Got questions? Ask the Green Geek.

Wondering if your hair dye affects the environment? If you can be more sustainable in your Halloween celebration? Or if your chocolate addiction has unintended environmental consequences?

Ask the Green Geek.
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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 And look for the column the second Friday of each month.

Dear Green Geek,

It’s about that time of year for me to go get my hair colored. I keep hearing that conventional hair dye has serious health risks. Does it also have negative impacts on the environment? 

Thank you,



Hi, Laura,

What a great question! It’s good that you’re thinking about this considering the increasing trend of hair coloring. Back in 1950, only 7% of women dyed their hair. According to a study by Clairol, that number has jumped up to 75%. More men are also coloring their hair.

Here’s the scary part - conventional hair dyes have over 5,000 chemicals, some of which are carcinogenic (cancer-causing). Harsh chemicals such as ammonia, hydrogen peroxide, mercury, and even coal tar are used as developers to change the structure of your hair to allow the color to bond. Darker permanent hair dyes pose the biggest risk. Although more studies are needed to clarify this link between using hair dyes and cancers (i.e. blood and bladder), the American Cancer Society does report it is these harsh developer chemicals are human carcinogens.

As for the environment, conventional hair dyes do have negative environmental impacts as well. They do contribute to indoor air pollution. Think about our stylists that have to breathe in these toxic gaseous emissions day after day. Another food for thought, what happens to all the hair dye that goes down the drain? Due to their chemical compositions, hair dyes are actually resistant to the wastewater treatment process and are not biodegradable. As a result, the dyes contribute to photosynthesis disruption and oxygen depletion of water systems as well as local and distant ecosystems. 

Here are some healthy and green alternatives: 
  • Eco-friendly dyes. There are dyes that are ammonia free. However, if you choose permanent eco-friendly dyes, they will still contain low levels of the developer chemicals.
  •  Henna. Henna dye is make from powdered leaves of the desert shrub Lawsonia. This is the only true natural hair dye, free of all chemicals.  (Tips: You can add dry coffee or rosemary to make a richer tone. Apple cider vinegar will help the henna bind with color-resistant hair)
I hope this helps! 

Green Geek

Hi, Green Geek,

Halloween is around the corner! What are some ways to be more sustainable this holiday? 



Hi, Jenny, 

Here’s a frightening fact about Halloween: Americans are projected to spend about $9 billion on the holiday this year and much of what’s purchased will head straight to the landfill after Oct. 31. With more than 175 million Americans celebrating it, it’s important to do what we can to minimize our ecological footprint. Fortunately, there are many ways to have a fun Halloween without spooking Mother Earth (or your wallet!):

  • Instead of buying a pre-made costume, consider reusing or recycling costumes from previous years, borrowing one from a friend or even make your own from things you already have in the house. Browse thrift shops, flea markets or gather some inspiration from your own closet: an old prom dress, bowling shirt, or cowboy boots are all the beginnings of great costumes.
  • If you really want to go all out, consider renting a costume.
  • If you purchase a costume and don’t think you’ll use it again, you can donate it to thrift stores, organize a costume swap with friends, sell it online or at a yard sale or recycle it through a textile-recycling program.Dog in a homemade costume
  • For face paint, opt for makeup that’s safer for the environment and your health. Check ingredients on sites like the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database, or make your own makeup. Face paints often contain lead and other heavy metals, such as nickel, cobalt and chromium. Labels can also be misleading, such as ‘hypoallergenic’ on products that contain known skin allergens.

Many decorations are made out of non-recyclable plastics. Decorate with items that can be composted, such as pumpkins, gourds, corn stalks, hay, leaves and sticks, to create an autumnal look.

Opt for decorations that you can commit to reusing, either for next year’s Halloween celebrations, or for a totally unrelated purpose — for example, faux-spider-web material makes great pillow stuffing.

If you enjoy DIY projects, make decorations from materials around the house or products you’d otherwise recycle/dispose of. Here are some ideas:
  • Turn stockings with runs into spider-webbing
  • Paint foam peanuts (packing materials) and turn them into worms
  • Clean Styrofoam and make Halloween masks
  • Turn cardboard boxes into tombstones
  • Make other creative decorations from netting from bags of oranges, cotton balls, leaves and branches from the yard, etc.
  • Get your pumpkin – along with your other compostable fall food décor – directly from a local grower rather than a big box grocery store.
  • Choose the right pumpkin for the job, so you’ll have less waste. Hollow-er pumpkins are easier to carve (knock on the pumpkin; the louder the knock, the more hollow the pumpkin), and smaller varieties are better for cooking.
  • If you’re choosing between carving and painting, carve. A painted pumpkin has to go in the trash afterwards, while a carved pumpkin can be composted. If you’re not going to carve the pumpkin, but still want to decorate it, you can dress it up!
  • Use the flesh of a pumpkin to make delicious pies, muffins, smoothies, soups, lasagnas, chili, pastas, and even puddings.
  • Save the pumpkin seeds. They are great snacks you can prepare in the oven, on the stovetop, or even on a grill.
  • Choose your candy more consciously. Look for bulk candy, candy that is organic or sustainably produced/sourced, or candy with minimal/recyclable packaging. You could also go a different route by giving out something other than candy.
  • Trick-or-Treat Bags
  • Avoid the store-bought plastic pumpkin bucket and collect treats with a bucket, bag, or pillowcase you already have at home. If you can’t resist getting something new, seek out a reusable shopping bag in a ghoulish color or pattern so you can use it year after year. 
Thanks for your question! 
Green Geek

Hi, Green Geek,

I’m a self-identifying chocoholic who’s also trying to be more mindful of how my food choices impact the world around me. What are the environmental consequences of chocolate production and are there ways I can minimize my impact? 


Hi, Cecilia, 

You’re certainly not alone in your love of chocolate: the average American enjoys over 9 poundsChocolate of chocolate every year! When it comes to impacts, most of the attention revolves around the cocoa bean.

Approximately 70% of the world’s cocoa beans are grown in West Africa, especially Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria. Cocoa farming and cocoa bean production are fragile and labor-intensive processes whose can be affected by a wide range of factors. For instance, climate change in West Africa is expected to boost temperatures and prolong dry spells. This will like lower yields, as cocoa trees are sensitive to heat and drought. Cocoa trees are also slow growing; it can take an entire year for a cocoa tree to produce the cocoa in just half a pound of chocolate. Yet, despite these limiting factors, global demand for chocolate continues to grow and will likely increase twofold by 2050. Cocoa farmers, many of whom are small, family-owned and operated businesses, are struggling to keep up with the growing demand. Moreover, while it is possible to grow cocoa in an environmentally friendly way, farmers have shifted toward unsustainable, ecologically damaging practices to increase yields.

Full-sun cocoa farming. Traditional cocoa trees are planted in the shade, but farmers have shifted to planting crops out of the shade and into direct sunlight. This practice increases yield amount in the short-term but poses several problems. Full-sun cocoa farming produces lower quality beans, accumulate more weeds and pests, and are more susceptible to diseases. Farmers often have to use large amounts of agro-chemicals as a result, which is deleterious to the surrounding land, population and wildlife.

Deforestation. Cocoa farmers often clear tropical forests to plant new cocoa trees rather than reusing the same land. This practice has spurred massive deforestation in West Africa, particularly in Ivory Coast. By clearing these forest areas, farmers decrease plant and animal biodiversity while destroying wildlife habitat. The government protects some of the forests in cocoa producing countries.

However, protection against degradation is not heavily enforced and, with a shortage of fresh land to plant cocoa trees, some farmers illegally cut down parts of these protected forests. Experts estimate that 70% of the country’s illegal deforestation is related to cocoa farming.

Cocoa farming becomes a destructive circle as farmers wear out the soils and cut further into the forest to obtain fresh land. All of these processes stress the cocoa trees and result in lower yields in the long term.

Moreover, West Africa’s cocoa farmers often use child labor to help grow, harvest, and transport cocoa beans. According to a 2015 U.S. Labor Department report, more than 2 million children engaged in dangerous labor throughout Ghana and Ivory Coast.

Of course, the production of the end-product – chocolate – has its own environmental consequences:
  • Milk production is greenhouse gas intensive, especially in its emission of methane.
  • Sugar is linked to deforestation, intensive use of water and agro-chemicals, as well as runoff of polluted effluent into surrounding areas.
  • Many chocolates also contain palm oil, which is associated with deforestation and is a threat to wildlife if not sustainably sourced.
  • Packaging is often excessive and not recyclable.
  • The food miles to transport cocoa beans to its destination for chocolate production can be notable.
  • The production process itself is also quite water-intensive: It takes approximately 1,000 liters of water to produce a single chocolate bar.
This doesn’t mean you have to swear off chocolate; simply being mindful of what you’re buying can go a long way. When shopping for chocolate, look for the following labels:
  • Shade-grown cocoa
  • Fair trade
  • Rainforest Alliance certified
  • USDA Organic
In terms of types of chocolate, opt for dark chocolate over milk chocolate. It has less milk and sugar – and more health benefits! Also, look for chocolate products with minimal and/or recyclable packaging. 


Green Geek
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