Sustainability Myths, Busted: We’re Debunking Common “Facts” About Living an Eco-Friendly Life

Don’t let popular mistruths or misconceptions sway your thoughts on living a more sustainable life. Here’s the truth about going green.

Photo: Anton Petrus/

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Still on the fence about whether or not adopting eco-friendly habits is doable for you? While choosing a more sustainable lifestyle does come with some significant changes, it’s not as hard as it might initially seem. Sure, you have to give up some current habits, like single-use plastics and disposable paper products. Yet it’s not necessarily as challenging as you might think. In fact, a lot of what you hear surrounding individual sustainability efforts just might not be true. 

There are plenty of misconceptions around the idea of giving up plastic, reducing waste and living a greener, more eco-minded life – and we’re breaking them down. The following myths might be common statements about sustainability, but none of them are true. We’re explaining why they’re inaccurate and sharing what it’s really like to live sustainably.

Myth: Your individual choices and actions won’t make a significant difference for the environment

Think trading in single-use disposable products for reusable alternatives and cutting back on your at-home waste is a futile effort? Think again. 

It’s easy to fall for the myth that you aren’t really making any meaningful changes by adopting sustainable habits at the individual level. But it’s completely untrue. 

As The Sierra Club reports, it’s become increasingly common to heart commentators and even environmental advocates dismiss the importance of eco-friendly changes as an individual. And at times, it can feel like everyone is telling you that you don’t really have any individual responsibility to take action. The thought behind this approach? Corporations are really the bodies polluting the earth and contributing to climate change on a huge scale, and telling individuals to take smaller-scale actions is really just shifting the blame.

While corporations and large-scale changes are a must in order to fully – and quickly – address what’s happening to the environment, making voluntary changes within your own life can actually benefit the earth. We need both collective action and individual action in order to create a more sustainable lifestyle. 

As The Sierra Clubs sums it up, dismissing the importance of individual eco-minded changes won’t help the overall movement for climate change and climate justice. And by focusing on what you, personally, can do to contribute, you’ll be expanding and strengthening our collaborative efforts. After all, large-scale changes often start with small personal changes. 

Myth: Sustainable living is expensive

One of the toughest assumptions to combat about going green is the cost – or financial investment – that people believe it requires. After all, if you’re thinking about eliminating plastic products, getting rid of the cheap disposable products you’ve always relied on and replacing household essentials with more eco-friendly alternatives, you’re looking at spending quite a bit to get started.

But here’s the thing about making the switch to sustainable goods. While you do have to spend some cash in order to purchase them, they actually save you money in the long run. Ultimately, choosing sustainable, reusable products gives you more bang for your buck.

Think about sustainable products in the form of a per-use cost rather than focusing on the price alone. While a 12-pack of disposable paper towels seems cheaper at $20 to $30 per pack when compared to a 4 to 6 pack of fabric cloths at the same price point, the per-use cost is dramatically different. Because you can reuse the fabric alternative over and over again – and disposable paper towels can only be used once –  they’re actually more value-rich. You won’t have to buy new fabric towels or cloths for quite a while. 

Oh, and if you’re thinking, “But eco-friendly products are typically more expensive than more popular non-eco ones,” you’re not wrong. Often, sustainable products are a bit more costly. However, it’s important to note that they’re made to last longer, not to be thrown away within just a couple of uses. Additionally, these products are typically made with renewable resources (like bamboo or plant-based fibers) and meet key sustainability or green certifications to ensure they’re made in a planet-friendly process.  

Myth: You have to go zero-waste to make an impact

When many people think about sustainability, they think it means you have to completely revamp your lifestyle – and dramatically cut down on the amount of waste you create. But a zero-waste lifestyle isn’t the only way to reduce your individual environmental footprint.

Sure, going zero-waste isn’t just helpful for the earth; it’s also impressive! But if the idea of generating no waste in your everyday life is a bit too overwhelming, you don’t have to go zero-waste. You can live a more sustainable life without fitting all of your trash into a single Mason jar. And, to be perfectly honest, a zero-waste lifestyle isn’t achievable for everyone.

Sustainability isn’t an all-or-nothing endeavor. Rather, you can make significant changes in your own life by adjusting your habits. Instead of diving into a zero-waste approach, you can take steps to reduce the amount of waste you create and send to your local dump. Over time, you can then decrease your waste even more. 

Remember, small steps still matter – and they’re easier to tackle than sudden, massive changes that overhaul your lifestyle. You’re still going green with small changes, and you’re doing it without completely revamping your life.

Myth: Paper is always better than plastic

It’s a well-known fact that single-use plastic bags are an environmental disaster. In fact, pretty much all single-use plastic, in any and every form, is terrible for the earth and your own health. However, it’s a common assumption that opting for paper products, like brown paper bags, is the more sustainable choice. And in reality, it’s a bit more complicated than this. 

According to a 2020 European survey, 62 percent of consumers think paper and cardboard are better for the environment than plastic. While paper and cardboard are absolutely more biodegradable and recyclable compared to plastic, these materials aren’t exactly sustainable superstars. It turns out that just like plastic, paper and cardboard end up in landfills far more often than we think. As a result, these materials can’t naturally break down as quickly – and, to make matters worse, they actually take up more space than plastic per pound.

And to add insult to injury, much of today’s paper packaging only seems more sustainable. Often, paper bags, paper food packaging and other paper products are coated with laminate, aluminum or resins, which makes them unable to be recycled.

So, before you start opting for paper and cardboard over plastic, make sure to investigate a little to determine if the paper products you’re choosing are green – whether they’re compostable, reusable or recyclable.

Myth: If you’re recycling, you’re already living sustainably

Recycling is something that’s become both incredibly common and increasingly easier, thanks to the prevalence of local recycling centers, weekly recycling collection and the use of recyclable packaging and products. In fact, you’re probably already a recycling pro – since it first became part of the environmental movement in the 1970s, recycling has grown way beyond an individual action.

But unfortunately, merely tossing your empty food containers into your home recycling bin doesn’t mean you’re already living sustainably. Recycling is great, but it’s not exactly as easy (or as straightforward) as it seems.

In theory, recycling paper, cardboard, plastics, metals and even wood is meant to give them a second life. The products you recycle are supposed to be turned into raw materials to create new goods. But unfortunately, an awful lot of what you send to your local recycling plant winds up in a landfill instead. More than 90 percent of the plastic that’s recycled doesn’t actually get reused or repurposed.

That’s why it’s important to think of recycling as just one part of a sustainable lifestyle. Recycling as much as you can – and making it a daily habit – is a fantastic move. But in order to reduce your own footprint, it’s important to go beyond recycling and focus on other facets of green living, like reducing your waste in general, too. 

Myth: You have to give up meat – or go vegan

It’s no secret that the standard American diet isn’t kind to the environment. Meat and animal-based products in particular are often singled out as a primary driver of global emissions and climate change. Plants and plant-based diets, on the other hand, have been shown to benefit the environment. And eating plant-based is especially great for reducing your own eco footprint.

However, if you’re hesitant to adopt a sustainable lifestyle because you think you’ll have to give up meat, that’s nothing more than a myth. While plant-based diets are good for the environment, it’s a total misconception that going vegan is the only way to live a greener life. 

Reducing your meat consumption in any way – whether you’re eating one or two plant-based meals per week, cutting back on the amount of animal-based products you consume or sticking to Meatless Mondays – is a sustainable act! Research suggests that even if you change your diet in small ways and eat just a little less meat, you can contribute to large-scale environmental benefits.

And remember, part of the reason meat is pinned down as a climate change contributor is because the raising and production of meat is resource-heavy. Meat, like anything, is perfectly fine in moderation. The more balanced your diet is with a mix of animal protein and plant-based ingredients, the better it’ll be for you and the larger world.

Myth: Organic foods are always better

We’re big fans of organic fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy at Clean Eating, as organic foods are made using practices and processes (like regenerative agriculture) that may reduce pollution, conserve water, benefit soil and utilize less energy. But that’s a generalization – and it’s a total myth that organic is always the better, more eco-friendly choice.

The goal in choosing organic foods over non-organic is to lower your exposure to potentially toxic substances, like antibiotics, hormones and synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. However, when it comes to sustainability, the environmental impact can be less than ideal. Organic foods are really only eco-friendly when grown using regenerative agriculture practices, and when they aren’t resource-intensive.

For example, organic foods that are trucked, shipped, flown or transported in any other format over thousands of miles aren’t kind to the environment. The farther these foods travel, the more energy they consume – and the more pollution they can generate. Here’s an example: According to the National Resources Defense Council, all of the fruits and vegetables flown into California in 2005 generated more than 70,000 tons of CO2. That’s equivalent to the pollution produced by 12,000 cars.

For the most sustainable organic foods, it’s best to opt for locally-grown organic foods. The organic produce found at your local farmers’ markets or even a community-supported agriculture (CSA) group will reduce the emissions your food generates, keeping you closer to the source.

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