Respect for the environment is increasingly present in our homes, thanks to the introduction of practices aimed at reducing the environmental footprint of our domestic activities. Nowadays, the separation of waste has become commonplace, traditional light bulbs have been replaced by low-consumption ones, shopping bags are being reused and there is a greater awareness of the use we make of energy. However, there are still a myriad of products lurking in the corners of our homes that can be environmentally damaging without our knowing it.
Here we review some things from our homes that perhaps we should be eliminating from our lives in order to make our residences more environmentally friendly.
1. Cosmetics with microbeads
Plastic microbeads began to be introduced in cosmetics, toiletries and cleaning products in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that brands began to incorporate them in a massive way. Toothpastes, creams, lotions, shampoos and detergents began to include microbeads as the great innovation of the time for achieving an abrasive effect, replacing the nature-based materials in use until then.
However, studies in this century have revealed that wastewater-filtering systems do not capture these particles of less than one millimetre in size, meaning that these microplastics end up contaminating marine habitats and their food chains at the rate of 21 grams of microbeads going down the drain for each 200 millilitres of product used. Currently, the authorities of various countries are banning these products: in the USA their manufacture was prohibited in 2017 and this year they will disappear off store shelves. The United Kingdom has followed suit, but the European Union is still lagging behind. While we wait for the elimination of these products to be globalized, the reduction in their sale depends on consumers opting for alternatives without microbeads or of plant origin.
2. Coffee capsules
Capsule coffee machines have revolutionized the breakfasts of millions of people, offering a convenient and practical option for preparing an espresso or latte with the same quality one finds in a café. Data from 2017 indicate that 29% of US coffee consumers use these machines, a figure that continues to grow.
However, having your own personal café at home takes a toll on the environment: every year, millions of aluminium or plastic capsules end up in landfills. This pollution led the German city of Hamburg to ban coffee capsules in their public buildings in 2016, at the same time that the ex-CEO of Nespresso himself, Jean-Paul Gaillard, described the pollution caused by this waste as a “disaster.” In response to criticism, the Nestlé-owned company launched a recycling campaign for its aluminium capsules. Meanwhile, the popular imagination has turned the coffee capsules into one of the materials preferred by the artisans of recycling.
3. Wet wipes
They started off being an invaluable aid for fathers and mothers when facing the messy moment of their baby’s diaper change, but soon they began to be reinvented as deodorants, cleansers, disinfectants and hand soap substitutes, and even as toilet paper for adults. Wet wipes have become a common item in many homes, but with a dramatic consequence: they help to create fatbergs, immense accumulations that block the sewerage networks and that are composed of 93% non-degradable wipes, together with fat, condoms and other similar items thrown into the toilet.
Ever since a bus-sized fatberg had to be extracted from the London sewers in 2013, numerous cities around the world have suffered this problem at even greater scales. These days, manufacturers tend to offer biodegradable alternatives, but the return to old habits is always the greener option.
4. Some sunscreens
Since sun exposure is widely recognized as a risk factor for skin cancer, sun protection is a recommended practice by any health authority worth its salt. But what should we protect ourselves with? Research undertaken by the ecotoxicologist Craig Downs and other experts have shown that various ingredients in sunscreens are harmful to marine life, especially oxybenzone, an ultraviolet filter present in many of these products that is harmful to corals.
In the state of Hawaii, authorities are considering the possibility of banning these sunscreens. The problem, according to Downs, is that there is no clear alternative, since other filters can be equally toxic. Without a doubt, the most ecological option is… the shade.
5. Disposable chopsticks
The popularity of Asian food throughout the world has multiplied the use of chopsticks, which in the vast majority of cases are disposable. They look like innocent utensils, but Greenpeace warns us that chopsticks are a disposable wood product. According to data published by the environmental organization, China annually produces 57 billion pairs of chopsticks, which requires the felling of 3.8 million trees, or more than 1.18 million square metres of forest.
For Greenpeace, the solution is to say “no” to disposable chopsticks. There is also a humanitarian reason to embrace this option: according to Amnesty International, many of the chopsticks that China exports are produced in forced labour camps.
6. Plastic tea bags
In recent years, several tea companies have replaced the traditional paper sachet with a mesh one with a silky feel and an often pyramidal shape. These new bags are marketed as the option of the gourmet, since they usually contain larger leaf fragments and even whole leaves. But they are not necessarily more ecological: many of them are made of nylon or polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which increases our consumption of plastic. Moreover, and given that it is currently recommended to limit the reuse of disposable bottles due to the possible contamination of the liquid, drinking boiled infusions in the same plastics may not be advisable.
One of the favourite materials of many children is the last one to join the list of things from our homes that may be less innocuous than they appear. When a chain of nursery schools in the United Kingdom decided to dispense with the use of glitter for environmental reasons, it revealed a fact that some scientists had already noticed: glitter is nothing but small fragments of PET, a microplastic that contaminates the aquatic environment just like all the other microplastics.
Some experts support an initiative to ban plastic glitter, while others are cautious, noting that there is not enough data yet. For those who adhere to the precautionary principle, biodegradable alternatives are already on the market.