraviolet radiation. The use of CFCs as propellants in aerosol cans was banned in the United States in 1978, but products may still contain the chemicals for other purposes. The Federal Trade Commission took action against Zipatone Inc. for advertising Zipatone Spray Cement, an artist's cement, as "ecologically safe" when it contained ozone-depleting chemicals.

Environmentally friendly or safe for the environment. Unless they are backed up with specific information, these claims are too vague to be meaningful, according to FTC rulings.

Biodegradable. The word sounds environmentally correct, but it rarely is. It may be beneficial to streams and oceans if the contents of some packages -- such as dishwashing detergent or soap -- break down into harmless components. But the question is whether the product can degrade in the time it takes to leave your drain, go through a sewage-treatment plant and into the Chesapeake Bay.

Most claims of biodegradability have to do with the containers or packaging of products such as trash bags or grocery bags. Experts agree that unless it is a plastic six-pack ring that will end up as litter, it makes no difference whatsoever whether the package is biodegradable, since most the majority of the Baltimore metropolitan area's trash goes to incinerators, so the biodegradable product doesn't have time to degrade before it goes up in smoke.

The remainder goes to landfills -- a deep, dark pit engineers have designed specifically so that sunlight, air and water can't reach your biodegradable container to make it decompose. Garbage experts these days want to prevent everything in a landfill from seeping into the earth and contaminating ground water.

Yet another pitfall lies ahead for green consumers. They sometimes forget that buying habits are just part of the environmentally correct lifestyle. Energy use is important too.

Suppose you buy recycled products, use a low-flush toilet, turn off your shower while you soap up your head and decide to use cloth diapers for your baby.

(Ms. Holmes said that cotton diapers might not necessarily be better than disposable ones. It depends on where you live -- your bio-region, so to speak. In Southern California, where water is scarce, disposable diapers are a good choice because they use no water. On the East Coast, where water is plentiful and landfill space at a premium, cloth ones are probably better.)

Even if you think you are doing all the right things but still make four trips to the store in your car when you could do all that shopping in one trip and you haven't thought to turn down the thermostat at night, don't start feeling smug, Ms. Holmes said, because changing only a few things isn't enough.

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