Becoming Sustainable: Terms you should know

Sustainability and conscious living are a part of a very vast lifestyle concept. It holds different meanings for different people, but at the end of the day, comes down to one common goal - A greener planet for all.

The sustainability movement has mobilised communities globally, with parallel industries developing across various fields. This has led to individuals, companies, and organisations engaging in constant conversation about solutions for a better planet. Let’s look at some common as well as technical terms that will come in handy and help you gain better perspectives in your sustainability journey.  

Sustainable:

Contextually, sustainability may have different meanings. When it comes to a lifestyle choice, sustainability means focusing on the needs of the present in ways that do not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs. It also implies enduring the use of products over a long period of time to reduce the pressure on Earth’s resources.

Sustainable products are usually made with the least possible pressure on the environment. They include all-natural products, organic foods, plant-based fibers & dyes, so on and so forth. 

Biodegradable:

A product is considered biodegradable when it can be broken down naturally and completely by microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. Biodegradability is a key feature in Earth-friendly products

Some common examples of biodegradable items include plant products, animal and human waste, food items, wood-based products, so on and so forth. Different materials decompose at different speeds and hence it is crucial to give emphasis to proper waste disposal methods.  More details on effective waste management can be found further on in this blog.

Compostable:

Compostable products are those forms of organic waste that can be broken down into compost,  either at home or in an industrial compost system.

The difference between biodegradable and compostable products is that compostable items are intentionally broken down under certain conditions, while biodegradable products are those which break down naturally.

To simplify the organic waste that goes into your home compost system, it can be categorised into two primary types: Green Waste & Brown Waste. 

Green waste generally includes food waste, grass clippings, garden trimmings, fresh leaves, etc.
Brown Waste comprises dried vegetation and woody components such as fallen leaves, straw, sawdust, etc. It can also include wood-derived products like paper and cardboard. When added to a compost bin, this waste eventually turns into an Earthy smelling & fine-textured compost - a great fertiliser for plants.              

Organic:

Foods that are grown without the use of artificial chemicals, toxic pesticides, and/or genetic modification are categorised as organic. Similarly, a product is deemed organic when it does not contain any artificial components and is formulated using natural ingredients.

Recycling:

Recycling refers to the use of various forms of waste to create new products. Recyclable materials are those forms of waste that can be processed and converted into new materials at the end of their life cycle. Various forms of glass, paper, cardboard, metal, plastic, tires, textiles, batteries, and electronics, are all recyclable materials. 

A common form of recycling is when a certain kind of product is processed into a new form of the same product. For example, the manufacturers of sustainable stationery often recycle used paper into notebooks, diaries, or the like.

Upcycling:

Upcycling is the process of using the same product in different and new ways, beyond its originally intended purpose. Upcycling is a common practice across industries and different kinds of lifestyle products. Furniture, accessories & even clothes are often repurposed in new ways. 

A simple example of upcycling would be the use of soda bottle caps, coins, parts from an old watch, pendants, etc. as charms for a new DIY bracelet. Similarly, old glass bottles can be converted into planters for your home garden or even repurposed into a chandelier! 

Waste management:

This includes all activities undertaken for waste management between the generation of waste, right up to the point it reaches its final disposal stage. Waste can be of multiple kinds and they each require different treatment for effective disposal. Broadly speaking, the waste around your house can be segregated into 5 major types: 

Wet Waste

This includes a range of materials from your daily kitchen waste: Food leftovers, peels, contaminated food containers, tea bags, eggshells, coffee grounds, etc.

Dry Waste:

This includes items like paper, plastics, metal, glass, rubber, fibers, fabric & textiles, wooden materials, etc. If used food containers are completely cleaned out of their contents, they can also be added to a dry waste bin.

E-Waste:

All waste from electronic materials & gadgets is categorised as E-waste. The list includes items like batteries, old cellphones, wires, electrical equipment, remotes, watches, old bulbs & tube lights, and similar such products. These days you can find specific E-waste recyclers who specialise in the management of such waste.

Biomedical Waste:

Items like used bandages, cotton strips, gauze, sanitary pads, diapers, condoms, wax strips, etc. all come under the umbrella of biomedical waste. While segregating your waste, be mindful to keep such waste wrapped separately for disposal & do not mix with other household waste, as it could be hazardous.

Hazardous Waste:

There are 3 types of hazardous waste in the household: E-waste, Biomedical waste (especially syringes, expired medicines, etc.) & potentially toxic materials such as paints, cleaning agents, solvents, insecticides, and the like. 

Responsible waste segregation, disposal, recycling, composting are all activities that come under the umbrella of effective waste management. 

Zero waste:

A broad topic with various definitions, zero-waste is an intricate concept. It essentially means conserving all resources by ensuring responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery at all stages of a product’s development cycle. This includes raw materials used, packaging methods, and its ultimate disposal. 

Generally, the framework of Zero Waste comprises of 5Rs: 

Refuse:

This simply means saying ‘no’ to accepting, buying, or keeping items that may lead to unnecessary waste creation. Some daily-life examples include avoiding single-use plastics (such as straws, disposable cutlery, etc.), resisting the urge for free samples from stores, etc. Carrying your own cloth bags every time you go shopping at your neighbourhood veggie cart and refusing plastic bags is an effective way to practice this!

One of the easiest ways to practice refusal towards single-use products is to carry reusables. From steel straws to water bottles & coffee mugs, you can keep these handy in your bag at all times!

Reduce:

Complimentary to ‘refusing’ is 'reducing'. It implies the practice of living mindfully and buying only the things you will need. It also includes taking good care of your possessions so they last you longer.

Reuse:

As the name suggests, this means continuing to use your possessions in as many ways as possible. Even the practice of repairing & repurposing older items come under the ‘reuse’ principle.

Many local sustainable brands often create ethical lifestyle products by reusing raw materials that may have been discarded as waste. Buying second-hand/ thrift store products is also a subset of this principle.

Recycle:

This is one of the most effective ways to reduce waste and is now becoming more common amongst industries, households, and societies. To know more about recycling, refer to the ‘recycling’ section of this blog.

Rot:

All composting activities come under this final principle of ‘rotting.’ It is one of the best ways to ensure that even the waste we produce is never completely ‘wasted’. To know more about composting, read this blog’s section on the same.

Carbon Footprint:

This refers to the total amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted into the environment by the actions of an individual or the activities of an organisation. Similarly, the Co2 emissions that come from digital activities are known as Digital Carbon Footprint. 

You can easily calculate the carbon footprint of various activities & lifestyle choices through this free of cost online calculator.
With more in-depth awareness, you can start working towards offsetting this damage in ways suitable to you and the planet. 

Carbon Offsetting:

Sustainable activities undertaken to compensate for carbon footprint are all part of carbon offsetting. Several organisations across various industries have introduced carbon offsetting as a part of their organisation’s processes and CSR activities. 

For example, a sustainable manufacturer may undertake the conscious act of planting new trees for every product sold. This is an effective way to neutralise any potential carbon emissions that may have been caused during the production of their goods. 

Carbon Neutral:

When an organisation or industry has completely balanced out the number of carbon emissions caused by them with the amount of successful carbon-saving activities undertaken, they are considered to be carbon neutral.

Net Zero:

Net-zero refers to the total difference between the greenhouse gasses produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere. Net-zero is considered when the amount of carbon dioxide we add is lesser than the amount we offset.

Image source: Down to Earth by Zac Efron Netflix series

Virtual Water:

Virtual water refers to the water hidden and consumed indirectly in those products and services that we buy or use every day. In simpler terms, it refers to the total amount of water used throughout the production and distribution processes at every stage of a product’s life cycle.

Slow fashion:

A sustainable approach to fashion, slow fashion refers to planet-friendly and fair-trade based production and processes used in the manufacture of clothing and apparel.

Now, several local Indian brands have adopted the slow fashion model to advocate sustainability. Garments and accessories produced under the principle of slow fashion are made using organic fibers, natural dyes, low-waste processes & fair trade practices. Most slow fashion products are designed to be long-lasting in an effort to reduce waste.

You can explore a range of slow fashion apparel here.

Slow Living:

As the name suggests, slow living refers to a more conscious and relaxed approach to one’s daily lifestyle pace. It is a holistic-living philosophy that implies taking the time to enjoy all aspects of the day and being completely focused on the present moment. Eating clean organic foods, enjoying simpler pleasures of life, spending time with nature, and finding a balance between different aspects of life are all a part of slow living. 

Slow Food:

The slow food movement began in Italy, with an aim at preserving traditional and regional cuisine. Now a worldwide practice amongst sustainability advocates, the concept of slow food includes multiple aspects. 

Eating more local foods, supporting seasonal & organic farming, and lending support to small businesses that operate with this ideology come under the slow food concept.
The principles of slow food are also based on avoiding mass-produced foods, preventing food waste, and preserving the food chain with sustainable consuming habits. 

Green Washing:

The use of ‘green’ language as a means of falsely marketing a product to be environmentally safe and responsible is called greenwashing. It is often done to position a product or service to make it appear more planet-friendly than it actually is.

Energy efficient:

When products, processes and activities are adapted to consume lesser energy than originally required, they are deemed as energy efficient. This includes the use of alternate, renewable energy sources in place of fossil fuels and non-renewable energy forms wherever possible.

Appliances and gadgets that emit little to no greenhouse gases are also deemed energy efficient. Some examples include solar panels, copper-based construction & wiring material, gadgets with power-saving features, etc. 

Food Miles:

Food miles refer to the distance a food item travels; from its original place of cultivation to the final customer. The number of carbon emissions & the total carbon footprint caused by transport is taken into account while calculating total food miles. 

Generally, foods that travel across large distances (such as imported chocolates, exotic vegetables, etc.) are deemed highly unsustainable as the carbon footprint & subsequent food miles are higher. Hyperlocal foods, being native, have a much lesser impact on the environment & are hence advocated by slow food enthusiasts. 

Water Efficient:

Any device or product that helps prevent water wastage by measuring and reducing the amount of water used is deemed as water efficient. Products with water-saving technologies as well as individual action to curb water wastage, are both forms of water efficiency. 

Examples of water efficient actions include steps like fixing leaking taps, restricting the use of extra water in flushes, using washing machines with full loads, etc. It also includes the use of products and fixtures that help control excess water flow, such as water-saving tap extensions, auto-shut nozzles, etc. 

Going beyond just industry buzzwords, the growing knowledge and use of these planet-positive terms is indicative of the large impact the sustainability movement has had worldwide. While you may often come across these terms, newer concepts are likely to keep coming up over time, as more innovative, green practices are discovered and introduced.

Image: Rain water harvesting

At Brown Living, we personally ensure to not only adopt sustainability in all our practices but also believe in serving as your knowledge partners. As we all collectively embark on a journey towards the greater good of the planet, you can put your desire for sustainability into positive action. Visit our Change Makers Directory to know more. 

Additional Sources for you to read:
  1. Sustainability Buzzwords
  2. Difference between Compostable and Biodegradable 
  3. The Hidden Water in Everyday Use Products
  4. What is Slow Fashion

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