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10 Oft-Confused Environmental Terms

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Here’s a little help for understanding the difference between similar terms.

Eco-related words are entering common usage at a dizzying pace — am I the only one who has trouble keeping track of what they all mean? And then there are the terms that seem like they mean the same thing… but do they?

I researched some of the more confusing term pairs to see if they really can be used interchangeably, or if they actually mean completely different things. Here’s a cheat sheet to help you navigate the lingo.


  1. Climate Change vs. Global Warming: These two terms are often used interchangeably, but they don’t exactly mean the same thing. According to the EPA, global warming refers to the increase in average temperature near the earth’s surface. It’s part of climate change, which refers to significant changes, over a span of years, in climate, including temperature, wind patterns, and precipitation. Both are caused in part by the increase in greenhouse gases. NASA’s comparison of these terms and explains that, because it’s a broader term, “climate change” better describes the changes in temperature and weather patterns that many believe are caused by pollution.


  1. Biodegradable vs. Compostable: Something that is biodegradable can be broken down by microorganisms into more basic natural elements. Keep in mind that most biodegradable items need oxygen to break down, and in many landfills, the conditions aren’t right because trash is packed so tightly. Compostable also refers to an item that microorganisms can break down, specifically in a compost pile (residential or commercial) within a few months. Everything compostable is biodegradable, but not everything biodegradable is compostable. According to FTC guidelines, manufacturers can claim their products are biodegradable if that product will completely break down and return to nature within a year. A compostable item should be able to be safely turned into usable compost in a home compost pile.


  1. Organic vs. All-Natural: The term natural or “all-natural” on a food package might lead a consumer to think that they’re buying something that is less processed or does not contain artificial ingredients. But the reality is that this term is just a buzzword and is unregulated by the FDA. The term organic, however, is a closely regulated labeling term that can only be used by manufacturers and farmers who have had their facilities, processes, and materials vetted by a USDA-accredited certifying agent.


  1. Recycled vs. Post-Consumer: Post-consumer waste, which often describes the content in paper products such as paper towels or office paper, refers to material that was previously used by consumers and recycled into another product. Many labels will even tout what percentage of their product is made with post-consumer materials. When a product is labeled that it is made with recycled materials, it could refer to both post-consumer materials as well as pre-consumer materials (pre-consumer materials are items like scraps leftover during manufacturing, or unsold magazines or newspapers, which were never actually used by consumers).


  1. Sustainable vs. Eco-Friendly: The EPA defines sustainability as the conditions under which humans and natures can live in harmony, ensuring that we protect the water, environment, and materials needed to exist. An example of this is buying items made of wood from a supplier that plants new trees to replace the ones that it harvests. Eco-friendly is a more all-encompassing term that describes any actions that help protect the environment: using fewer chemicals, creating less waste, becoming energy efficient, for example. Another similar buzzword, renewable, refers to a resource such as energy or raw materials that can be replenished over time or is inexhaustible.

Recycled Products Cooperative

Are there any other eco-terms that are confusing to you? Tell us in the comments below and we may clear up the confusion in an upcoming post.

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About the Author
Jessica Harlan
Jessica Harlan
I love finding new ways to green my family's life as painlessly as possible, and sharing those ideas with folks who want to do the same. more