Many artists have called me with questions on how to understand environmental claims made on the labels of various art products an household materials. There is much confusion on how to interpret these "green" claims, and many artists are concerned with using products that are safer for the environment.
Besides confusion over the terms, there are also discrepancies concerning how the criteria for the labels will be chosen. For example, will synergistic action be accounted for? Will carcinogenicity have priority over acute toxicity? What source material or "list" will determine carcinogenic status? These questions have not been clearly addressed. The following article mentions several ways in which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guides consumers.
1. When looking at a "recycled" product, look for information on where the recycled material comes from. "Post-consumer" material comes from previously used business or consumer products, such as newspapers, plastic bottles, glass containers, or aluminum cans. "Pre-consumer" material is manufacturing waste. Check what percentage of the product or package is made from recycled material. "Recycled content" alone may not give full information as to whether this term applies to the product, its packaging, or both.
2. Sometimes products state that they use fewer materials. Check for more exact information on how the product has been reduced. For example, a claim such as "20% less waste" might mean "20% less packaging than our previous package."
3. Labels with "recyclable" claims mean that products can be collected and made into useful materials. Of course, this is relevant only when there is a collection agency in your local community.
4. Overly general or vague claims provide little information to help you make purchasing decisions. Labels with unqualified claims that a product is "environmentally friendly," "eco-safe," or "environmentally safe" have little meaning. All products have some environmental impact, even though some may have less impact than others. Also, these phrases alone don't give enough information for product and packaging comparison.
5. Similarly, claims like "safe in a landfill" or "safe for incineration" provide too little information. Remember, many products pose little environmental risk when disposed of in properly designed and operated landfills or incinerators. Disposal safety depends more on waste facility design and management.
6. Some products claim to be "degradable." Biodegradable materials, like food and leaves, break down and decompose into elements found in nature when exposed to air, moisture, and bacteria or other organisms. Photodegradeable materials, such as certain plastics, disintegrate into smaller pieces when exposed to enough sunlight. Remember that decomposition occurs very slowly in landfills. Modern landfills are designed (by law) to minimize the entry of sunlight, air, and moisture into the landfill, in an effort to prevent pollutants from entering the air and drinking water supplies. This greatly slows decomposition. Even organic materials like paper and food may take decades to decompose in a landfill. Cleaning products often say they are "biodegradable". In general, most of these products will degrade in wastewater systems (a fact that has been true for years). Of course, certain materials should never be poured down the drain. For more information on disposal, see our booklet "Waste Management and Disposal for Artists and Schools". Composting will take advantage of degradability. A "compostable" claim on a product or package is only applicable if there is composting in your community.
7. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) can deplete the earth's protective ozone layer. They are used in coolants, for cleaning of electronic parts, and in making some plastic foams. In 1978, CFCs were banned for use as propellants in nearly all consumer aerosol products. Sometimes, hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) are used as substitutes for CFCS. While HCFCs are much less damaging to the ozone layer than CFCS, they still cause some ozone depletion. CFCS, HCFCS, and other ozone-depleting substances such as 1,1,1-trichloroethane (methyl chloroform) are being phased out in all products and manufacturing processes over the next several years. Products containing or made with the most harmful ozone-depleting substances must be labeled.
8. One consideration is the release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Common VOC substances are aerosol propellants and solvents. Certain solvent-containing commercial paints and primers, cleaning products, wood polishes, hair styling sprays, and hair products (even some pump products) may contain VOCs. Various solvents have different volatility and reactivity rates. Reactivity refers to the time it takes to make ozone, which is a primary component in the formation of smog. The California Air Resources Board is currently conducting analysis to determine the reactivity rates. For example, in their study of ethanol release from Central Valley California wineries, it was decided to not regulate ethanol because the laboratory tested its reactivity rate. In that time, the industrial ethanol emissions were dispersed.
9. The term "environmentally preferable" may be more common, as it is part of a federal executive order on procurement due for release soon.