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6 Sustainability Myths & Misconceptions

Feb 16th, 2023

There’s a lot of information floating around the internet regarding sustainability, and it can be challenging to figure out what’s real, what’s fake and, of course, what’s a little bit of both.

We are committed to sustainability here at AMLI Residential, and we make an effort to provide our residents with the information they need to achieve their own sustainability goals — part of that is debunking some of the common myths and misconceptions around sustainability itself.

Popular sustainability myths, debunked

Myth: you have to be 100% zero-waste to be sustainable


There are plenty of influencers out there who proudly display their year’s worth of trash in a quart-sized glass jar, but don’t compare yourself to them. 

Sustainability is a journey and it will look different to everyone, so saying you have to be all-or-nothing is like saying that you can only enjoy fitness if you can bench as much as Arnold Schwarzenegger, or that you can only enjoy painting if your work is in the Louvre. 

And anyway, a lot of people doing what they can when they can is a whole lot better than two or three going a hundred-percent full throttle in one direction. That’s where real change takes place — in our imperfections.

Myth: you have to cut out all plastic to be sustainable

Aside from the all-or-nothing narrative we’ve already debunked, plastic can actually be the more sustainable option sometimes!

But, as with everything, it’s complicated.

For example: choosing between a glass and plastic bottle of soda. You’d think glass would be the most sustainable option, but buying glass beverage bottles over plastic ones can actually increase your carbon footprint. Glass is heavier and more fragile, so greater effort has to go into transporting glass-packaged goods. This means more emissions during transportation, more protective packaging (like styrofoam, plastic peanuts or paper) and more trips to divide the weight. The plastic bottle, on the other hand, is lighter to transport, doesn’t require nearly as much protection and has a lower carbon footprint per bottle than its glass neighbor. 

The consensus? It’s still complicated. If you’re focused on lowering transportation emissions, then plastic is the way to go. If you’re wanting to reuse the bottle somehow, then glass is the better option. 

This is just one example, but it just goes to show how living sustainably isn’t as linear as we may think. And plastic, for all its negative side effects in the environment, can sometimes be the better option.

Myth: recycling everything is better than throwing it in the trash

Oof. This one is hard to swallow.

Contrary to what we may want to believe, if you’re unsure about whether something is recyclable, it’s better to throw it in the trash than into that beautiful blue recycling bin.

There’s a term used often in the sustainability biz known as “wishcycling,” which is the act of putting an item into the recycling bin and hoping that it is, in fact, recyclable. It emerged in the mid 2010s as the recycling industry in the United States was struggling to manage the influx of non recyclable goods in their collection bins, and without adequate education and consumer information available, it continues to this day.

The issue with wishcycling is that a single non-recyclable item in a batch of recyclable items can back up the whole recycling process. Extra labor may be needed to sort through and remove the item, the item may get stuck in a machine or piece of equipment, it could release harmful chemicals as it's processed or it could even cause the whole batch to get thrown out for the sake of time, cost and efficiency. 

Moral of the story: if in doubt, throw it out! It’s better to save a whole batch of recyclable items than doom them all to a landfill for the sake of one hunch. 

Myth: “natural” and “green” always means “sustainable”

Labels are rarely what they seem on the surface, especially when it comes to sustainability.

There’s a lot of greenwashing out there these days — as in, a company attracting consumers to buy their products or services by enticing them with promises of sustainability and eco-friendly practices… true or not. 

Greenwashing can range from switching from straws to plastic lids (even though the lids use more plastic overall) to marketing clothes as being made from bamboo (even though they were made from rayon) to promoting a car’s eco-friendly fuel efficiency (as an outright lie).

Point is, don’t take a supposedly sustainable label at face value. Do your research, be a smart consumer and look for companies that align with your values! 

Myth: compostable and biodegradable mean the same thing

Unfortunately, no. 

There are a lot of compostable and biodegradable products on store shelves nowadays, from straws to cups to plant pots to packaging, plastics, fabrics and more. These products are made from materials that will, in the right conditions, eventually break down into smaller matter. 

Now, compostable products are not the same as biodegradable ones. Compostable products will break down into organic matter only through the composting process, which can be done either at home or in a commercial facility. They need a very specific environment to kickstart the natural composting process, and that environment needs to be carefully monitored to ensure the organic matter has enough oxygen, heat, moisture and other nutrients. 

Biodegradable products are also designed to break down in the environment, but that’s really where the designation ends. The term could apply to anything from cardboard to organic material to even certain kinds of plastics. Though the products do break down into smaller, microscopic pieces, those smaller pieces may still be toxic to the environment.

Myth: it’s too late to make a difference

Despite what the news and internet says, it’s absolutely not too late to make a difference. And a difference is already happening. 

Like we said, lots of people practicing sustainability imperfectly will lead us to change, because those people end up influencing the large companies and corporations that have the power to create that change. 

For example, the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica is recovering at a rate of 1-3% each year, according to a 2018 study commissioned by the United Nations. They cited a 1987 ban on synthetic gasses and chemicals as the reason the level of greenhouse gasses began to decline, and that ban wouldn’t have happened if there weren’t individuals collectively (imperfectly) working to create change.

There are also our own AMLI apartments all over the United States that are designed to lower energy usage, increase land and water use efficiency and utilize clean energy sources. All our apartments built since 2010 have been LEED-certified, and we continue the certification process for each new developement today.

All the little actions made at home, at work and at the voting booth are creating change, so keep at it!

Good luck!

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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/Skitterphoto

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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