Woman covering her eyes

Just like the game of Telephone taught us, information filtered through multiple sources starts to get a little less reliable. Going green is no exception, as with mass awareness can come massive misconception.

Let’s set the record straight on eight green myths.

1. Just Trash It; It’s Biodegradable/Compostable

The “logic”: If you throw products in a landfill, they will break down over time. This idea has become especially popular as companies introduce biodegradable packaging, made from a renewable material such as corn or potatoes.

The reality: For products to biodegrade, they need oxygen and sunlight — two things severely lacking in landfills. Landfills are tightly packed, which prevents bacteria from breaking down the garbage. So even items like newspapers, which seem like they would break down easily, take much longer to decompose in a landfill.

For compost, the key ingredient is heat. Compost piles need to get up to 170 degrees Fahrenheit for material to break down. Unfortunately, most compost piles won’t get hot enough to break down compostable packaging.

bulldozer on pile of garbage in landfill
Because landfills are tightly packed, it’s difficult for bacteria to break down items that would normally be considered biodegradable.

The solution: Look for products with packaging labeled “recyclable,” not biodegradable or compostable. And b e sure to recycle that packaging.

Let manufacturers know your preferences for less packaging and recyclable materials.

2. All Paper Should Be Recycled

The “logic”: All paper is made from trees, and it’s all recycled using the same process. Therefore, any paper that tears should go in the recycling bin.

The reality: Paper is downcycled instead of recycled. It cannot be infinitely re-used. This means that when the paper is turned into pulp, its fibers shrink, which results in a lower-value product. Office paper can become tissue paper, paper boxes can become towel rolls, etc. Unfortunately, the lowest quality paper with the thinnest fibers (tissue, toilet paper) cannot be recycled.

More problematic, much of today’s paper is often mixed with plastic or contaminated with oil from foods, which severely limits their recyclability.

The solution: Know what paper is accepted in your local curbside program, and include only that paper. Make sure to check if your curbside program accepts any paper that goes in the fridge (such as ice cream cartons and take-out boxes), pizza boxes, and shredded paper.

3. Organic Food Is Always Better for the Planet

The “logic”: Organic food is grown without pesticides or chemicals, meaning it’s always better for the planet (and your health) than non-organic food.

The reality: An organic banana that traveled 5,000 miles from Chile to reach your table in Los Angeles is less eco-friendly than a non-organic banana grown at an indoor farm five miles from your home. In this example, the benefit of the organic product is outweighed by the environmental impact of transporting it to the consumer. Organic is a great attribute to look for when shopping for produce but buying locally has a huge impact on reducing a product’s overall footprint.

The environmental costs of shipping organic produce long distances can outweigh the benefits. When possible, shop for local produce. Source: pixabay.com

The solution: You can limit organic produce purchases to fruits and vegetables that have edible skin to reduce leftover waste. Buying produce at a farmer’s market will also ensure it’s grown locally. And if your local growers don’t farm organically, let them know you want organic produce. If you can generate sufficient demand, you can help start changes in your food supply.

4. If It Has a Recycling Symbol, It’s Recyclable

The “logic”: You bought an item with a recycling symbol on it (or maybe just the words “Please recycle”). This guarantees you can recycle it in your curbside program.

The reality: There is no universal standard for what recycling companies accept. Each curbside program decides on its own, or in collaboration with haulers and private recyclers, what items it will recycle. In addition, many products that your curbside program might not accept (such as plastic bags and rechargeable batteries) can be recycled if you drop them off at a collection center. So, the “please recycle” message may be misleading, but it’s not bad guidance.

The recycling symbol has been complicated over the years by the resin identification code for plastics. Most plastic products contain a number inside a recycling symbol to let you know the type of plastic resin, but this has nothing to do with local recyclability.

The solution: Use Earth911’s recycling directory to find out which products you can recycle locally.

5. Adjusting My Thermostat Wastes Energy

The “logic”: If you leave the house during the day, leave the thermostat untouched because it will use the same (or more energy) to cool or warm when you get home.

The reality: According to the U.S. Department of Energy, you can save up to 10 percent a year on heating and cooling by adjusting the thermostat 7 to 10 degrees from the normal setting for 8 hours a day. Because you use less energy, you save money, too.

The solution: Invest in a programmable thermostat where you can automatically set the temperature based on the time of day. That way, you can start cooling down (or warming up) the house before you get home.

6. It Costs a Lot of Money to “Go Green”

The “logic”: It costs extra money to buy a hybrid car or shop for organic produce or install solar panels on the roof, so going green is more expensive than living normally.

The reality: One of the biggest reasons why environmental responsibility has entered the mainstream is because it can save you so much money.

You may pay more for the initial purchase, but most eco-friendly products that save energy or water, or keep you healthier, pay for themselves over the life of the product. For example, the savings from an LED bulb energy use and its very long useful life make them much less expensive than incandescent and CFL bulbs.

The solution: When buying a product, don’t just think about its purchase cost. Do some research on the total cost of use over its lifetime and compare it with green alternatives.

7. Planting Trees Will Offset My Eco-Footprint

The “logic”: Trees absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, plus they produce fruit, reduce air pollution, serve as homes for wildlife, and are the main ingredient of paper. Therefore, planting trees cancels out an environmental impact (this thinking is also a common justification for carbon offsets).

The reality: The issue at hand is not so much the what (planting trees) but where you plant those trees to get the optimal benefit for the planet. According to writer Maria Colenso, “Recent scientific studies show those benefits depend on where those trees are planted. Plant in the wrong part of the world and you may be wasting time and money.”

The solution: Don’t give up on planting trees; just make sure you have a plan. By planting a tree in a local park or community center, that added foliage can improve aesthetics and make a small difference to local air quality. And a tree you plant in your yard can provide shade and windbreaks, reducing your energy consumption.

If you plan to donate to a company or support a cause to help combat global warming, do a little research to make sure they are putting their resources to the best use.

8. If I Can’t Do It All, I Might as Well Do Nothing

The “logic”: Going green is challenging, and there’s not enough time to learn everything involved. Therefore, it should be the responsibility of those who understand it to make up for the rest of us.

The reality: Most eco-friendly tasks are easy and convenient, whether it’s turning off the water while you brush your teeth or buying in bulk to reduce packaging waste.

The solution: If you’re reading this article, you probably already integrate environmentally friendly actions into your life. The next step is to find others who aren’t as green and show them how easy it is. The key to being green isn’t guilt, it’s making small changes for the better good.

Editor’s note: This story was updated in June 2018 by Earth911 writer Trey Granger. It was originally published on May 30, 2009.