We all want to be more eco-friendly, right? Well, one positive step in that direction is by reducing the trash you create, such as single-use plastics, and opt for a biodegradable option. For example, many cafes are switching from plastic-lined paper cups to certified biodegradable and compostable cups. While this seems like a good switch, it’s still important to understand that although something may be more sustainable, it still has to come from somewhere- be extracted, processed, transported, etc. All these things in the production line have an impact on the environment, no matter what it's made of or what type of environmental certification it has.
On the topic of certification, a lot of companies are starting to market their products with sustainable logos to ensure the consumer that what they are buying meets their values and that the company is in line with those as well. Some examples of identifiable certifications are fair trade, cruelty free, vegan, USDA organic, GMO-free, etc. However, not all certifications are promoted equally. A lot of companies will market their products falsely to sell more in the ever growing demand for 'green' products and practices. That's why it's important to research each certification and know what kind it is. There are actually three different types: Type I is the most reliable: it states that they are third party certified, meaning that another independent organization came in and verified that the product is meeting all the necessary standards in order to receive that kind of certification. Type II is a self-declared certification. So the company itself claims to meet the standards of a specific certification. A reason why some companies won't bother with third-party certification is because it can be pretty expensive. But be wary of this! Do your research and find out if that company is really all about what they claim to be. Type III is based on the Life Cycle Assessment. This type of certification is based on a document that communicates information about the life-cycle of a product from cradle to grave.
Now, onto the topic of more 'sustainable' products, they are usually associated with being biodegradable and/or coming from bio-renewable resources. These include resources that have the capability to regenerate in the lifetime of a human, like trees and other plants, sun energy, etc. Non-renewable resources, as you may already be familiar with, include fossil fuels, metals, natural gasses and oils. Since they are extracted from the depths of the Earth and took millions of years to form, they cannot be regenerated again for another million or so years, and are thus limited.
Wood is probably one of the most widely used bio-renewable resources available. We use it for construction, fuel, furniture, paper, etc. It's a part of our daily lives. Because of this, the demand is constant, and more and more trees are required to sustain the economic demand for wood products. Is this sustainable, you may ask? Well, it depends. We get out wood from three different kinds of systems: we have natural forests, plantations, and semi-natural forests. Neither is better than the other, and that's why it's important to understand the key concepts of all that goes into harvesting from each source. As the demand for wood products goes up, so does the planting of trees. This concept is vital to understanding the sustainability approach to wood/paper consumption. Natural forests are great and essential for the health of the planet, our health, and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Tree plantations, however, offer the same benefits. The only difference is that they lack tree diversity, which introduces a variety of risks, they use pesticides and other potentially harmful applied chemicals, and they are eventually cut down. However, they produce wood at a faster and more effect rate then natural forests. It is also important to note that plantations only account for 3% of forest land worldwide.
But bio-renewable resources don't just focus on wood. There are also herbaceous biomass production options. These include crops that aren't hard like wood, and die off each year to regrow the next. These leafy plants we utilize in our daily lives include cotton, corn, bamboo, hemp, etc. Many of these plants are used for fuel and chemicals, as well as fibers and newly introduced single-use products like dish-ware. Creating all of these things from bio-renewable resources sounds like it would be better than fracking into the earth to obtain non-renewable, polluting resources. But the mass-production of these products comes with its own environmental consequences, such as depletion of soil quality, use of toxic chemical fertilizers that can contaminate soil and water, and potentially harm wildlife. These processes also involve carbon-emitting machinery.
As you can now see, the line between what is sustainable and what isn't is quite blurred. There are a lot of factors that go into the production of a product, whether it comes from bio-renewable resources or not. Everything produced on the Earth will have its own environmental impact, but it's important to understand which are more harmful than others so you can make an educated and responsible decision as a consumer. :)