In broad terms, being “green” means embracing what I call the 3 Rs: Reduce, Re-use, and Recycle. Reducing consumption is where it all starts. The less we consume, the less energy is required to produce or transport products and the less waste and pollution we create, which in turn reduces our exposure to toxins. One of the easiest ways to reduce consumption is to re-use or reclaim products and/or materials instead of creating new ones to replace the old ones. Another is to purchase products that are made locally or as close to your home as possible.

Recycling comes last because it requires a lot of energy to recycle things. Some people believe that the energy required to recycle outweighs the benefits of recycling. But recycling is still a better option than tossing things in the trash where they wind up in landfills releasing noxious gasses –sometimes for hundreds of years!

To borrow a line from the world of computing, it’s all about I/O -that is inputs and outputs. If you want to know how to green any aspect of your lifestyle or make it more “earth-friendly,” there are 3 factors to consider:

1. Inputs: Who, What, Where, Why and How?

Start by looking at the inputs -everything that goes into making a particular product -from the ingredients to the packaging to how it’s distributed. Where are the ingredients or raw materials sourced from and how are they made? Are the processes for extracting them fundamentally safe for the environment? Is the manufacturing process moderately clean, very clean, somewhat dirty or very dirty? Are there by-products that are toxic or can pollute the environment? How energy-intensive are the various processes used to make the finished product? Where is it made relative to where it’s sold? And how far does it have to travel before it reaches you, the end-user?

These are some of the ways to determine the carbon footprint for a product. The more energy and fuel it takes to move materials and finished product around and the farther it has to travel, the greater the carbon emissions which contribute to both pollution and global warming.

Other issues or concerns relating to this aspect of production include whether small producers (like farmers) are paid a fair price for materials or services, if workers are being needlessly exposed to any harm or during the production process, or are subject to inhumane conditions.

2. The Impact of Products During Their Life Cycle

For personal care and beauty products, the key is always in the ingredients first, and packaging second. In the hierarchy of available options, plant-based products are clearly safer than their synthetic and petroleum-based counterparts. Plants have been used successfully throughout history for medicinal and beautification purposes, because as creatures of nature it follows that our bodies can comprehend and better utilize ingredients that exist in nature (whether ingested as food or absorbed into the skin through topical use). The advent of synthetics and petroleum by-products is relatively new from a historical perspective. Since they are “manufactured” as opposed to existing in nature, it makes sense that our bodies can and often do have a hard time dealing with them.

Of course, organically grown and produced products are safer because of the extremely low exposure to pesticides, and because organic farming practices are non-polluting and totally sustainable.

There are an alarming number of chemical and petroleum ingredients that go into making personal care and beauty products –not to mention some scary by-products of the manufacturing process. In March 2008, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) commissioned a study that found that even some of the leading “natural” and “organic” personal care products contain a highly toxic ingredient called 1,4-Dioxane. This is a by-product of “Ethoxylation” –a cheap short-cut companies use to soften harsh ingredients. 1,4-Dioxane is considered a cancer-causing chemical by the State of California under it’s exhaustive Proposition 65 regulation.

When looking at the primary impact on your health and safety, you should also consider the secondary impact of washing these ingredients off your skin and down the drain. What happens when toxic chemicals and petroleum ingredients wind up in our rivers and streams? 1,4-Dioxane is has been identified as a leading groundwater contaminant, and is a good example of the hidden dangers that can lurk in products we blithely assume are safe.

3. What Happens At the End of the Line?

When looking at the final impact of a personal care product on the environment, packaging probably matters most. There are certain types of plastic like PVC (Poly Vinyl Chloride) which is not recyclable and whose production is very “dirty.” Plastic can leach chemicals all throughout its life cycle, release toxins into surrounding communities during its manufacture, and can pose health risks from exposure to fumes when incinerated on the back-end.

Again, there is a hierarchy of preference when it comes to packaging starting with glass as the safest and most environmentally friendly option, followed by re-usable materials like aluminum or stainless steel (aluminum containers should have an FDA-approved Epoxy phenolic internal coating to prevent reactivity with its contents), and “friendlier,” recyclable plastics such as PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) and HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene). Of most concern to your health and the environment are plastics coded for recycling as #3, #6, and #7. Plastic containers that are acceptable are labeled #1, #2, #4, and #5.

To truly “Green” your personal care routine choose products that are designed with “environmental intelligence” from start to finish; are made entirely in the USA –preferably in the region where you live; and don’t pose any known safety risks to your health.

Copyright 2009 Dropwise Essentials