This Buy Green Glossary contains a list of terms and definitions related to buying green.


100% unbleached cotton

The bleaching process, unless done with non-chlorine-based bleach, produces dioxins. These toxins do not break down when released into water and as they move up the food chain, increase in concentration; becoming the most toxic by the time they reach humans.

Acid Free

Made in a neutral pH process that increases the longevity of the paper.


All Natural

Derived from natural, non-synthetic, materials, though with the exception of meat-products, the term is legally meaningless.


AP Certified Nontoxic

An independent certification by the Art & Creative Materials Institute (ACMI) to indicate that an ‘Approved Product’ does not include any ingredients in quantities that would be harmful to the health of children or adults.


Approved for organic gardening

Products that do not contain any materials that would hinder organic gardening.


Artificial Dyes

These colorants can be made from petroleum, coal or heavy metals, which means that they are less likely to degrade in the environment. Artificial dyes may also have a toxic effect on living organisms, causing allergies and skin or eye irritation. They are often added to a product to influence purchasing behaviors, but do not improve the product itself.


Artificial Fragrances

These additives may be made from petroleum or heavy metals and therefore are less likely to degrade in the environment. Artificial fragrances also can have toxic effects on living organisms, causing allergies and skin or eye irritations. They can be added to a product to influence purchasing behaviors, but do not necessarily improve the product itself.


ASTM D 4236

The chronic hazard labeling standard established by the U.S. labeling law. Under ASTM D 4236, art materials must be labeled to indicate chronic health hazards, the ingredients causing those hazards, and directions for safe use of the product.


ASTM D6400

The “Standard Specification for Compostable Plastics”, as defined by ASTM International. This specification covers plastics and products made from plastics that are designed to be composted in municipal and industrial aerobic composting facilities. The properties in the specification are required to assure that the degradation of these materials will not diminish the value or utility of the compost resulting from the composting process.


ASTM D6868

The “Standard Specification for Biodegradable Plastics Used as Coatings on Paper and Other Compostable Substrates.” This specification covers biodegradable plastics and products (including packaging), where a plastic film or sheet is attached to substrates and the entire product or package is designed to be composted in municipal and industrial aerobic composting facilities.


ASTM International

ASTM International (ASTM), originally known as the American Society for Testing and Materials, is an international standards organization that develops and publishes voluntary consensus technical standards for a wide range of materials, products, systems, and services.



The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture defined bio-based products in 2002 as any manufactured, commercial, or industrial good (non-food) that is composed, in whole or in significant part, of biological products, renewable agricultural materials, or forestry materials, generated within the United States. The benefits of buying bio-based products, as promoted by the US Deptartment of Agriculture include: decreasing dependence on petroleum-based products, improving the envrionment by using non-toxic and renewable resources, creating new jobs for rural communities and providing new markets for farm commodities.



A substance that the body generally accepts without a major immune response. A biocompatible material is not toxic and does not cause injury or immunologic damage to living tissue.



Capable of “breaking down” through the action of living organisms such as bacteria and fungi. Biodegradable matter is generally organic material such as plant and animal matter, however new innovations in plastic production have created biodegradable plastics as well. It is important to note that not all biodegradable plastics are compostable; some biodegradable plastics break down into small pieces of non-organic matter, which can be harmful to the environment.



Having to do with, or derived from, plants.



Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) is a not-for-profit association of individuals and groups from government, industry and academia which performs third-party certification of compostable products. BPI does not create standards, but demonstrates products meet the requirements in ASTM D6400 or D6868, based on testing in an approved laboratory. The BPI certification logo ensures that a product is compostable.



A technical measurement of the light reflected back from the paper, with 100 being the highest.



A substance that is added to formulations to change the properties of water (especially hardness and pH) and bolster a surfactant’s performance. Builders vary in toxicity and potential to cause human health and environmental effects.



A substance that can cause cancer or cancer growth.


Certified Organic

A product that has been certified either by the USDA or a third party certifier, as produced without the use of toxic pesticides and fertilizers, synthetic hormones, antibiotics, sewage sludge, GMOs or irradation. Under the national organic program, “100% Organic” means all product ingerdiants are organic, “Organic” means 95% of the product is made from organic materials, and “Made with organic ingrediants” means that at least 70% of the ingrediants are organically grown.



The bleaching process most often used to whiten products, particularly paper products, contains chlorine which bonds chemically with carbon-based compounds, producing dioxins and toxic pollutants. These toxins do not break down when released into water and as they move up the food chain, increase in concentration, becoming the most toxic by the time they reach humans. As early as 1985, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) labeled dioxin “the most potent carcinogen ever tested.”


Chlorine Free

Any product produced without the use of chlorine, chlorine gas, chlorine compounds or chlorine derivatives. There are several acronyms referring to the level of chlorine contained in a product.(See ECF, PCF, TCF)


Closed-loop recycling

The process by which a product is used by a consumer, recycled, and remanufactured into the same product, which is once again purchased by a consumer.


Coated Paper

Paper with a clay coating, providing a good printing surface for crisp, brilliant colors.


Compact Fluorescent Light Bulb (CFL)

Compact fluorescent light bulbs are a highly energy efficient, long lasting alternative to traditional incandescent light bulbs. By requiring an average of 66% less energy to produce an equivalent amount of light, CFLs reduce the amount of fossil fuels being used and consequently, the amount of carbon dioxide being generated. However, CFLs contain trace amounts of mercury. This amount is not large enough to pose a hazard to users, but it does become a concern at landfills and trash incinerators where the mercury from many bulbs can potentially escape and contribute to air and water pollution. To learn how to properly dispose of CFLs as well as fluroescent tubes in Tompkins County, please visit or call 273-6632.



Compost is the end product of the decomposition of organic matter (such as yard waste and food scraps). Compost is a beneficial soil amendment because it improves soil structure, supports microbial activity in the soil, attracts beneficial insects such as earthworms, suppresses several soil born diseases and holds its nutrients in organic or slow release form, allowing for availability throughout the growing season.



Capable of breaking down into air, water, and organic matter (compost). Examples of compostable items include yard waste, food scraps, paper products, and BPI certified compostable plastics.



The undiluted form of a dilutable product. Using concentrates saves money, time and resources. Please remember to follow the manufacturer’s directions when using a concentrate in order to properly dilute with water.



A corrosive substance is one that will destroy or irreversibly damage another substance with which it comes in contact


Crystalline Silica

Crystalline silica is a pigment made from quartz sand that has been crushed or ground. The material is added to paint products because its chemical properties enhance the brightness and luster of applied paint. Crystalline silica is also classified as a human lung carcinogen. The greatest risk of exposure to this material is during extraction and manufacture because breathing crystalline silica dust can cause silicosis, which in severe cases can be disabling, or even fatal.



The process by which ink is lifted off used paper before breaking it back into fibers to be recycled into new paper.



An alternative to traditional demolition, in which an obsolete building is safely dismantled by hand and the salvaged materials are sold for reuse, typically at a price significanly less than retail value. Deconstruction services can divert 70-90% of materials from ending up in a landfill.



Capable of being chemically degraded, but not always capable of breaking down through the naturally occuring action of living organisms. A degradable product is not necessarily a biodegradable or compostable product.



A chemical or physical agent that kills microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses and protozoa. Designed to prevent or spread germs, disinfectants kill pathogenic microorganisms.



Capable of withstanding wear and tear or decay, allowing it to be used for an extended amount of time.



Elemental chlorine free refers to virgin paper processed without elemental chlorine but still utilizes a chlorine derivative such as chlorine dioxide.


Eco Logo

A label managed by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, Inc. that ensures products meet various standards and exhibit a lower environmental impact than similar products. Criteria is product-specific, but include areas such as energy, recyclable material, and hazardous substances, and are assessed across all stages of a product’s development.


Ecological footprint

A resource management tool that measures how much land and water area a human population requires to produce the resources it consumes and absorb its wastes under prevailing technology.



An aqueous additive that promotes the formation of a stable mixture by helping suspend one liquid in another. Emulsifiers are often used in cleaning fluids to keep soils dispersed throughout the fluid.


Energy Star

Energy Star is a government-backed program designed to help businesses and individuals protect the environment through energy efficiency. Products with the Energy Star seal meet strict energy efficiency guidelines set by the EPA and US Department of Energy. For more information, please visit:



U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which publishes guidelines for minimum recycled product content for use by federal agencies for purchasing standards. EPA also regulates many aspects of paper industry production, including emissions and solid waste management.



Environmentally Preferable Purchasing refers to the practice of purchasing products that have a lesser or reduced effect on human health and the environment when compared with similar products on the market. (See ‘Why Buy Green’ for further information)



Formaldehyde is a volatile organic compound (VOC). Sources of formaldehyde in the home include building materials, cigarette smoke, household products, and the use of un-vented, fuel-burning appliances, like gas stoves or kerosene space heaters. Products that are made using urea formaldehyde give off fumes for a long time after installation. Those fumes can cause watery eyes, burning in the nose, throat and eyes, nausea, headaches, wheezing, skin rashes and other allergic reactions.



Forest Stewardship Council, which is an independent, international, environmentally and socially-oriented forestry certification organization. FSC is the only certification organization that is verifiably perfomance-based and has established credibility with the major environmental and social organizations worldwide.



U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which publishes guidelines to help companies clarify which kinds of product labeling would be regarded as appropriate and which misleading.


Gray-water System Safe

Indicates that a product is safe for use in gray-water recycling systems.


Green Seal

An independent non-profit organization dedicated to safeguarding the environment and promoting the manufacture, purchase and use of environmentally responsible products and services. Green Seal has developed its own product rating system to help further its goal. Visit for more information.



The Greenguard Environmental Institute (GEI) is an industry-independent, non-profit organization that oversees the Greenguard Certification Program. GEI was founded in June of 2001 to establish a third-party product certification program based on proven emissions standards and to provide specifying and procurement professionals with a resource for low-emitting products. GEI’s mission is to improve public health and quality of life through programs that improve indoor air. For more information please visit


Heavy Metal Driers

A drier is a substance that accelerates the drying of oil-based paints, varnishes and inks. Metallic salts of manganese, cerium, lead, chromium, iron, and zinc, are common and effective driers. Heavy metal compounds are toxic when ingested or inhaled. Health risks are predominantly posed on those who manufacture them; in use they are considered a health risk only in long-term exposure.


Incandescent Light Bulb

Incandescent light bulbs are a source of artificial light that works by incandescence in which an electric current passes through a thin filament, heating it until it produces light. These bulbs require more energy inputs and have a shorter lifespan when compared to the newer compact fluroescent and LED light bulbs.


Integrated Pest Management

An ecosystem-based landscaping strategy that focuses on long-term prevention of pests or their damage through a combination of techniques such as biological control, habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices, and use of resistant varieties. Pesticides are used only after monitoring indicates they are needed according to established guidelines, and treatments are made with the goal of removing only the target organism. Pest control materials are selected and applied in a manner that minimizes risks to human health, beneficial and nontarget organisms, and the environment.



Life-Cycle Analysis is the process of evaluating the overall impact of a product on the environment by assessing the total amount of emissions made and raw materials used during its manufacture, use, and disposal.


Light Emitting Diode (LED)

LEDs last longer than both CFLs and incandescent bulbs. LEDs produce light efficiently by using a tiny mirror to reflect light in one direction. A more directed light means less wasted light. LED bulbs are also closer to the color of daylight, which new studies suggest is good for staying alert.



The item is assembled and produced in the local area thus cutting down on transport cost and air emissions, packaging, while supporting the local economy.



Lumens are a measure of the amount of light produced – essentially the brightness of a light.


Macronutrients ratios

The number sequence on fertilizer bags (for example 4-2-2 or 6-1-9) represent the % by weight of the 3 major macronutrients commonly required for plant growth. The first number is the percent of Nitrogen (N) by weight in the bag, the second number is the % of Phosphorous (P) and the third number the % of Potassium (K).


Made in the USA

Produced in the United States, thus cutting down on transport cost and air emissions, packaging, while supporting the local economy.



Mercury and most of its compounds are extremely toxic and should be handled with care. The World Health Organization, OSHA, and NIOSH all treat mercury as an occupational hazard, and have established specific occupational exposure limits. Environmental releases and disposal of mercury are regulated in the U.S. primarily by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Mercury is commonly found in some thermometers, fluroscent light bulbs, insecticides and batteries.


Methylene Chloride

Methylene chloride is a colorless liquid with a mild, sweet odor; it does not occur naturally in the environment. Methylene chloride is used as an industrial solvent, as a paint stripper, and in the manufacture of photographic film. It may also be found in some aerosol and pesticide products. The World Health Organization (WHO) has determined that methylene chloride may cause cancer in humans and the Occupational Health and Saftey Association (OSHA) considers methylene chloride to be a potential occupational carcinogen.


Microfiber cloths

Microfiber cleaning cloths and products are an environmentally preferable way of cleaning household surfaces because they reduce the need for chemical cleaners and are a reusable alternative to disposable paper towels.



A product that can be used for multiple functions, reducing the need for more items, translating into less waste and packaging.


No Animal Testing

Indicates that a product has not been tested on animals.


No Chemicals

The product does not contain any chemicals which may be detrimental to people or the environment.



Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are created by inserting a gene from another plant or animal into a host, altering its genetic makeup to produce a wide variety of traits, from pest resistance to faster growth. These GMOs have unknown health effects in the long run and can be detrimental to ecosystems while threatening biodiversity.



Fertilizer burn means injury (dehydration) of the roots or crown of the plant (plant burn), and a browning of part or all of the foliage, sometimes resulting in the death of the entire plant.



Removal of materials by dissolving them away from solids.


Non-renewable Resource

A resource that once used cannot be replenished or restored at any significant rate on a human time scale.



A product, substance, or chemical that will not cause adverse health effects, either immediately or over the long-term.



Plant seeds are not treated with fungicide.


OMRI Listed

The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) is a national nonprofit organization that determines which input products are allowed for use in organic production and processing. OMRI Listed or approved products may be used on operations that are certified organic under the USDA National Organic Program.


Optical Brighteners

An additive designed to enhance the appearance of colors and whites by absorbing the invisible ultraviolet component of sunlight and re-emitting it as visible light at the blue end of the spectrum. Typically found in laundry detergent and textile finishes, they enter the environment via household wastewater. Many of these chemicals are toxic to aquatic life, and can also cause mutations in bacteria. They are very slow to biodegrade and in humans, they can cause eye and skin irritations.



A product has labeled itself organic though it may not list any certifications.


Papermill Sludge

The waste material left over after pulping and deinking, primarily during the recycling process. This can include: paper fibers that are too short to reuse, clay coatings, fillers, paper clips and staples.



Processed Chlorine Free, describes recycled paper in which the recycled content is unbleached or bleached with a process that does not include chlorine or chlorine derivatives.



Post-consumer waste, material that is collected from the end-user of a product and recycled into a new product before being discarded.


Pest Management

Products designed to control pest problems in the yard or garden.


Pesticide Free

The Product does not contain any chemical or biological agent that kills plant or animal pests; herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, rodenticides, etc. are all pesticides.



Any chemical substance derived from fossil fuel. Petrochemicals are a compound of carbon and hydrogen, and may incorporate many other elements. They emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are harmful to respiratory health and the liver, and in extreme cases, can cause cancer. In the environment, they do not biodegrade, and can also cause health problems in animals. Petrochemicals come from a nonrenewable resource, and can add to greenhouse gas emissions, which leads to global warming.


pH scale

A scale from 0 to 14 reflecting the concentration of hydrogen ions in solution. Neutral solutions have a pH of 7, while acidic solutions approach 0 and basic ones approach 14.


Phosphate Free

Phosphates are natural minerals that can be added to detergents to reduce water hardness and prevent dirt from being re-deposited on a clean item. Phosphate is also a nutrient for plants and animals, and when large quantities are released into the environment through wastewater, it causes algae blooms that lead to the eutrophication of a water body. Phosphates are still commonly found in automatic dishwasher detergents.



Polylactic acid (PLA) resin is derived entriely from plants, such as corn, instead of petroleum. PLA plastics are compostable and made from renewable resources, unlike traditional, petroleum-based plastics.


Polyethylene (PET)

A plastic polymer of ethylene used mainly for containers, electrical insulation, and packaging. Identified by a #1 inside the recycling mobius (chasing arrows).


Post Consumer Recycled Content

A product with post-consumer recylced-content contains post-consumer waste material. Post-consumer waste materials include recyclables collected in commercial and residential recycling programs, such as office paper, cardboard, aluminum cans, plastics and metals.


Pre-consumer Waste

Used to describe material that is generated during the manufacturing process such as scraps from cutting or trimming.


Pyrethrin Based

The pyrethrins are a pair of natural organic compounds that have potent insecticidal activity. They are harmful to fish, but are far less toxic to mammals and birds than many synthetic insecticides. They are non-persistent, being biodegradable, and also break down easily on exposure to light or oxygen. They are considered to be amongst the safest insecticides for use around food.



Describes a quantity of sheets of paper, most often 500 sheets, though can be less, often 250 sheets for heavy papers.



Indicates that a product can be collected for reprocessing. Recyclable products however, can only be recycled and reprocessed where collection infrastructure exists.



To collect, separate, process and market materials so that they can be used again.


Recycled Content

Indicates that a product is made from some or all recycled materials. It can also be used to indicate the amount of pre- and post-consumer recovered material introduced into the production process, usually described as a percentage.


Recycled Content Packaging

Indicates that the packaging of a product is made from some or all recycled materials.


Recycling Mobius

The chasing arrow symbol is used to indicate that an item or its packaging has recycled content, or that it is recyclable. The three arrows represent from top clockwise: collection, processing and purchasing.



The ability to replace some component of a product once it has been depleted. Refilling a product extends its useful life and minimizes the need for disposal.


Remanufactured product

Any product diverted from the supply of discarded materials by refurbishing and marketing said product without substantial change to its original form.


Renewable Resource

A resource that can be naturally restored or replenished within a human-scale time frame.



Describes products that are built to remain useful after repeated use.


Septic-system Safe

Indicates that a product is safe for use in homes with septic-systems.


Soil Conditioners

Products that improve soil drainage, soil physical properties, or nutrient release.


Solvent Free

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are the evaporating solvent in paint, added to speed paint drying and to increase paint volume. Solvent-free means nothing evaporates from the paint after you open the can. The use of solvent-based varnishes has been linked to Sick Building Syndrome, Danish Painter’s Syndrome, asthma, and allergies.



The active cleaning agent in most detergent formulations that changes the chemical and physical relationship between water and the surface to be cleaned. Surfactants loosen and suspend soil and enhance the wetting property of water. Environmentally improved surfactants biodegrade to less toxic and less persistent chemicals.



Totally Chlorine Free refers to virgin paper that is unbleached or bleached with a process that does not include chlorine or chlorine derivatives.



Refers to the natural resources, such as timber or metal ore, that are taken directly from the environment to create a product. Virgin materials are those that have yet to be recycled.


Volatile Organic Compound (VOC)

When released into the environment, these chemical compounds can be damagaing to soil, water and air quality. The most common VOC is methane, a greenhouse gas linked to global warming. VOCs are also considered a factor in indoor air quality issues such as sick building syndrome. VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products including paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers, and photographic solutions.



A watt is a unit of power that measures the rate of energy. A typical household incandescent light bulb uses electrical energy at a rate of 25 to 100 watts, while compact fluorescent lights typically consume 5 to 30 watts.