10 Ways You’re Hurting the Environment and Don’t Know It

Editor’s note: This Care2 favorite was originally posted on May 6, 2015. 

You know the environment needs help, and you’re just the person to do something about it. But sometimes your well-intended actions are actually harmful.

Here are 10 ways you may be hurting the environment without realizing it:

1. Cleaning up after your dog

I’m sure we can agree that picking up your dog’s poop is the right thing to do. But using plastic bags as your portal — not so much.

In 2012, Care2 shared that 78 million dogs living in the United States create 10 million tons of feces annually. That’s a lot of poop, and it’s got to get picked up somehow, but plastic bags are not the answer.

As Dogster put it, the plastic bag may be king, but there are other ways to get the job done. They list 13 ways to pick up dog poop without harming the environment.

2. Washing your recycling 

You just finished that last lick of peanut butter, so now it’s time to wash out the jar so you can recycle it. Yes, it does need to be cleaned.

But water is an essential resource, dangerously dwindling in areas like California that regularly experience severe drought. So is it worth wasting water to clean recyclables?

Yes and no. Clean them, yes, but waste water in the process? No.

Here’s what to do instead: Simply collect the water you used to clean dishes or pots and pans, pour some into the recyclable, slap a lid on that baby and shake. You may need to do a little scrubbing to get it ready for recycling, but there’s no reason to waste good, clean water in the process. And if there’s no lid, cup the top with the palm of your hand before shaking.

3. Purchasing “eco-friendly” products

You might think you’re doing the right thing by choosing eco-friendly personal care and cleaning products, but if they’ve got any of these ingredients — polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate or polymethyl methacrylate — well, then “you’re cleaning up with plastic and being duped into contributing to plastic pollution in the environment,” as the Story of Stuff put it.

What I’m talking about are plastic microbeads, which are really small particles found in body washes, hand soaps, toothpaste, lip gloss, nail polish and cosmetics designed to be washed down the drain. Unfortunately billions of these tiny plastic particles make their way into our environment everyday, and they end up littering our rivers, lakes and oceans.

The result is terrible for wildlife because a single microbead can be up to a million times more toxic than the water around it.

What can you do about microbead pollution? The Story of Stuff Project is leading a coalition of over 100 groups to get these tiny plastic beads out of commerce. You can find out more here.

4. Recycling

That’s right. Even if it’s washed, recycling itself can be harmful to the environment. Here are a few ways, according to this must-read LISTVERSE article:

  • The mindset it gives people -- The idea is that by putting materials in the recycle bin or by buying products made from recycled material, we’re saving the environment. We’re all a team of individual Captain Planets, kicking pollution to the curb. But how effective is that when the U.S. alone still produces 250 million tons of trash every year?
  • Recycling’s main impact is to convince us that it’s okay to be wasteful in other areas, because we make up for it through recycling. It encourages consumption, rather than pointing out ways to reduce consumption overall.
  • Recycling plants are huge polluters

And the list goes on. So yeah, recycling is not the green solution to our consumptive behavior. Eliminating —  or at least reducing — our resource use is.

5. Reusable tote bags

Of course you’re not harming the environment by bringing your own tote bag to the grocery store, but if that’s where your concern for minimizing waste ends, then, Houston, we have a problem.

It’s shocking how much excess packaging exists in the grocery industry. The other day I went to buy a cucumber at Trader Joe’s. An organic one, mind you, and it came wrapped in plastic!

So much attention has gone to grocery bags that we forget to consider all the other packaging associated with groceries. Stuffing an organic cotton grocery tote bag with a bunch of excessively packaged products seems to defeat the purpose, don’t you think?

LISTVERSE says, “There are about seven types of plastic that you’ll find in day to day life, and only two of them are recyclable. Anything else placed in a recycling bin will be collected, processed, and sorted, and then thrown straight into a landfill.”

If you’re looking to help the environment while you gather food, get hooked on products that don’t come smothered in excess packaging. Until packaging-free groceries stores come to your neighborhood, a great place to start is the bulk foods section of your local grocery store. And don’t forget to BYOW — bring your own whatever: mason jar, glass container, reusable sacks, etc.

6. Choosing organic, all natural animal products

Sure, “free range” AND “organic” may sound like responsible choices for meat eaters who care about the environment, but no matter how much land livestock have to roam and how well they are fed, the fact is, animal agriculture may have a bigger impact on the planet than anything else. And I’m not talking about the good kind.

If you want to know more, read 10 Reasons Why the Meat Industry is Unsustainable.

7. Thickening your gravy

Attention, chefs! If you’re making gravy, hold the corn starch. Sure, it can thicken sauces and soups with the greatest of ease, but corn starch is usually made with genetically modified corn. Here’s why GMOs are a concern.  

The good news is, you can skip corn starch and still thicken to your heart’s content. Just use arrowroot powder instead. It’s an easily digested starch extracted from the roots of the arrowroot plant that works just as well as corn starch — plus it has a more neutral flavor and can be used at low temperatures.

8. Upgrading your gadgets

Updating to the newest must-have electronic gadget is commonplace these days. People don’t even wait for products to break anymore before lining up to buy the latest greatest gizmo.

That consumer thinking is part of the problem.

Here’s a scary fact: Back in 2012, a partnership of UN organizations reported more than 48 million tonnes of gadgets are thrown away every year. That’s 11 times heavier than 200 Empire State Buildings.

The solution is simple: Get as much use out of each product you buy before tossing it aside to make room for the new shiny object.

If you think recycling your electronics absolves you from premature upgrading, think again. Only 13 percent of electronic waste is disposed and recycled properly.

9. Flushing items down the toilet to spare landfills

Flushing unwanted items down the toilet is not a magic process that makes things disappear. They end up somewhere, just like the garbage we put on the curb each week.

Even though some products are marketed as “flushable,” that doesn’t mean you should flush them.

Here are two “Don’t Flush” items:

  • Baby wipesTechnically they are “flushable.” It’s what happens after those wipes go down the toilet that’s causing headaches. They aren’t breaking down like they’re supposed to.
  • Kitty litter: Although most green litters are septic- and sewer-safe, it’s best not to flush them. Cat feces contains the Toxoplasmosis gondii  parasite, dangerous to pregnant women and marine life, particularly sea otters. Unfortunately TG is not filtered out in most water treatment plants.

10. Putting food waste into the garbage disposal

EcoMyths explains, ”Garbage disposals have been heralded as the ‘next great tool for urban sustainability,’ but while sink disposals do have some clear benefits over trashcans, they are not the greenest way to dispose of your uneaten food.”

According to life cycle analysis expert Dr. Eric Masanet and Debra Shore, commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, the hierarchy of green ways to dispose of food goes like this, from least green to most:

  • Not-so-green: Throwing it in a trashcan headed for the landfill
  • Light green: Running it through the sink disposal, from which it then heads to the wastewater treatment plant
  • Green: Toss it in your compost bin for efficient composting
  • Greenest ever: Reduce the amount of food we waste in the first place! Globally we waste about a third of our food every year. Talk about an environmental footprint.

So if you want to spare the planet, the best thing you can do with your food is to eat it up!

That’s a wrap

Even when we want to help the environment, what’s best isn’t always clear. If you want to do your part for the planet, start by educating yourself.

Please share this post to help educate others, and if you know of other common ways people unknowingly harm the environment, tip us off in the comments.

Photo Credit: sue seecoff/Flickr


Marie W
Marie Wabout a month ago

Thank you for sharing

Chad Anderson
Chad Anderson7 months ago

Thank you.

tammy C
tammy C7 months ago

washing recycles with dish water. Simple but great tip

Margaret B
Margaret B7 months ago

All good advice. Sadly we are often 'conned' about what is 'green'.
And re: washing recyclables - I was cans and jars, along with pet food containers, at the end of my regular wash up. No extra water needed.

Roberto MARINI
Roberto MARINI7 months ago

thanks for posting

Donna T
Donna T7 months ago

thank you

Larry McDaniel
Larry McDaniel7 months ago

Thank you

Toni W
Toni W7 months ago


Toni W
Toni W7 months ago


Krzysztof J
Krzysztof J7 months ago