Study up on all things green with OHRD's sustainability vocab list
Photo by Daniel Funes on Unsplash
Sustainability is a subject loaded with complicated terminology and buzzwords. If water-cooler conversations about carbon footprints or product stewardship make your head spin, you are not alone! In an effort to make sustainability more accessible and simpler to talk about, the team at OHRD put our heads together for a list of terms we think needed clear definitions.
Biodegradable – capable of decaying through the action of living organisms. Organic materials like banana peels, fur and hair, fallen trees, lawn clippings, and human-made products like paper plates and napkins are all biodegradable. Tiny critters like worms and termites, plus protozoa, bacteria, and fungi living in our soils all feed on dead things. With these organisms acting as the planet’s cleanup crew, they contribute to healthy ecosystems by making crucial nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and calcium available to plants.
Biohazard – short for biological hazard; a biological substance that poses a threat to the health of other organisms. Viruses and toxins are two kinds of biohazards. They can occur naturally or be engineered by humans. Body fluids and animal waste also count as biohazards—that’s why proper sharps disposal and picking up after your pet are so important.
Biomass energy - energy generated by living or once-living organisms. Burning wood for your campfire is an example of biomass energy. Other plants, like corn and soy, are also common sources for biomass electricity or biofuel, like ethanol or biodiesel. A decaying organism might become coal, peat, or petroleum, and humans use these fossil fuels to heat homes and drive cars.
Carbon footprint - the sum of greenhouse gasses emitted as a result of human actions. Corporations, countries, and individuals can all have carbon footprints. You can calculate your footprint by taking GoClimate’s quick survey. On an individual scale, the food you eat, the car you drive, where you live, the amount of water you use, and other lifestyle factors impact the size your carbon footprint.
Carbon offsetting - a reduction or removal of emissions in order to compensate for emissions made somewhere else. Funding green projects like reforestation or transitioning to renewable energy sources are examples of carbon offsetting.
Circular economy - a model of production and consumption focused on creating closed-loop systems. A circular economy is one that aims to recapture waste through recycling, repairing, and refurbishing, using it as a resource to manufacture new materials and projects. This is in contrast to a linear economy, wherein raw resources are extracted, turned into products, used, and then thrown away.
Climate catastrophe - describes the disastrous impacts of weather extremes, rising sea levels, natural disasters, prolonged drought—and the social conflicts that can arise from them. Scientists worry that impacts of climate change may be irreversible. Climate catastrophes affect everyone, but not equally. People who live in the global south, older populations, and those with certain health conditions are most at risk from climate catastrophe.
Composting - the natural process of recycling decayed organic matter and water to be user as fertilizer. Food scraps, grass clippings, leaves, and twigs, in the right conditions, become a perfect environment for bacteria, fungi, and other decomposition helpers. The resulting material is rich in nutrients for farmers and gardeners to use with their plants.
Contamination - a recycling term that describes a non-recyclable item—or the wrong recyclable item—that ends up in recycling streams. A banana peel tossed in with paper recycling or a tin can tossed in with glass recycling are both examples of contamination. Recycling processors have a lot of stake in minimizing contamination because contaminates can lower the value of the product. In other words, manufacturers don’t want to buy a 1,500-pound bale of paper when it has hundreds of pounds of plastics mixed in.
Curbside recycling - a method of recycling collection wherein a resident or business hires a hauler to pick up recyclables. Typically, residents in Springfield and the surrounding metro area use curbside services in conjunction with their trash collection service. All licensed haulers in the city are required to offer a recycling pickup plan, but most of them charge extra for this service. A common alternative to curbside recycling is to drop off recycling at a recycling center, so long as you don’t mind taking a drive to sort your recycling yourself.
Dead zones - areas of water bodies where aquatic life can’t survive because there is little to no oxygen. Dead zones occur because of a process called eutrophication and are most commonly a result of nutrient pollution. A buildup of phosphorus and nitrogen can come from agricultural pesticide runoff, sewage, or industry wastewater. The biggest dead zone in the U.S. is more than 3,000 square miles, located off the coast of Louisiana where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Fish that swim into a dead zone will often suffocate.
Economic sustainability - one of the three elements of sustainability. Economic sustainability refers to practices that support growth without compromising social, environmental, and cultural elements of the community. Shopping local, buying second-hand, volunteering, and supporting ethical businesses are some ways to promote economic sustainability.
Environmental sustainability - one of the three elements of sustainability. Environmental sustainability describes the human responsibility to make wise decisions in the present to avoid compromising the health and resources of the planet for future generations. Practicing responsible stewardship for hazardous waste, driving only when you need to, pressuring businesses to limit their emissions, and living by the three R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle) are some ways to promote environmental sustainability.
Eutrophication - a process caused by an increased concentration of phosphorus and nitrogen in a freshwater or saltwater ecosystem. Eutrophication is a catalyst for large amounts of plant and algae growth, taking over a part or an entire body of water, and harming other aquatic life. Eutrophication can lead to dead zones.
E-waste – short for electronic waste; describes electronic products nearing the end of their useful life. When e-waste is thrown away, toxic chemicals like mercury, lead, and arsenic leach into the environment: They are released into the air, can seep into groundwater, and can contaminate soils. Responsibly disposing of your electronics is important in minimizing environmental harm. Take electronics you no longer want to the Computer Recycling Center. Find out more about them in OHRD’s blogpost.
Extended Producer Responsibility - a policy approach by which producers are obliged to the entire lifespan of the products they manufacture. Making products easier to repair, implementing take-back and donation programs, making products easier to recycle, and creating products with less packaging are all examples of extended producer responsibility.
Fair Trade - a sustainable sourcing model designed to help producers find equitable trade relationships. Its focuses include higher environmental standards and higher pay for global workers. Fair-trade products usually have a label or sticker distinguishing them as such. But not all fair-trade products are created equal. Some critics of fair-trade models say producers have too little accountability.
Food waste - all foods that aren’t eaten count as food waste. An ugly tomato that a farmer tosses out from her fields, day-old breads from a bakery, or last week’s leftovers that have gone bad in your fridge all count as food waste. The USDA estimates between 30-40% of our food supply goes to waste. What’s worse, most of it ends up in our landfills, where it emits greenhouse gasses because it can’t decompose. Buying only what you can eat at the grocery store, storing produce properly, and buying the “ugly” produce are all ways you can help eliminate food waste.
Glass - a product created from natural materials like sand, sodium carbonate and limestone. Glasslike rocks called obsidian can occur naturally in volcanic environments, too. Humans have been making glass for thousands of years, and some of its first uses were in jewelry in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Glass is a valuable product because it can be recycled over and over without a loss in quality. Learn more about glass recycling in our blogpost on glass.
Greenhouse gasses - gasses that hinder a planet’s regular heating and cooling effects. The five layers of our atmosphere maintain a delicate balance of incoming heat from the sun (or solar shortwave radiation) during the day and outgoing cooling (or longwave terrestrial radiation) from the planet at night. Gasses generated from human activity—like methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide—can become trapped in the atmosphere, disrupting the interplay of short and longwave radiation. With a greater concentration of greenhouse gasses, more rays become trapped in “earth’s blanket” instead of escaping into outer space.
Greenwashing - a dishonest marketing strategy that aims to deceive consumers into believing a product or service is sustainable, eco-friendly, or otherwise “green.” Vague package labels or a lack of transparency about ingredients or impact might be signs that a brand is greenwashing. OHRD’s advice is to be a little skeptical of products that use tree and leaf motifs or buzzwords like “all-natural” and “100% organic” without backing up their claims with third-party certifications. We like the Environmental Working Group’s Healthy Living app, which has searchable databases for skin care, hair care, cleaning products, etc. to help consumers decide if a product might be greenwashing.
Household Hazardous Waste - leftover household products that can catch fire, corrode or otherwise harm the environment. Paints, batteries, pesticides, and household cleaners are just a few examples. When hazardous wastes like these are tossed in landfills, they can leach toxins into our soil and water. A nationwide landfill study from The U.S. Geological Survey found that the two biggest leachate concentrations were para-cresol (in rubbers, polymers, and flame-retardants) and bisphenol (used in plastics, thermal paper, and epoxy resins). Ozarks residents can make an appointment with the Household Chemicals Collection Center in Springfield to drop off household hazardous waste.
Landfill - a resource for solid waste and other non-hazardous materials. Most residential and commercial waste in Christian, Dallas, Greene, Polk, and Webster Counties go to the City of Springfield’s Noble Hill Sanitary Landfill located north of Springfield. Landfills aren’t just a big hole in the ground into which we dump trash. The bottom of Noble Hill is lined with a thick layer of clay, plus plastic and felt liners to mitigate contamination of rocks and groundwater. Leachate pipes, methane-collecting wells and groundwater monitoring systems are all vital pieces of the puzzle. The fees that trash haulers pay to dump trash in the landfill help fund waste diversion projects like recycling centers, research and OHRD’s grant program.
Methane - a potent greenhouse gas. Its chemical formula is CH4 (one carbon atom bonded to four hydrogen atoms). It occurs both naturally and as a by-product of human activities. Methane is more efficient than carbon dioxide at trapping heat from the sun in earth’s atmosphere and accounts for around 11% of America’s greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, mostly as a primary ingredient in natural gas used for heating and electricity. By itself, methane is non-toxic, but when concentrated in the atmosphere, it can be dangerous.
Microplastics - tiny, sometimes microscopic pieces of plastic (under 5 millimeters in length) that show up in all environments throughout the planet—in waterways, air, soil, and the human body. The term microplastics encompasses both plastics that were manufactured to be very small, like the tiny plastic beads in an exfoliating face wash, and plastics derived from the fragmentation of larger plastics. Microplastics are found practically everywhere around the globe and can travel up the food chain in greater concentrations via a process called bioaccumulation.
Paint - the most common product received by Household Hazardous Waste programs and the most expensive item for HHW programs to process. Around 10% of all paint sold in the U.S. goes unused and is disposed of. Some states have Extended Producer Responsibility and Product Stewardship laws to manage the end-of-life of paint products, which leach toxins when they are thrown into the landfill. The Missouri Product Stewardship Council wants to introduce an EPR bill for paint in Missouri soon.
Pharmaceuticals - prescription and over-the-counter drugs that can jeopardize waterways if flushed down the drain or leach toxins in the environment if landfilled. The best way to responsibly dispose of leftover pharmaceuticals, and to prevent accidental overdose or drug abuse, is to drop unwanted medications off at a pharmaceutical take-back site. There are more than 600 take-back locations across Missouri. Find out more in OHRD’s blogpost about pharmaceuticals.
Planned obsolescence - a business strategy that designs a product with an artificially limited useful life or an intentionally nondurable structure so that it soon breaks or quickly becomes obsolete. The aim is to require consumers to replace a product often. When goods rapidly become obsolete, we are adding more to our landfills. There are currently no laws that prohibit planned obsolescence. Fighting against planned obsolescence means voting with one’s dollar—that is, refusing to purchase poor quality products. OHRD recommends repairing products when possible and recycling when repair is impossible.
Plastics - artificial substances made from natural resources extracted from the planet, like oil and natural gas. The plastic resin symbol you’ll find stamped into the bottom of many plastic containers distinguish the type of plastic and describe the material’s chemical complexity. The higher the number, the harder it is to recycle and the less value the product holds on the recycling market. Springfield’s recyclers accept plastics types 1, 2, and 5 only. Find out more in OHRD’s plastics blogpost.
Product stewardship - policies and statutes that ensure product manufacturers and merchants take responsibility for a product’s negative impacts, like worker safety, recycling, and greenhouse gas emissions, throughout its life cycle. Product stewardship advocates want products that use less packaging and are easy to repair, reuse, and recycle. The Product Stewardship Institute is a global nonprofit that promotes waste management solutions.
Renewable energy - energy that comes from replenishable resources, like wind and solar rays, as opposed to finite resources, like fossil fuels. There are plenty of advantages to using renewable energy, including enhanced reliability of the energy grid, job creation, and increased affordability. According to a 2021 quick facts sheet from City Utilities, around 40% of Springfield’s energy profile comes from renewable energy sources.
Right to repair - laws that make it easier for consumers to repair products they buy. Right to repair legislation mandates manufacturers to make available service manuals and replacement parts. Advocates want repair-friendly policies and say consumers have the right to use, modify, and fix products that they own. The Missouri General Assembly filed bills in 2021.
Social sustainability - one of the three elements of sustainability. Social sustainability describes business impacts on humans. Fair employment practices, environmental racism, and poverty are all elements in social sustainability.
Sorting - a step in the recycling process before it is baled and shipped to other manufacturers. Springfield recyclers use a combination of manual and mechanical sorting processes. Ozarks residents also self-sort recycling when they drop off their recyclables at Lone Pine or Franklin Avenue Recycling Centers. Sorting is an important step to minimizing recycling contamination.
Waste water – water that’s become non-potable after human use. Waste water includes anything that goes down the drain. Springfield’s wastewater goes to one of two wastewater treatment plants, which use beneficial bacteria to clean, aerate, and purify the water before releasing it into Ozarks waterways. Technicians at Springfield’s wastewater treatment plants monitor pH and the concentration of organics, ammonia, and solids. At the end of the process, the water going into streams has fewer bacteria than the water that’s already in waterways.
Yard waste - leaves, garden scraps, grass clippings, weeds, etc. that come from yard work in residents’ lawns. This kind of waste does not belong in the landfill. Yard waste can be composted in home composters or dropped off at Springfield’s Yardwaste Recycling Center. Learn more about yard waste on OHRD’s blog.
Is there a sustainability term that you want OHRD to define? Contact us at:
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About the Author
Diana Dudenhoeffer is a multimedia journalist from Springfield, Missouri. She studied journalism, sustainability and documentary storytelling at Missouri State University. She is the current media intern at OHRD, writing blogposts like this one.