Live Green and Earn Points


7 Deadly Sins: 7 Materials To Avoid

By Joe Laur |

Not all materials are made alike. Know what to look for and avoid the bad ones.

Little sins like forgetting to recycle paper can be overlooked, unless you are a newspaper publisher. But some are to be avoided at all costs. Here's a list of 7 substances that cause real problems in the environment, and that we can avoid by taking a few simple steps in our lives.

Polyvinyl Chloride, aka PVC, aka Vinyl aka #3 plastic
We've all got some vinyl in our houses, on furniture clothing, plumbing pipes- it's the third most common plastic. But it usually has bad stuff that can leach out of it, like diethylhexyl phthalate, which is banned in Europe, vinyl chloride and dioxins. The U.S. Green Building Council states that the "risk of dioxin emissions puts PVC consistently among the worst materials for human health impacts". You probably don't have to strip off your vinyl siding, but avoid toys with PVC. You don't want it anywhere near you or your children.

Polystyrene, aka Styrofoam, aka #6 plastic
Polystyrene is not easily recycled because of its light weight (especially if foamed) and its low scrap value. Discarded polystyrene does not biodegrade for hundreds of years. Commonly used in coffee cups and clamshells for food, it contains benzene, a known carcinogen, and while the FDA claims it is safe, there are studies concerning polystyrene containers used for food packaging which find that styrene oligomers migrate into the food and may increase thyroid hormone levels. It's your call if you want your hot coffee or entrée served up in polystyrene. I avoid it.

Once commonly used in plumbing, gasoline and paints, lead is still used in some building materials, batteries, bullets and other applications. Lead is a poisonous substance to animals. It damages the nervous system and causes brain and blood disorders in mammals and is a potent neurotoxin that accumulates both in soft tissues and the bones. Lead poisoning has been documented from ancient Rome, ancient Greece, and ancient China. Modern China, too, as it turns out, as products with lead paint have been imported into the US. If you are in an old house- it's likely there is lead appoint in there somewhere. It's easily recycled, which is good, because we on track to run out in 20-40 years. Find a substitute.

Used in thermometers and compact fluorescent (CFL) lamps, mercury is great when it's contained. But coal burning, mostly for electricity, pumps lots of mercury into the air, where it falls out in rain and ends up in our fish. It's one of the most toxic metals. You can avoid it by carefully recycling your CFLs with LampTracker kits, and turning off the lights and other power sources, so that we burn less coal. 50% of US electricity comes from burning coal, so cutting power use keeps mercury out of the environment.

Nitrous Oxide, aka NOX
A major greenhouse gas and air pollutant, NOX depletes the ozone layer (greater risk of skin cancer) as well as warming the atmosphere. Again a lot of it comes from burning coal, where scrubbers work to remove it. Less electricity, less coal, less NOX. Turn off the lights.

Sulfur Dioxide, aka SOX
Not the Red Sox (the good guys) but a very bad actor. Like NOX, a major pollutant and together with NOX, the main culprit in acid rain. You guessed it- it's the coal we burn. Coal is Satan. Use less electricity to kill coal.

Carbon Dioxide, aka CO2
Unlike some of the substances above, CO2 is essential to life- plants breathe it in as they photosynthesize, and give us oxygen in return. But right now, it's a case of too much of a good thing. CO2 is the main greenhouse gas, and it traps heat from the sun on the earth's surface, warming the climate. Burning coal, oil and gas contribute most of the problem CO2, so reducing our driving, electricity usage and fossil fuel burning helps keep it out of the atmosphere. Planting trees and increasing green space helps suck up CO2, and energy efficiency efforts reduce the amount we emit. Solar, Wind and nuclear power systems emit none.

There you have it, penitents. Avoid these materials and we'll be on our way back to the Garden of Eden, or at least a cleaner world for our kids.
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  • Gina L. 2 years ago
    Dear Joe Laur, While I believe the information about nasty materials was well presented, please leave your personal comments out. The snarky/glib remark of what SOX isn't wasn't leaving me laughing. I personally don't feel the Red Sox are the good guys. Just the facts...
  • Gregory B. 2 years ago
    Always great to know. Especially as a newcomer to the recycling. Sometimes I am unsure what should be recycled and where.
  • Dawn T. 4 years ago
  • kelly l. 4 years ago
    Good to know
  • karen g. 5 years ago
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