It’s no secret that the environment is facing some serious challenges. In May, the United Kingdom declared a state of emergency because of climate change, and shortly thereafter Ireland, France, Canada, and New York City all followed suit. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reports that issues such as land degradation, water scarcity, loss of biodiversity, and climate change are all “growing problems that need to be urgently addressed.” Other issues include air and water pollution, deforestation, wildlife destruction, and resource depletion. According to former UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner: “If current trends continue and the world fails to enact solutions that improve current patterns of production and consumption…then the state of the world’s environment will continue to decline.”
Air pollution causes one in 10 deaths worldwide, according to the World Bank, making it the fourth-largest risk factor throughout the globe. In North America alone, about 140 million people are exposed. Further, UNEP says that new chemical contaminants are emerging every day. Global warming is another huge factor impacting North America. “Climate change is damaging the environment, human health and well-being and, in some cases, human security in the region,” the organization says. In addition, there are threats to waterways and coastal ecosystems because of acidification, ocean warming, sea level rise, and marine debris.
With these threats, it’s hard to know where to start if you want to help. However, some environmentalists say the best place to begin is inside your own home. Many everyday items lying around your house can be contributing to the problem because of what they’re made of, how they’re produced, or how they’re disposed of. But it’s not always obvious. Sure, there are the easy ones like plastic bags and motor oil, but many of the biggest threats are more insidious.
To help give you a better idea of what surprising household items are hurting the environment, Stacker has put together a gallery of 30 common items that are ecologically harmful. In each slide, we’ve provided information about why the item is harmful and what you can do to reduce your impact. Take a look to see which ones surprise you.
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You wouldn’t think something as small as a piece of tape could have such a major impact on the environment but the tiny scraps, made with synthetic resins and plastic films that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, add up fast. Not only that, when tape and sticky residue are left on cardboard boxes, they interfere with the recycling process. Luckily, some types of tape (such as masking tape and cellophane) are actually compostable so using them is a great way to reduce your footprint.
According to the Cascade Alliance, Americans throw away 20 million mattresses and box springs every year, contributing 450 million pounds of waste to landfills and sprawling for 100 million cubic feet. If you lined them up, in fact, they would circle the Earth. Mattresses are also made using hazardous flame-retardant chemicals that can leach into drinking water supplies. The good news is that much of their components can be recycled if broken down first, and a growing number of facilities offer this service (there are currently 56 in the United States).
While drinking tea is often associated with holistic medicine and eco-friendly lifestyles, tea bags can be harmful to the environment. “Many tea drinkers are blissfully unaware that the tea bag from their daily cuppa is sealed using plastic,” Co-Op Food CEO Jo Whitfield explained to The Guardian. “Even though it’s a relatively small amount, when you consider the 6bn cups of tea that are brewed up every year in the UK, we are looking at around 150 tons of polypropylene—that’s an enormous amount of accumulated plastic waste that is either contaminating food waste compost collections or simply going to landfill.” Fortunately, an increasing number of brands are turning to sustainable tea bags.
Most antibacterial gels contain triclocarban (TCC) and triclosan (TCS), two chemicals known to degrade slowly. According to Lecia Bushak of Medical Daily, the chemicals account for 60% of all drugs found in sewage and wastewater treatment sludge. These contaminate lakes and rivers, and harm aquatic life.
When you’re lathering yourself in a sunscreen at the beach, the irony is that you may be contributing to the destruction of the coral reefs offshore. There are four chemicals in sunscreen responsible for the problem—paraben, benzophenone, cinnamate, and camphor. These chemicals bleach coral reefs, stripping them of their defense mechanisms and setting them up for diseases, viral infections, and ultimately their demise. If you want to help, opt for eco-friendly, “reef-safe” brands.
Plastic straws are getting more attention these days as significant environmental threats; however, many people are still unaware of the extent of their damage. The Trash Free Seas Alliance reports that Americans use 1.6 straws a day—enough to circle the equator more than twice. At the same time, plastic has been discovered in a whopping 90% of all seabirds and 100% of all sea turtle species. These days, more Earth-friendly straw alternatives are available, including paper, glass, stainless steel, and bamboo.
Light bulbs are tough to weigh environmentally because incandescent bulbs require more energy, leading to carbon dioxide emissions. However, fluorescent (CFL) and LED bulbs contain more metal components such as lead, copper, and zinc, causing resource depletion and potential toxicity, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. The takeaway is that whether you’re using regular light bulbs or alternative versions, you should be conserving them as much as possible.
You don’t necessarily think of your clothes as contributing to environmental destruction. But according to Greenpeace, the fashion industry produced 92 million tons of waste in 2015 and consumed almost 2.8 trillion cubic meters of water. On top of that, it emitted more than a million tons of carbon dioxide. Shopping at second-hand stores, keeping your clothes until they wear out, and not shopping as often are all ways to reduce your impact.
The environmental culprit behind toothpaste is microbeads—tiny bits of plastic too small for most water treatment plans to filter out. The result is that they end up in rivers and oceans where they look like fish eggs and get eaten by aquatic animals. Not only that, they soak up toxic pesticides and metals. In the United States alone, there are an estimated 8 trillion microbeads contaminating the waterways. Many countries and states have banned the small beads, which are also found in soaps and other personal care products.
Lots of cat litter is made with sodium bentonite clay, a mineral that’s sourced via environmentally devastating strip mining. Besides cat litter contributing to the clearing of topsoil and the destruction of trees and habitat, it can also be harmful to your cat if ingested. If you don’t want to support strip mining, opt for cat litter without sodium bentonite. Also, be sure to always compost it.
As of 2013, China was producing 80 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks every year, requiring a massive 20 million trees to be leveled. The trees that get chopped down include bamboo, cottonwood, spruce, and other varieties, all of which lead to increased carbon dioxide in the air. While many of the chopsticks are used in China, billions more are exported to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the United States.
Laundry detergents are harmful to the environment, particularly aquatic life. This is largely because of the phosphates in them that pollute waterways and lead to algae blooms. The blooms deplete oxygen in the water, suffocating fish and other marine life. Additionally, detergents typically contain surfactants, chemicals that lift dirt from clothing but also contribute to marine destruction. To reduce your laundry footprint, choose phosphate-free options.
Exfoliating face wash
If your face wash has exfoliating properties, chances are that like toothpaste, it contains microbeads. According to Plymouth University, roughly 94,000 microbeads (which have polyethylene or other plastics) are flushed down the drain every time you use your face wash with them in it. To combat this problem, look for microbead-free face washes.
Those packs of cigarettes lying around the house aren’t just bad for your health—they’re devastating to the environment, too. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), tobacco harvesting is responsible for things like deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution, and increased carbon dioxide emissions. The manufacturing and production of cigarettes also creates millions of tons of solid waste each year, and there’s significant plastic, metal, and butane involved in the production of cigarette lighters. Plus, tobacco smoking itself leads to the emission of 2.6 million tons of carbon dioxide and 5.2 million tons of methane. All of this is before factoring in the waste from the packaging and non-biodegradable filters that leach arsenic, lead, nicotine, and ethyl phenol into the soil and waterways.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, there is little evidence to suggest that household bleach itself (not to be confused with liquid chlorine) is excessively harmful to the environment. This is partly because it degrades into salt, calcium, or hypochlorite in the soil and can’t typically make it past sewage treatment plants. However, it is part of the organochlorine industry which has a huge environmental impact at the production level. “Arguably, by buying household bleach, although it can be considered relatively innocuous in itself, it helps to prop up the whole organochlorine industry,” Lucy Siegle wrote in The Guardian.
You might not think about your cell phone as a cause of ecological harm but in the digital age, e-waste is a growing environmental concern. In fact, according to researchers at Canada’s McMaster University, smart phones and data centers will have the tech industry’s biggest carbon footprint by 2040. While cell phones don’t consume a lot of energy to operate, producing them causes enormous emissions. Not only that, they’re designed to have short lives and thus create a lot of physical waste.
Over 100 billion tampons, maxi-pads, and other menstrual products are estimated to be disposed of every year, according to The Telegraph. Just in North America, about 20 billion of those sit in landfills—most of which are not biodegradable. “A package of conventional sanitary pads can contain the equivalent of about four plastic bags,” Dominique Mosbergen wrote for The Huffington Post. As a greener alternative, try reusable options such as cups, sponges, and menstrual underwear.
It might seem obvious given that they’re plastic but sandwich bags are items that seldom gain much attention for their environmental impact—yet it is significant. “Like grocery bags, most sandwich baggies are made of polyethylene, a substance derived from natural gas,” wrote Kiera Butler for Mother Jones magazine. “Although sandwich bags are smaller and denser than grocery bags, the two kinds actually weigh about the same.” Even though it consumes water, the positive impact of washing and reusing the bags most likely outweighs the cost, according to Darby Hoover of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
According to the EPA, vegetable oil causes similar environmental effects as petroleum oils. These include “devastating physical effects, such as coating animals and plants with oil and suffocating them by oxygen depletion,” as well as destroying habitats, damaging food supplies, and clogging water treatment plants.
In 2018, roughly 163 million American consumers used disposable razors, most of which ended up in landfills. They’re not typically recyclable due to the mix of plastics they’re constructed with, and the sharp metal objects inside them. However, TerraCycle—an organization that recycles hard-to-recycle items—has a nationwide program to assist with recycling razors.
It’s not only razors that are bad for the environment. Shaving cream, too, has a detrimental impact on the eco-system if you use aerosol cans—the containers which a great many of the shaving creams come in. These cans contain hydrocarbon propellants, such as butane or propane, that contribute significantly to greenhouse emissions. For a greener shave, choose non-aerosol shaving creams.
Not only does your refrigerator run on constant fossil fuel-consuming energy, it’s also made with foam that contains a gas that’s “1,000 times worse, molecule for molecule, than carbon dioxide,” writes Matthew Wald of The New York Times. The good news is that there are alternatives such as hydrocarbon fridges that are made without R134a, the harmful gas. In 2017, the EPA allowed hydrocarbon fridges to be used in the United States.
Regular drip coffee makers consume a lot of water, while espresso makers use a large amount of energy. According to Alf Hill, a lecturer at the University of Bath, these machines end up being worse for the environment than coffee pods and capsule machines, even though the latter get all the attention about their eco footprints. “Capsules tend to need less coffee input to make a single drink and so their overall impact can be lower even though we see more waste when we throw them away,” Hill explained.
Scented candles contain paraffin wax which has been shown to affect air quality, emitting chemicals that cause cancer and negatively affect people with asthma. Not only that, many candles have wicks with cotton wrapped around metal which produces a soot that is toxic to breathe.
Yoga buffs are often associated with being eco-friendly and environmentally conscious. However, traditional yoga mats often are made with polyvinyl chloride, a harmful plastic. To combat this, several sustainable yoga mat companies, like Yoga Design Lab or Liforme, have sprung up in recent years.
The problem with cotton balls isn’t the balls themselves—they are biodegradable by nature. However, their production consumes a huge amount of resources. According to the World Wildlife Fund, for example, over 20,000 liters of water are required to make one kilogram of cotton.
Similar to cell phones, laptops are another example of personal electronics that are not environmentally friendly. Aside from the energy required to produce them, they often contain toxins such as mercury, lead, chromium, or other heavy metals, according to SFGate.com. When these hit landfills they have the potential to pollute the soil and groundwater.
Perfume contains chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that react with other chemicals in the air, creating harmful ozone pollution. According to Allure’s Macaela Mackenzie, perfume and other scented products like hair sprays, air fresheners, and paints, actually release the same amount of chemical vapors as petroleum emissions from cars.
You wouldn’t think something as small as a toaster would have much of an impact on air quality but researchers at the University of Texas found that toasters, along with candles and other smoke-making items, are more toxic than standing at a busy intersection breathing car fumes. They said that burnt toast is the worst so if you must use the toaster, try to keep it on the lighter settings.
Makeup and cosmetics
This is another set of items where microbeads are to blame. Lots of various makeups contain these harmful plastic beads, particularly blushes and foundations. Since not all of them do, however, it can be difficult to suss out which cosmetics are environmentally destructive. If your makeup is not specifically designed to be eco-friendly or microbead-free, check the ingredients for things like polyethylene, nylon, polypropylene, or polymethyl methacrylate.
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