Five things that might not be as environmentally friendly as you think

Five Things That Might Not Be As Environmentally Friendly As You Think
Cotton totes might be better than single-use plastic bags – but how many do you own? Photo: PA Images
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By Prudence Wade, PA

With Cop26 in full swing in Glasgow – the UN’s climate change conference – many of us are considering how we can do our bit to help the environment.

In many everyday situations, it’s difficult to say definitively whether something is ‘bad’ or ‘good’ for the environment – it tends to be more nuanced than that.


The most important thing is to try your best where possible – but this can be tricky when certain things have a ‘green halo’ around them, making you think they’re better for the environment than they might actually be…

1. Collecting tote bags

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It felt like one of the first stages of the climate crisis entering public consciousness: the war against plastic bags. Single-use plastic bags were once the norm in supermarkets, but suddenly we all swapped them for reusable tote bags.

It’s undoubtedly a positive step to switch single-use plastic for reusable cotton, but ask yourself: just how many tote bags do you actually own?

Most of us have multiple totes hanging about, particularly as quirkily designed bags have become something of a fashion statement – and this might offset the good we think we’re doing.

A 2018 report by The Danish Environmental Protection Agency suggests a cotton tote bag should be reused 20,000 times to neutralise its full life cycle and environmental impact.


2. Hoarding reusable water bottles

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The same logic applies to reusable water bottles – yes, they’re arguably better for the environment than going through countless plastic bottles, but chances are you have more than a few languishing in your cupboard.


Not all reusable water bottles are created equal, either. MIT’s Office of Sustainability suggests bottles made out of virgin aluminium are some of the worst for the environment, with 5.705kg of carbon dioxide per pound of material. If you do have a reusable water bottle, just try and stick to one – and avoid virgin aluminium if possible.

3. Using natural sponges

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Natural is better, right? Unfortunately it’s not always as simple as that.

If you’ve decided to swap out your synthetic sponge for a more organic, naturally occurring product, that might be a bonus in terms of reducing your plastic use.

However, it’s important to buy sustainably harvested sea sponges to help preserve its population.

While sea sponges aren’t an endangered species, there are some questions about how harvesting affects the rest of the marine ecosystem – it’s an area that definitely needs more research to find out the real impact.

Being environmentally conscious can often feel like a minefield, but if you want a more sustainable but natural alternative for sponges, consider materials such as hemp or bamboo.

4. Swapping plastic for paper

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Something else that’s always drilled into us: paper is better than plastic. In many cases, this is true – but things aren’t always as they seem.

When opting for paper alternatives, watch out for products coated with an almost undetectable layer of plastic.

Maybe you’ve swapped out your tinfoil for baking paper, or paper cups have replaced plastic at your local coffee shop – it’s always worth checking whether these products do in fact contain plastic, meaning they’re not biodegradable.

5. Using an e-book reader

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It might seem like having one ebook device for all your reading will save the paper waste of buying new books, but it’s important to consider the environmental cost of making these pieces of tech.

A whole lot of energy is used to get your e-reader in hand – from manufacturing the device itself (something that’s likely done abroad), to shipping it to your home and having to constantly charge it.

Plus, there’s the tricky situation of properly disposing of the electronics when you can no longer use the device.

If you want your reading to be as eco-friendly as possible, why not take out books from your local library or buy them second-hand instead?

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