What does “sustainability” and “ecological” actually mean?

Aktualizace: kvě 20

Since our Minimum Waste shop has opened, I’ve observed a couple of things here. Most people that come in would say something like: It’s amazing what you do, the plastics are terrible. Some of them top it off with: Thank god that they hand out paper bags instead now.

Many people also confuse the term “sustainable” and “ecological” with “recycled.” So, everything that you sell here is recycled, right?

Well…no. After such comments have reached a certain number, I decided that it’s about time to make things clear. To explain that it’s not that simple. That recycling is not equal to sustainability, just as paper is not equal to ecological.

I invited probably the most suitable person of all to explain more - doc. Vladimír Kočí from VŠCHT. Mr. Kočí is the dean of the Faculty of technology of the environmental protection and a LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) expert. He is developing this method in the Czech Republic and applies it in various projects focused on lower impact of industrial activities and higher life quality.

PC: Bára Součková

In the very beginning, Mr. Kočí mentioned the notorious “paper vs. plastic” debate and said that this question about shopping bags is actually not right. We should better ask whether “no bag at all isn’t the best option” (meaning that we bring our own, not carrying all the groceries with our hands).

Speaking about shopping bags, you don’t need to be an expert to figure out which one is the most eco-friendly. It is the most durable one, which lasts long and therefore can be (re)used for a really long time - e.g. cotton or polyester bag. Paper bags tear apart carrying heavy stuff or get wet when it rains and their whole eco-friendliness is suddenly gone.


“If we want to talk sustainability, it is all about our consumption. Not so much about whether some product is wrapped in plastic, paper or glass, but if and how much of it we consume.”

So, when you see an advertisement of company X’s raw bars newly wrapped in paper instead of plastic, first think whether you actually need a raw bar, before deciding which packaging is better (and eventually buying the one in paper, because that’s eco-friendly). Nothing against raw bars though, it’s just an example. Another good example is bottled water (deposit system? recycling? and how about simply drinking tap water?!) and many others.


PC: Photo by Hello I'm Nik 🍌 on Unsplash

According to our guest, sustainability is about culture. It is about our decisions. Decisions about how much time do we dedicate to cooking and grocery shopping, decisions about making some products at home instead of buying packaged ones in the supermarket, decisions about investing in a good shopping bag and always carrying it in our purse or backpack etc. Don’t take this as a push to make everything from a toothpaste to yoghurts at home, but more as a topic for reflection, whether we have become too comfortable sometimes. But that’s for another article...

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How can we asses the "eco-friendliness” of things (those that we actually need and therefore decided to consume them) then?

There is a tool for evaluation of environmental impact of the things around us, called the LCA (Life Cycle Assessment).


What does a Life Cycle Analysis mean?

Every product has several life stages: Resources - materials - production - use - disposal. The LCA method evaluates the product’s impact on the environment in every stage of its lifecycle. These impacts can be e.g. the notorious carbon footprint, acidification, resource depletion (water for example) or toxicity of processes. While evaluating the ecological impact of things, it’s good to focus on the lifestage in which the product’s impact is the biggest.

LCA schéma. Zdroj: http://www.ciraig.org/en/lca.php

Here’s another example, which I’ve already heard many times. Our cups are from bioplastics, so they’re eco-friendly! Well, they might be ecological in the last phase of the lifecycle - disposal, but how about all the previous phases?! Such statement is incomplete and maybe even wrong. Or another one, widely used - our packaging is recyclable, so we’re eco-friendly. First of all, the recyclability of something is misleading - what makes you so sure that when you throw the packaging into the respective recycling bin, it will actually get recycled? We’ve all heard about the sad fact that most plastics end up on a landfill or in an incinerator after being sorted out on the separation line. And then again, recycling only applies to one stage of product’s life.


Nothing is black and white and nothing is 100% ecological.

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If we want to act sustainable, we have to change our behaviour as consumers.

Every product, based on its very existence, has certain impacts on the environment. How can we decide in today’s world full of manipulative information and greenwashing advertising? The only way that can actually make a positive change is to change our behaviour as consumers. Consume wisely and consume less. Buy things that last long and therefore don’t need to be replaced by something new quickly. And most importantly, buy only things that you actually need.


Author: Tereza Dohnalová, Minimum Waste