A standard specification for the rate of biodegradation of compostable plastics set by ASTM International, the American Society for Testing and Materials. This standard specifies that 60% of the material will biodegrade in a lab within 180 days.
A standard specification for testing the percentage of biologically derived content in plastic resins, set by ASTM International. This standard specifies that the percentage of biobased material in a “bioplastic” resin will be determined by the ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 in the material. A resin made from biomass will have a relatively high level of carbon-14, which plants absorb from the atmosphere, while a product made from petrochemicals will have no carbon-14. The USDA requires manufacturers to indicate the percentage of bio-based resin in any labeling that promotes a product as “biobased.”
A standard specification for the labeling of compostable products set by ASTM International (“Standard Specification for Labeling of End Items that Incorporate Plastics and Polymers as Coatings or Additives with Paper and Other Substrates Designed to be Aerobically Composted in Municipal or Industrial Facilities”). This standard specifies that a product labeled as “compostable” must meet three criteria: Under a managed composting program it must 1) break down to carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass at a rate consistent with paper, 2) decompose so that the plastic is not visually distinguishable, and 3) leave no toxic residue.
See “Plant-based plastics.”
Determined by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) to be composed of polymers that are completely biodegradable in approved composting facilities, and that meet the requirements defined by ASTM D6400 or ASTM D6868; these standards identify three key criteria for a product to be certified as compostable: Under a managed composting program it must 1) break down to carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass at a rate consistent with paper, 2) decompose so that the plastic is not visually distinguishable, and 3) leave no toxic residue. (Also see “ASTM.”)
Organic material which can be used as a soil amendment; produced by combining “green” organic wastes (food scraps, yard trimmings, manures, etc.) with “brown” organic wastes (wood chips, dry leaves, dry grasses, etc.) and allowing the materials to decompose together and cure with time.
Meets three standards set by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM): Under a managed composting program, must 1) break down to carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass at a rate consistent with paper, 2) decompose so that the original material is not visually distinguishable, and 3) leave no toxic residue.
”Plastic that meets ASTM standards for compostability. (See “compostable.”)
A waste management system for organic materials that converts them into stable, nutrient-rich soil amendments; facilities that accelerate the decomposition of organic waste through methodical, multi-step processes that begin by shredding the organic inputs, maintain their temperatures at 140°F or higher, maintain their humidity at approximately 80%, introduce beneficial microorganisms, and provide sufficient aeration by turning the mixtures regularly.
A brand of plant based plastic derived from corn made by NatureWorks, the largest polylactic acid(PLA) producer in the world.
PLA plastic / Polylactic acid
Plastic derived from glucose, a sugar produced by plants; one of the most popular PLA-plastic resins currently used in consumer products is Ingeo; currently, the most common raw material for Ingeo is field corn, although other plant sources may be used in the future.
Plastics that are derived from plants and are usually compostable; also known as “bio-plastics.”
A thin material used primarily for writing and printing since it was invented in China in the 2nd Century AD; originally produced by disintegrating vegetation such as mulberry, hemp, china grass, and tree bark, as well as cloth; can be produced from hundreds of fibrous plants; currently produced from the fibrous agricultural waste of a variety of crops, including wheat, rice, cotton, banana, and sugar cane.
The fibers remaining after sugarcane stalks are crushed for juice.
Derived from living matter; derived from renewable biological resources.
The measure of an area’s ability to provide resources for living organisms and to absorb their carbon dioxide waste; when a population’s demands on an ecosystem exceed the bio-capacity of that ecosystem, the situation is unsustainable.
A process of concentrating chemical compounds in an ecosystem, which begins with the ingestion of the compounds by simple organisms and proceeds with their increasing concentration in increasingly complex organisms as predators consume the compounds in their prey.
Capable of disintegration by biological means; typically, composed of organic matter that can be readily decomposed by a wide variety of microorganisms. A term that is technically less precise than “compostable,” because it fails to indicate the time required for complete disintegration (which the term “compostable” does specify). Technically, almost all materials are “biodegradable,” since with enough time, some microorganisms can decompose almost anything. For example, The Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) reports that aluminum cans biodegrade in the ocean in about 175 years, and hard plastic bottle caps biodegrade in the ocean in about 400 years.
A complex set of processes that are essential for life on Earth and that exchange carbon atoms among all organisms and among carbon reservoirs in landmasses, oceans, and the atmosphere; in the biological stages of the carbon cycle, two main processes occur in balance with each other: photosynthesis, in which plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, and metabolism (or combustion) in which animals (or fires) consume organic matter while absorbing oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide; humans disrupt this natural balance in the carbon cycle by burning fossil fuels.
Carbon dioxide / CO2
A gas released artificially into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels and released naturally by animal respiration, volcanoes, and carbonate rocks dissolving in water; a gas absorbed by plants in the process of photosynthesis; a gas that has increased in density in the Earth’s atmosphere by 35% since the beginning of the industrial revolution (with an atmospheric density of 390 parts per million by volume in November 2011); a key contributor to global warming.
Organic; compounds of carbon and other elements; the molecular basis of most life on Earth.
Cycle of life
A sequence of stages that all organisms pass through: growth, development, reproduction, death, and replacement by offspring; a global network of interactions among organisms and their surrounding environments which maintain the Earth’s atmosphere and regulate its temperature.
The process of breaking substances down into simpler, component materials; with organic substances, also known as “rotting;” accomplished by chemical processes, physical processes, and the work of microorganism.
An interdependent network of soil, water, atmosphere, solar energy and living organisms in which the organisms fall into three categories: producers (plants that capture solar energy as they grow), consumers (animals that eat plants or other animals) and decomposers (live plants and animals that break down dead plants and animals to create new soil).
A highly complex, chemically stable organic material that is the product of mature compost; a dark, spongy substance with a uniform texture, a necessary component of good soil structure, a habitat for soil organisms, and often considered the “life force” of soil.
Solids, liquids, and gases that are composed of carbon-based molecules; natural organic compounds are produced by plants and animals, and include sugars, fats, carbohydrates, proteins, enzymes, hormones, and vitamins; synthetic organic compounds are produced through human-created reactions between other compounds, and include polymers like plastics and rubbers.
Also known as “crude oil,” a naturally occurring, flammable liquid which was formed over millions of years from fossilized organisms that were buried under conditions of intense heat and pressure; the name derives the Greek petra(rock) and the Latin oleum (oil). (See also “oil reserves.”)
Derived from petroleum. (See also “oil industry.”)
The degree of harm that a substance bears towards living organisms and ecosystems, characterized in terms of the dose that damages an individual organism or specific population.
Toxins / Toxics
Technically, “toxins” are poisonous substances produced by living cells or organisms, and “toxics” are poisonous substances created by humans through artificial processes; non-technically, the two terms are used interchangeably; substances that can damage the functioning of organisms at the level of cells, organs, or whole organisms.
The constant movement of water among different reservoirs on Earth (oceans, lakes, rivers, ice caps, the atmosphere, etc.) through the processes of evaporation, condensation, precipitation, infiltration, runoff, and subsurface flow; during these processes, water changes states – between solid, liquid, and gas – and absorbs or releases energy during those state changes, which affects the Earth’s climate; the movement of water among different reservoirs also serves to purify the Earth’s water and transports minerals around the planet.
A solution of sodium hypochlorite that is used as a disinfectant (especially of water) or as a whitener; a substance that works through oxidation reactions, which are corrosive and can burn skin and cause eye damage; a substance which tends to form chlorinated organic compounds that are toxic and/or carcinogenic when released in unfiltered water.
Various chemical compounds that whiten materials through oxidation, including hydrogen peroxide, sodium percarbonate, and sodium perborate; whitening compounds which are less toxic than the sodium hypochlorite solution that is standard chlorine bleach.
BPA / bisphenol A
An organic compound used as a stiffener in the production of plastic, with hormone-mimicking properties and designated as a toxin by the government of Canada.
See “Bleach, chlorine” above.
Plastics that are petroleum-based, are virtually never compostable, are rarely recyclable, and are increasingly polluting the lands and oceans of the Earth.
A broad class of chemical compounds that are by-products of various industrial processes, are highly toxic, and are persistent organic pollutants; in chemistry, heterocyclic 6-membered rings in which 2 carbon atoms are substituted by oxygen atoms.
A chemical compound composed of one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms; the major component of natural gas, which is burned as a fuel; a gas released into the atmosphere by microorganisms that decompose organic matter and by the digestive tracts of ruminant animals (like cattle) and termites; a potent greenhouse gas that was present in the atmosphere at a concentration of 1800 parts per billion in 2008, a 157% increase over its concentration of 700 ppb in 1750; a substance that damages the Earth’s ozone layer.
Causing no damage to the functioning of organisms at the level of cells, organs, or whole organisms.
A class of chemical compounds used primarily to soften plastics for a wide variety of products; currently being phased out of many products in the United States, Canada, and Europe due to concerns about their impacts on hormone disruptions and birth defects.
A moldable synthetic material made from carbon-based compounds, usually derived from petrochemicals, but potentially derived partly or wholly from plant-based chemicals.
Polystyrene / foamed polystyrene
A plastic derived from petroleum and designated as “Resin # 6” by the Society of the Plastics Industry; used in rigid and foamed states, with Styrofoam being the most common brand of commercial foamed polystyrene; a good barrier to water and heat, it has many common uses, including food packaging and home insulation.
Also known as vinyl benzene, an oily liquid compound composed of carbon and hydrogen atoms; the precursor to polystyrene and described by the US National Toxicology Program as a likely human carcinogen.
See “Polystyrene / foamed polystyrene.”
Also known as polyvinyl chloride or PVC, a plastic derived from petroleum and designated as “Resin # 3” by the Society of the Plastics Industry; used in rigid and flexible states; extremely stable and highly resistant to degradation by weather and chemicals, with good strength and clarity, it has many common uses, including packaging, piping, and medical supplies.
Forest, old growth
Also known as “virgin forest,” an area trees that has grown undisturbed for sufficient time (which varies according to the type of forest from a century to several millennia) that it supports extreme biodiversity by providing a diversity of habitats in trees of different ages, standing deadwood, openings in the canopy due to fallen trees, down wood in various stages of decay, and a healthy fungal ecosystem.
Fuels formed by millions of years of heat and pressure exerted by the Earth’s crust on the remains of dead plants; carbon-rich fuels that include coal, petroleum, and natural gas; non-renewable resources that humans are consuming much faster than the Earth can make them.
The fraction of crude oil in geological formations beneath the Earth’s surface that can be practically extracted for human use; crude oil is a naturally occurring, flammable liquid (also known as “petroleum” from the Greek petra (rock) and the Latin oleum (oil)) which was formed over millions of years from fossilized organisms that were buried under conditions of intense heat and pressure. Ever since the world’s first commercial oil wells opened in the 1850’s, estimates of the size of the world’s oil reserves have been controversial. Not all crude oil in a given location (know as “oil in place”) can be extracted with current technologies. However, new technologies are being developed to increase the fraction of oil that can be produced, and which pose new environmental risks. The CIA estimated that “proven oil reserves” (those which they determined to warrant a high degree of confidence as being commercially recoverable with current technologies) stood at 1.47 trillion barrels worldwide on January 1, 2011.
Old growth forest
See “Forest, old growth.”
A thin material used primarily for writing, printing, and packaging, produced primarily from wood inputs since the mid-1800’s; 90-95% of paper worldwide is tree-based; in the U.S., approximately one-third each comes from whole trees, from scrap wood, and from other paper; made by disintegrating wood into a “pulp” which is then pressed and dried in thin sheets.
One of three categories of paper made by pulping other paper: 1) mill broke recycled (paper scrap that is recycled within a paper mill), 2) pre-consumer-waste recycled (paper discarded after leaving the paper mill and recycled before being used by consumers), and 3) post-consumer-waste recycled (paper recycled after being used and then discarded by consumers, or PCW paper); according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the manufacturing of recycled paper creates 35% less water pollution and 74% less air pollution than the manufacturing of new paper; depending on the quality of the paper it replaces, one ton of 100% PCW paper saves between 8 and 24 trees.
Conventional paper made from cellulose fibers that have been released from wood through a pulping process; mechanical wood-pulping fails to remove lignin from wood pulp, which is a chemical compound essential in the cell walls of plants, but is unnecessary in paper and causes it to yellow; chemical wood-pulping (the Kraft process) removes virtually all lignin from wood pulp; for that reason, oddly, Kraft paper is commonly referred to as “woodfree” in paper industry circles, even though Kraft paper actually derives from wood.
Not to be confused with “wood-free paper.” A synonym for plant-fiber paper, which can be produced from hundreds of fibrous plants. (See also “paper, tree-based” and “paper, plant-fiber.”)
Derived from plant matter; derived from renewable plant resources.
Also known as industrial plantation, a stand of trees actively managed for the commercial production of forest products like wood and paper; usually grown in blocks of trees of a uniform age and species; often genetically altered to enhance desired characteristics like rapid growth, pest resistance, high wood volume, and stem straightness.
Post-consumer-waste (PCW) paper
See “Paper, post-consumer-waste.”
See “Paper, tree-based.”
See “Paper, tree-free.”
See “Forest, old growth.”
A substance or object that a person has no use for and wants to discard; often contributes to pollution and the depletion of natural resources.
Any discarded substance or object that derives from plants or animals; typically includes yard trimmings, food scraps, wood waste, and paper products, which comprise more than two-thirds of US solid waste.
The process of removing stands of trees from natural forests and converting the lands to non-forest uses like farms, ranches, and urban development.
Designed to be used once and then discarded.
Generally, the use of fuels to power human activity; fuels are either combusted to produce heat to provide power directly or heat to generate electricity which provides power; non-renewable fuels are used most commonly (oil, gas, coal, uranium, etc.) with renewable fuels playing a significant minor role in the worldwide energy markets (solar, wind, geothermal, methane, etc.); the United States Energy Information Agency calculated that oil and coal supplied 60% of worldwide energy consumption in 2008, while renewable sources supplied 13%; high rates of fossil fuel consumption contribute to global warming.
An increase in the concentration of nutrients in a body of water as they are added by natural processes or human activity, typically leading to excessive growth of algae (See “toxic blooms.”), depletion of oxygen in the water, and death of higher organisms like fish.
A measure of the net impact on natural resources required to support a given population, system, or activity; an “ecological footprint” or “environmental footprint” represents the amount of biologically productive land and ocean that are required to support human activities; a “carbon footprint” represents the net amount of carbon-based air pollution emitted by human activities, which the ecosystem must absorb; a “water footprint” represents the amount of fresh water required by human activities; humanity’s worldwide Ecological Footprint is recalculated annually from data collected by the UN, and was last estimated at 1.5 planet Earths (2007), meaning humanity is consuming natural resources approximately 1.5 times faster than the Earth can renew them.
The trend of rising temperatures in the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans since the 19th century and projected into the future; recognized by the national science academies of all major industrialized nations as deriving mostly from increased concentrations of greenhouse gasses produced by human activities such as deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels.
Chemical compounds in the Earth’s atmosphere that absorb heat from the sun and then re-radiate that heat in all directions, causing a net increase in atmospheric temperature.
A disinformation campaign by a company, industry, government, political party, politician or non-government organization to deceive current and potential customers that an organization, leader, policy, practice, or product is more environmentally responsible than it actually is; a coordinated effort to hide unpleasant facts about environmental impacts by spending more time and money on advertising and marketing than actually implementing green practices; derives from “whitewashing.”
The process of displacing or destroying organisms in an ecosystem, rendering the location unable to support the species that had lived there historically.
A solid waste management practice that converts waste materials into ash (including particulate air pollution), flue gas (including gaseous air pollution), and heat; pollution controls on modern incinerators have evolved to the point that for the same amount of energy produced, incineration plants emit less air pollution than coal-fired plants, but more than natural-gas-fired plants.
Solid waste management facilities that take the majority of US waste materials and bury them; facilities designed to isolate wastes from the surrounding environment (especially from groundwater) by burying them on top of plastic liners and under layers of dirt, thus inhibiting decomposition.
For products, a thorough assessment of the burdens placed on the environment by an item through all stages of its existence: 1) research, design, and development, 2) manufacturing, 3) sales and delivery, 4) use, operation, or consumption, and 5) recycling or disposal; quantification of the raw materials and energy used, and the solid, liquid and gaseous waste generated at each stage of a product's existence; helpful in the formulation of environmental legislation, the design of products and manufacturing processes, and consumer choices.
See “Pollution, land / soil”
Ocean garbage patches
Accumulations of sludge and debris amassed by circular ocean currents, largely composed of small plastic fragments floating in surface waters that span thousands of square miles at an approximate concentration in 2001 of 3.27 pounds of plastic per square mile.
In ecosystems, a state in which natural resources are used at rates that outpace the ability of natural systems to replenish them; prolonged patterns of overconsumption lead to environmental degradation and the loss of resource bases. The average rate of resource consumption in industrialized areas like North America, Western Europe, Japan, and Australia is about 32 times higher than it is in the developing world. Worldwide data collected by the UN in 2007 demonstrate that humanity is consuming natural resources approximately 1.5 times faster than the Earth can renew them. (See also “Footprint.”).
Foreign substances introduced into natural environments that harm the health of ecosystems; can take the form of toxic or non-toxic substances, or the form of energy, such as noise, heat, or light.
Foreign substances introduced into the atmosphere in the form of solid particles, liquid vapors, and gases; contributing to global warming, acid rain, and health hazards such as heart disease and lung disease.
Pollution, land / soil
Foreign substances introduced into the land by the leeching of waste from landfills, the corrosion of underground storage tanks and pipes, the application of fertilizers, the dumping of industrial wastes, and other human activities; contributing to decreases in agricultural productivity, destruction of natural ecosystems, and health hazards that vary greatly, ranging from skin rashes to cancers and birth defects.
Foreign substances introduced into lakes, rivers, oceans, and groundwater by discharges from sewage treatment plants, factory discharges, run-off from cities through storm drains, and other human activity; causing damage to individual organisms and ecosystems, and a leading cause of death and disease worldwide.
Capable of being reprocessed after use for the purpose of using again instead of wasting; capable of producing fresh material from previously used material that was discarded after use; some materials (paper, for example) can only be recycled a few times before they degrade too far to be useful; some products (plastic-coated paper for example) cannot be recycled because the component materials are too expensive to separate.
Reprocessing products and materials after they have been discarded so that the component materials can be used again instead of being wasted.
Capable of being replenished by natural processes with the passage of time; bio-based materials are renewable; energy drawn from solar radiation, tides, winds, geothermal heat, and biomass is renewable.
Use or consumption of a resource at a level that allows the base stock of the resource to replenish itself; use or consumption at a level that avoids depleting or permanently damaging the base stock of a resource.
Sustainable products / materials
Products and materials that are produced by processes that avoid depleting or destroying the base stocks of source materials used.
Also known as “harmful algae blooms,” the rapid increase of a toxic algae species in bodies of water to concentrations ranging from hundreds to millions of cells per milliliter; producing some of the most potent natural toxins known to humanity and poisoning humans after those toxins travel up the food web; resulting from the introduction of excess nutrients into water, sometimes by human activity.
A business that functions to solve social and environmental problems, a “benefit corporation;” when certified by the nonprofit organization B Lab, these businesses demonstrate commitment to three objectives: 1) to meet comprehensive and transparent social and environmental performance standards, 2) to meet high legal accountability standards, and 3) to build a business constituency for public policies that support sustainable business practices.
A form of business incorporation that is legally recognized by seven states in the U.S. The articles of incorporation of a benefit corporation will include management rules that reflect standards like those set by the nonprofit B Lab. See “B Corp.”
Corporate social responsibility
Also known as CSR, a framework of business practices that express corporate self-regulation to comply with international ethical standards and to produce a positive impact on the environment, consumers, employees, communities, and other members of the public sphere.
Determined by the Forest Stewardship Council to be forest products that come from responsibly harvested and verified sources; certified according to a set of principles, criteria, and standards that span economic, social, and environmental concerns.
A type of organization that relies on voluntary, self-directed action by people at the local level to accomplish its goals.
An alternative vision for growth and development that promotes a “triple bottom line” to make a full accounting of economic, environmental, and social outcomes; a system that promotes both sustainability and economic growth; focusing primarily on the intersection between environment and economy, its distinguishing feature is the direct economic valuation of natural resources as financial assets and of environmental harms as financial liabilities.
Farming systems that rely on ecologically based practices such as cultural and biological pest management, crop rotation, and the exclusion of all synthetic chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones in crop and livestock production; systems that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices to cycle resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity in response to site-specific conditions; systems that clearly demonstrate significant advantages over conventional systems in terms of human health, soil conservation and productivity, water conservation, diversity of plant and animal species, and the mitigation of damage from global climate change. The Organic Farming Research Foundation determined that 14,500 USDA-certified organic farmers were farming in the United States in 2011.
The act of identifying and implementing solutions to large-scale social and environmental problems; the practice of transforming whole societies for the better by identifying their most pressing social problems, offering new ideas for large-scale change, and persuading the general public to implement solutions.
An enterprise that seeks to produce positive results for the environment, for society, and for its own workers; an enterprise that designs its processes, products, and manufacturing activities to meet the needs of future generations as well as its own current needs.
In psychology, a state of heightened happiness and security, which people achieve by fully immersing themselves in challenging activities.
See “Composting, home.”
Life in balance
A lifestyle in which a person or community consumes resources at a rate that the Earth can regenerate and emits carbon dioxide at a rate that the Earth can absorb; a lifestyle directed towards the goals of safe homes and healthy nutrition for all creatures, deep understanding and collaborative problem-solving among all people, and the pursuit of happiness through personal development and interpersonal intimacy rather than excess consumption.
See “Waste, organic.”
See “Life in Balance.”
Disparities in assets and income that have no moral purpose and that cause real harm to people; worldwide, the richest 1% of adults owed 40% of world assets in 2000, according to the World Institute for Development Economics Research at United Nations University; the Global Hunger Index reported 81 countries with “extremely alarming” or “serious” hunger situations in 2011; according to Bread for the World, 925 million people were hungry in 2011 and almost 16,000 children died from hunger-related causes every day, or one child dying due to hunger every five seconds.
A situation of heightened risk for deep recession, high inflation, financial crisis, or other extreme financial fluctuations; an economy based on false assumptions (like the Earth’s resources are infinite) unsustainable practices (like filling the oceans with plastic); or gambling with scarce resources (like futures markets in fossil fuels).
Fair labor practices
Employment that provides decent and humane working conditions with compensation for a regular work week that is sufficient to meet workers’ basic needs and provide them with some discretionary income.
Economic conditions that cause 1 in 7 people worldwide to live in lethal states of hunger; a lack of access to farmable land or to income for obtaining adequate nutrition; the result of policies and practices formulated by rich and powerful decision-makers in the global economy, including cutbacks in health, education, and other vital social services that are made as conditions of international loans; a vicious cycle in which a person’s lack of resources leads to hunger, which causes poor health and low energy, which reduces the person’s ability to work, which leads to a further reduction of income and resources, etc.