Grey areas of going green: The environmental impact of ‘eco-friendly’ alternatives

There are a number of surprising downsides to common eco-friendly products and practices

Paper straws often end up in landfills, where they often fail to biodegrade effectively. Getty Images
Powered by automated translation

In a world increasingly conscious of environmental sustainability, numerous products have been marketed as “eco-friendly” alternatives to more harmful ones.

These products, ranging from paper straws to biodegradable plastics, are often embraced by well-intentioned consumers aiming to reduce their ecological footprint.

However, the actual impacts of these seemingly green products might not be as benign as they appear.

“Every product has an impact of some sort – whether it is in its manufacturing, its transportation, its use or its disposal,” Mike Childs, Friends of the Earth’s head of policy, told The National.

“With a bit of thought, we can all make greener choices.”

So, which products might not be as green as you'd think?

Reusable bags

The adoption of reusable bags has been widely advocated as a strategy to combat the environmental impacts of single-use plastic bags. However, reusable bags, too, come with their own environmental baggage.

Their production, particularly those made from materials such as polypropylene or polyester, can be quite resource-intensive. Of course, the more they are used, the less the overall impact.

Reusable cotton bags, despite being eco-friendly, still involve the use of harmful chemicals and resources in their production. A study indicates that they need to be used at least 131 times to offset their environmental impact compared to disposable plastic bags.

“There are real environmental benefits when consumers shift from single use bags to reusable bags,” Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics, told The National.

“But, plastic bags, whether single use or reusable, are made from thousands of toxic chemicals and fossil fuels.”

She maintains that despite the production issues, cloth bags remain the best option.

Paper straws and utensils

Switching from plastic to paper straws has been lauded as a responsible choice, considering the devastating effects of plastic pollution on marine ecosystems.

However, one of the significant criticisms is that they perpetuate a disposable culture as they are single-use items.

The chemical treatments used to enhance the durability of these paper products have also raised concerns.

In practice, paper straws often end up in landfills, where they often fail to biodegrade effectively due to various issues. Their recyclability is also compromised, mostly due to contamination from food residues.

Alternatives such as sugar cane straws might be a better option.

Biodegradable plastics

Biodegradable plastics have been heralded as a greener alternative to the landfill longevity of traditional plastics.

However, they require specific conditions to degrade fully, and in common landfill conditions, they might not fare much better than their non-biodegradable counterparts.

Another unseen drawback is the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as these plastics break down.

And of course, they still have their origins in fossil fuels. Their degradation often results in microplastics, posing threats to aquatic life and contamination of the broader ecosystem.

Bamboo products

Bamboo, celebrated for its rapid growth and low resource demands, has been popularised as an eco-friendly material, particularly in the textile industry.

However, there are environmental drawbacks associated with its cultivation and processing.

An increased demand for bamboo has sometimes led to deforestation, including the clearing of ancient forests, resulting in significant ecological disruptions such as habitat loss and reduced biodiversity.

The processing of bamboo into products often involves the utilisation of harmful chemicals, producing semi-synthetic materials like viscose or rayon.

This chemical processing, especially when inadequately managed, poses risks of pollution of local waterways, negatively affecting community health and the broader environment.

Solutions such as the adoption of closed-loop production processes present hopeful alternatives but necessitate more widespread application.

Electric cars

Electric vehicles (EVs), often hailed as the paragons of green transport, have their environmental impacts, too.

These subtle, lesser-known effects could potentially tarnish their prestigious “zero-emissions” badge.

A lion's share of their environmental footprint is etched during the battery production phase.

The crafting of these lithium-ion batteries is not a benign process: it's intertwined with a network of resource-intensive activities, namely mining and processing minerals like lithium, cobalt and nickel.

Battery production also uses significant energy consumption, often fuelled by fossil energies, leaving behind a trail of CO2 emissions.

Geographical disparities in electricity generation also paint varying portraits of EVs' environmental impacts. For instance, in places where coal reigns, the environmental credentials of EVs might not be as great compared to traditional combustion engines.

And the scarcity of rare metals and the absence of a robust recycling blueprint add another layer of questions as to the true sustainability of EVs.

Recycled paper

Recycled paper uses about 40 per cent less energy to produce than new paper, but this energy often comes from fossil fuels.

The process also involves chemicals to remove ink and other contaminants, which can lead to waste products that end up in landfills or water.

Recycled paper isn't entirely free from using new wood pulp, so it still partly relies on trees.

It can also encourage more paper use, as it creates a cycle of continuous consumption.

However, recycled paper is still better for the environment in several ways: it reduces the need to cut down trees, decreases air and water pollution compared to making new paper, and helps reduce landfill waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

Solar panels

Solar panels are a key part of renewable energy, but they have some environmental issues.

They quickly become outdated due to rapid technological advancements, leading to more waste as old panels are replaced with newer, more efficient models.

Recycling solar panels is also challenging.

Currently, there are limited effective recycling methods for them, meaning valuable materials like silver and rare metals are often wasted.

In addition, substances in the panels, such as lead and cadmium, can cause environmental harm.

The production of solar panels also involves the use of harmful chemicals and a significant amount of energy, which adds to their environmental impact.

Despite these issues, solar panels still play a crucial role in sustainable energy.

Ethanol and biofuels

Ethanol and biofuels, lauded as green fuel alternatives, harbour complex environmental challenges.

Their production happens on large farms, where a lot of synthetic fertilisers and herbicides are used, leading to pollution.

This also includes intense energy and resource consumption, especially in making corn-based ethanol, in which the energy needed is often more than what is produced.

Practices such as tilling add to the environmental effects by releasing carbon stored in the soil into the atmosphere.

Microfibre cleaning cloths

Microfibre cleaning cloths, once hailed for their eco-friendliness, carry hidden environmental costs.

Composed of synthetic polymers, these cloths contribute to aquatic pollution by releasing microplastics into waterways during washing.

In addition, the complexity of recycling these polymers when transformed into microfibres poses challenges, as they can potentially contaminate recycling streams.

LED bulbs

The production of LED bulbs is energy-intensive and involves the use of rare earth minerals, the extraction of which can lead to substantial environmental degradation, including soil and water pollution, and the destruction of ecosystems.

The mining processes for these materials are often powered by non-renewable energy sources, contributing to their ecological footprint.

LED bulbs consist of electronic components that, if not properly disposed of, can release hazardous substances such as lead into the environment.

This can lead to soil and water contamination and pose a health risks to wildlife and humans.

The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that waste management systems are not universally equipped to handle the recycling of LED bulbs, leading to a significant proportion ending up in landfills.

Plant-based meat

Plant-based meats are gaining popularity as a sustainable alternative to traditional animal agriculture, which is known for its heavy environmental footprint. Nevertheless, this innovative food technology is not without its own ecological concerns.

The production of plant-based meats often relies on energy-intensive processing methods, such as extrusion, which demands a significant amount of energy and can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions if that energy is sourced from fossil fuels.

And while these products use significantly less land and water than conventional meat, the raw materials, like soy or peas, may be cultivated in large-scale monoculture systems. Such systems can lead to soil nutrient depletion, increased pesticide and herbicide use, and a reduction in biodiversity.

Organic cotton

Organic cotton is often perceived as a greener alternative to conventional cotton due to its avoidance of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, which are linked to numerous environmental issues such as biodiversity loss and soil and water contamination.

However, organic cotton cultivation can be water-intensive, demanding substantial quantities for irrigation, which can exacerbate water scarcity in arid regions where it is often sourced from non-renewable, overdrawn aquifers.

This intensive water use can negate some of the ecological benefits associated with organic farming practices.

Because organic farming typically has lower yield per acre compared to conventional methods, it may require more land to produce the same amount of cotton, which can lead to habitat disruption if not managed properly.

This expansion can potentially increase the carbon footprint and counteract the positive environmental intentions behind organic cotton production.

Also, in certain climates, organic cotton can be more challenging to grow because it may be more susceptible to pests and diseases without the use of synthetic pesticides.

Eco-friendly cosmetics

Natural ingredients found in eco-friendly cosmetics can sometimes be sourced from overharvested areas or produced through farming practices that contribute to deforestation or habitat loss, as is the case with palm oil.

The production of natural ingredients can also be water-intensive. For example, crops like almonds, which provide oil for many eco-friendly beauty products, require significant amounts of water to grow. The carbon footprint of transporting these natural ingredients from around the world can also be considerable.

The biodegradability and toxicity of natural ingredients are not always clear-cut; some may not break down harmlessly in the environment or could be toxic to aquatic life.

Furthermore, the beauty industry is not immune to greenwashing, where products are marketed as eco-friendly without meaningful efforts to improve their environmental impact, misleading consumers who are trying to make sustainable choices.

Smart home devices

Smart home devices are always on, which means they're perpetually consuming electricity – even when they appear inactive. This “phantom” energy use adds up across the millions of homes that use these devices, resulting in a significant demand on the power grid and an increase in overall energy consumption.

The brief functional life cycle of these devices exacerbates the problem of electronic waste. As technology rapidly advances, devices become obsolete and are discarded.

The complexity of their electronic components makes recycling a challenging and often neglected process, leading to the accumulation of e-waste in landfills where it can release toxic substances.

The production of smart home devices relies heavily on rare earth metals like neodymium, dysprosium and terbium – essential for their electronic circuits and batteries. Extracting these metals is a polluting process that can cause soil and water contamination, while also being energy-intensive, contributing to the overall carbon footprint of the devices.

In addition, the finite nature of these metals means that their extraction is unsustainable in the long run, posing a significant environmental threat due to resource depletion.

Updated: December 27, 2023, 8:37 AM