The truth is, there are probably no perfect products or materials. Everything has positive and negative environmental aspects. Ask yourself some basic questions, and weigh the pros and cons before making a personal choice.
- Where does the material come from? If it’s a naturally-occurring material, that’s good. If it’s a renewable resource, even better.
- What are the byproducts of its manufacture? Vinyl is made from petroleum, which is a naturally-occurring resource, but not renewable. Its manufacture, however, puts it squarely on the negative side, since it releases toxins into the environment.
- How is it delivered and/or installed? If a product has to be shipped thousands of miles from its source to be manufactured or used, that’s not as good as something which is locally available.
- How is the product maintained, operated or used? If it doesn’t outgas toxins or pollute the environment, that’s good. If it lasts a long time, that’s also good.
- How healthy is it? If it doesn’t create health problems in humans, animals, or eco-systems, that’s good.
- What do we do with it when we’re done with it? If it can be reused or recycled, all the better. If its disposal doesn’t pollute the environment, bonus.
Take baking soda as an example. Baking soda is commonly recommended as a great eco-friendly cleanser – it’s a good abrasive, and has a myriad of other household uses.
Baking soda is made from soda ash, also known as sodium carbonate. To make baking soda, the soda ash is mined in the form of an ore called trona. The soda ash is then dissolved into a solution through which carbon dioxide is bubbled, and sodium bicarbonate precipitates out, forming baking soda.
So baking soda comes from a natural source, albeit a non-renewable one. The trona ore is mined from extensive tunnels, so it’s not as damaging as strip mining. There are two processes for precipitating the sodium bicarbonate, one of which is more toxic than the other. So sometimes the manufacture of baking soda is less than eco-friendly.
Baking soda has to be shipped from Wyoming to wherever it is used, so it’s not locally available in most of the world.
Baking soda is used in powdered form or dissolved in water. It is non-toxic to humans (as long as it’s not consumed in huge doses), and its crystals are non-irritating either as a powder or solution. (In fact we regularly eat baking soda in baked goods, and it’s even recommended as a treatment for mild skin irritations.)
Baking soda is generally not recycled, but allowed to be washed away into sewage systems, and from there possibly into natural waterways. In large amounts, it is conceivable that it could adversely salinate (i.e. make salty) water systems and disrupt ecosystems.
So what’s the verdict? Yes, baking soda comes from a non-renewable, non-recyclable resource. It is energy-intensive in its manufacture and transport. But its manifold household uses in the face of much more toxic commercial alternatives still make it a preferable alternative.