Got questions? Ask the Green Geek.

Green Geek LogoWondering how to reduce your monthly household trash production? What upcycling is? And if that sunscreen you're wearing is harmful to the environment?

Ask the Green Geek.

Pima County FYI has a monthly column featuring questions and answers on all things green. Our own Green Geek gets assistance on answering your questions from the sustainability experts in Pima County's Office of Sustainability and Conservation.

Send your questions to fyinewsletter@pima.gov. And look for the column the second Friday of each month on the left sidebar of the newsletter.

Here are this month's Green Geek questions:

I keep reading about all these people who have reduced their monthly household trash production less than what it would take to fill the typical kitchen garbage can. If I want to reduce the amount of waste my family produces each month, how should I start?

Thank you!

Amy

Hi, Amy,

In the words of Annie Leonard, author of The Story of Stuff, “There is no such thing as ‘away.’ When we throw anything away, it must go somewhere.” 


Mitigating our waste production is a great way to save money and the environment, yet many of us have acquired convenient but wasteful habits that are difficult to break. Significant waste reduction will require more than a couple tips or tricks; it will call for a broader cultural and lifestyle shift. But if you and family are not quite there yet (and most of us aren’t), here are some easy ways to start reducing your trash: 
  • Ditch plastic bags in favor of reusable cloth ones. Store them in your car so you don’t forget them. 
  • Research the recycling rules in your area. Reusing products you’ve purchased (or not purchasing those products at all) are better options, but recycling is the next best route in preventing your items from heading to the landfill. 
  • Invest in reusable containers for storing food, preferably glass. If you must wrap your food, try a beeswax food wrap instead of plastic wrap. They’re reusable, biodegradable, and cute! 
  • Make a meal plan. Thinking ahead about what you want to eat saves money at the grocery store, saves food preparation time, and reduces food waste. 
  • Compost your food waste. Approximately 24% of the US’s waste is organic material that can be composted. And when organic material begins breaking down in a landfill, it generates methane, which is 23 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. 
  • Purchase fewer items, of higher quality, and focus on repairing items in lieu of discarding them for new ones. Your wallet and Mother Nature will thank you. 
  • Cancel nonessential subscriptions to minimize the amount of catalogs and junk mail you receive. They might make you feel popular, but they’re annoying to deal with and a source of unnecessary waste. 
  • Stop using disposable plates, utensils, water bottles, and coffee cups and use reusable versions instead. Washing dishes may take time but it’s worth it and has even been shown to relieve stress! 
  • Buy in bulk when possible. You’ll reduce packaging waste and probably save money too. 
Hope this helps!
Green Geek

What is "upcycling?" 

Best,

George

Hi, George,

Great question! Upcycling, also called creative reuse, is the process of reusing and/or transforming waste products, by-products, unwanted or unused products to create a product that is more useful, more valuable, or more beautiful than it previously was. It’s a great opportunity to take something no longer in use and give it a second life and new function! 

Don’t confuse upcycling with recycling; they are different. Recycling takes materials and breaks them down so their base materials can be remade into a product, often of lesser quality. Meanwhile, upcycling does not entail breaking down materials. Though they may be refashioned, the base materials are the same. An upcycled item is also typically of the same quality or better than the original.

This process of taking something old and making it into something new has become quite a trend recently. The number of products on Etsy or Pinterest tagged with “upcycled” increased by 3238% from 2010 to 2013! Some examples of upcycling include turning a soup can into a pencil holder, old jeans into a pillow, or pennies into creative home decor. And since upcycling entails repurposing products that would otherwise likely go to the landfill and offers a fun alternative to buying new products, it’s great for your wallet and the environment! 
Sunscreen
Get those creative juices flowing,

Green Geek

I've heard certain types of sunscreen may be harmful to the environment. How so?  

Thanks,

Robert

Hi, Robert,

While sunscreen is imperative in preventing skin cancer and premature aging, many contemporary sunscreens pose a notable threat to the ocean environment. Researchers have found that oxybenzone, a common chemical found in many brands and types of sunscreen, harms coral and is in high concentrations at some of the most world’s most popular reefs.

In a study published in 2015, biologists found that oxybenzone contributes to bleaching, has a similar effect on DNA to gasoline, and disrupts reproduction and growth, leaving young corals fatally deformed. Even small doses of oxybenzone – about a drop in six-and-a-half Olympic swimming pools – damages coral. The researchers found concentrations 12 times that rate in popular waters off Hawaii and the US Virgin Islands. 

I would suggest steering clear of sunscreens containing oxybenzone, if possible, and using sunscreens made with non-nano zinc oxide or titanium oxide instead. Some sunscreens also sport “reef safe” labels. You can find safe and healthy sunscreens on the Environmental Working Group’s website dedicated to smart sunscreen shopping.

Thank you for your question!

Green Geek
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