By now, you’ve seen the fake news about green energy in the headlines of conservative sites and papers:
- Electric car batteries are worse polluters than gas consumption.
- Windmills kill birds and cause cancer.
- Organic farms cause more methane and increase global warming (which doesn’t exist).
- Recycling is a conspiracy to control our thoughts and minds.
We won’t give the sites the credit of linking to those headlines, but all four were taken (if slightly hyperbolized) from real articles aimed not at educating consumers but at reassuring anti-environmentalists in their political opinions.
That said, the concept isn’t entirely wrong. There are no regulations about whether a product marketed as ecologically friendly does less harm than the competition. Consider these examples.
8 Green Products That Aren’t As Eco-Friendly As Advertised
1. Green Cleaners
You’ve seen advertisements for these, and you may have purchased some via your friend’s multilevel marketing operation. They all promise to deliver kitchen, bathroom, and general house cleaning solutions without the petroleum-based, chlorine-filled solvents, bases, and acids in your over-the-counter cleansers. It sounds like a good deal, both for the environment and for any pets or toddlers roaming around your house. But not so fast.
Most of these products don’t clean as well as the alternatives. That means you have to purchase more bottles — which means someone has to manufacture more bottles. More non-biodegradable bottles for the supply chain causes more pollution. In many cases, the substance’s extra quantities are worse than a small amount of the more toxic cleaner.
And that’s assuming the claims on the packaging are true. There are no standards or enforcement when it comes to whether a company is allowed to market their products as green, and more than one “green” manufacturer implies benefits they don’t deliver.
2. Ethanol Fuel
What could be greener than filling your tank with an alternative, renewable fuel source that doesn’t fill the pockets of companies that pollute our oceans, warm the atmosphere, and profit from international conflict? Again, it may be too good to be true.
There’s a lot of doubt about whether or not ethanol burns cleaner than regular gasoline. When you consider how much carbon exchange is lost with large cornfields rather than other crops or even forests, it’s about as bad for global warming as filling up with unleaded.
Also, every field full of corn for ethanol is a field that’s not growing food for people to eat. Although this may not seem like an important point here in food-wealthy North America, this can contribute to food instability. That’s not exactly a green concern, but most people who care about the environment also care about this factor.
3. Bamboo Fabric and Flooring
Bamboo grows much faster than other trees and requires less fertilizer or pesticides than cotton and other plants used to make fabrics. You’ve read this in the ad copy for any bamboo clothing or flooring materials you’ve seen over the years. It’s true, but it’s also only part of the story.
Turning bamboo fibers into something you can weave into clothing requires a bath of lye, carbon disulfide, bleach, and other chemicals. Most of the cloth is made in countries where bamboo grows profusely, and most of these countries have far laxer laws about the disposal of those chemicals than we do in the U.S.
Also, bamboo is an invasive species that grows aggressively, turning its local area into a monoculture. This is bad for the local environment, no matter the species.
4. Electric Cars
You’ll see much ink in the conservative press about how the rare earth metals that go into an electric car’s batteries cause so much pollution in their mining and refinement that an electric vehicle is worse for the environment than a gas vehicle. This is partially true. An electric car new on the lot has caused more environmental damage than a comparable gasoline-driven model.
But that’s before it goes on the road. Over a lifetime, the electric car burns cleaner than its gas-guzzling cousin and quickly catches up from an environmental standpoint. So it all depends.
An electric car driven in a region with renewable electrical generation — like solar, wind, or hydroelectric — will quickly and reliably prove greener than a gas automobile. But if your area gets its electricity from burning oil, coal, or garbage, it’s not nearly so sure a thing.
5. Biodegradable Dog Bags
This one seems, on the surface, like a no-brainer. You’re responsible enough to clean up after your pet, and cellulose dog waste bags mean you can do so in an environmentally friendly way. Right?
If you’ve gotten this far, you can probably predict the answer is no. Sure, these bags are made of material that will decompose faster than a regular plastic bag, but they’ll only do that if you handle them correctly.
If you throw the bag in the trash, it goes into a landfill. In the landfill, the cellulose will not biodegrade as quickly as the poop inside of it. When that poop decomposes in such conditions, it releases a large amount of methane. Methane is a worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so your dog’s poop does more damage than your uncle’s SUV.
On the other hand, if you use a biodegradable dog bag to pick up the poop, then compost the package instead of trashing it, you should be good.
6. Rubber Mulch
Like it or not, much of our modern society relies on the existence of rubber tires. Those tires have a lifespan and must be disposed of when that lifespan reaches its end. Some well-meaning souls have thought to shred the tires, repurposing the rubber for use in flower beds, playgrounds, and jogging tracks.
Unfortunately, rubber tires are full of nasty chemicals, including neurotoxins. Those chemicals leach into the soil beneath the mulch and even get into the skin of the children playing on this material. That’s to say nothing of the dust released during production, which can be a problem for the workers in those plants and the areas downwind.
All in all, this was an excellent idea that hasn’t worked out in practice.
7. Organic Fruits and Vegetables
We love our organic labels. They tell us the food we eat is free of toxic pesticides and was grown using sustainable, earth-friendly fertilizers. We feel good about what we’re putting into our bodies and about what we’re doing to the earth. There are just two problems.
First, like so many other eco-friendly labels, there are no controls on who gets to say their foods are organic. “Organic” can mean truly sustainable methods, it can mean a slight nod toward sustainability, or it can mean no difference at all except for the price tag. There are no regulations, and nobody officially checks.
Second, organic methods produce less food per acre of land and require more labor per pound of food. This isn’t such a big deal if you’re buying from a family farm at your local market. But on the scale of industrial agriculture, it can lead to a crop having a worse environmental footprint than the alternative.
8. Aluminum Water Bottles
A reusable water bottle feels like an upgrade. You’re not part of the crisis of throwing out 60 million non-biodegradable water bottles every day. And drinking out of a cool, reusable aluminum bottle is better than drinking from a single-use item that will sit in a landfill for a few hundred years.
But aluminum — especially aluminum used to make food-grade products — requires mining and refining techniques that are rough on the environment. Plus, mining occurs in countries with questionable environmental and labor practices. Aluminum water bottles are better than disposable bottles, but not by much.
What’s far better than both is drinking out of glasses and from water fountains — like we all used to for hundreds of years.
We’re not saying all green products are scams or have up-chain issues with supply and production that make them just as bad as the alternatives. Buying green is an essential and powerful decision you can make to do a small part in preserving the environment.
We are saying buying green is not enough. We all need to understand the full impact of what we purchase. Then, we can make the most informed and least damaging decision possible. Sometimes that’s a matter of what we buy. Sometimes it’s more what we do with it afterward.
Michael Isaac is a Midwest-based writer who has volunteered for numerous environmental organizations for the past decade. He’s learned a lot about eco-friendly products over the years.