November 20, 2020
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MIT Sustainable Supply Chains Director Alexis Bateman recently spoke to the Washington Post with some tips on doing your homework on products labeled "green" to sort out what you're really buying.

Choosing wisely “really requires the consumer to do their homework,” said Alexis Bateman, director of the Sustainable Supply Chains program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There is little government oversight of company claims about environmental impact. Though manufacturers can get their products labeled “eco-friendly” through a huge range of certification programs, “it’s kind of like the Wild West,” Bateman said. There’s no independent validation of these certifications.

To determine whether a product is truly “green,” you’ll have to look deeper than its earth-toned packaging.

Start by researching what it takes to make your product. You may be surprised to find that most clothing contains plastic, which is a petroleum product. It requires 32,000 gallons of water to produce the steel for an average passenger car. That super soft toilet paper you prefer is made entirely from virgin boreal forests — one of the world’s most important carbon sinks. About one-fifth of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions come from manufacturing, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

To find greener options, Bateman said, look for products made from post-consumer reclaimed material. If your toilet paper roll is made entirely with paper that’s already been used at least once, you’ll know you’re not putting additional pressure on forests by purchasing it. Recycling metal for cars and appliances generally uses less carbon than producing new raw materials. Buying products made from recycled material also demonstrates support for what Bateman calls “the circular economy,” in which waste is turned into an ingredient for something new.

But be careful to distinguish between products that have been recycled and those that are recyclable, Bateman cautioned. A product made from reclaimed material is taking trash out of the waste stream. A product that could theoretically be reused is just a promise — one that is usually unfulfilled. About three-quarters of all plastic and a quarter of all paper waste produced in the United States ends up in a landfill, even though all of it is technically recyclable.

Next, consider what it takes to pack and deliver the product to your store — or your door. Does it need to be transported a long distance (shipping accounts for about 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions)? Does it come wrapped in a lot of wasteful packaging? As a general rule, Bateman said, purchasing food and other items that are made locally generates less carbon emission, because these products don’t need to be transported long distances or stored and repackaged at a retailer. Things such as shampoo bars and toothpaste tablets, which minimize shipping weight and packaging needs by removing water from the products, are also worth looking into. Paper packaging is usually preferable to plastic, because it is more likely to be recycled, Bateman said. Even better: Look for products packaged in post-consumer recycled material.