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These Sustainability Hacks Don't Actually Help Save the Planet

Some of the biggest sustainability hacks floating around don't actually help save the planet. Here are a few of the most common.

Written by
Briana Dodson

We've all picked up tips and tricks that have helped us live more sustainably, like learning how to grocery shop without excess waste or using wool dyer balls instead of dryer sheets when doing laundry. But there are some popular sustainability hacks floating around that aren't as sustainable as you might think.

Some of our everyday habits, like hand-washing the dishes instead of using the dishwasher, are things we do because we assume they're better for the planet. In the latest episode of Good Together, Brightly co-founders Laura Wittig and Liza Moiseeva dive into some of the most common and reveal whether they're actually sustainable or not.

"The world is full of a lot of competing information," Wittig says. "Now more than ever—because of social media—people take something they think is true, and they pass it along."

That's why Moiseeva says it's important to continually ask questions and do your own research before trying something yourself (or sharing that information with others). A great place to start is with these "sustainability hacks" that are anything but.

Sustainability Hacks That Aren't Saving the Planet

Does It Really Save More Water to Wash Dishes by Hand?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average American family uses more than 300 gallons of water per day at home. Of that, roughly 70 percent occurs indoors. "That was pretty mind-blowing," Wittig says. "I mean, 300 gallons... visualize that."

One of the biggest contributors? Doing the dishes. But it's not using a dishwasher, like you'd probably imagine. Over a 10-year period, dishwashers may only use 16,300 gallons of water, whereas hand-washing uses more than double—34,200 gallons. According to Morgan Brashear, senior scientist for home care at P&G, "households can save more than 100 gallons of water per week simply by switching and using their dishwasher. That’s over 5,000 gallons in a year.” 

So why is using the dishwasher more eco-friendly than hand-washing? When we hand-wash, most of us keep the water running while we do it. With dishwashing, you often don't even need a pre-wash. Just scrape the food into a compost bin, put the dishes in, and let it work its magic. Energy-efficient dishwashers are even better, as they meet stringent energy- and water-saving efficiency standards.

You get to walk away while the dishwasher does all of the work and use less water in the process. It's a win-win.

Do You Actually Conserve More Water Washing Your Car at Home?

According to Biofriendly Planet, washing your car at home typically uses between 80 and 140 gallons of water, as opposed to the commercial car wash, which uses about half of that—45 gallons on average. That water also runs down your driveway, ending up in your storm drain.

"Your storm drain does not equal sewer system," Laura says. "I think that's kind of surprising for most people. We kind of assume that all goes to the same place."

But it doesn't. The water that comes off your car is polluted with metals and sediment, which endangers wildlife. Commercial car washes have a fix for that: Federal laws in the U.S. and Canada require their wastewater to be put into a sewer system, where it can be processed and treated.

That treated water can then be reused as a completely clean water source. So the next time your car needs a good wash (they all do eventually!), skip the home wash and head to your local car wash instead.

Is Washing Laundry in Hot Water the Only Way to Get Clothes Clean?

We've all heard if you want clean clothes, wash them in extremely hot water. Hot water automatically kills all the germs, right? Yes, in some cases: If you're trying to sanitize your garments or you're washing your bedsheets, your clothes may need a wash in hot water. But most of the time, it's not necessary. And it requires a ton of energy.

A whopping 90 percent of the energy used in washing our clothes comes from heating up the water. Opt for cold water washes when you can. A few other eco-friendly laundry tips you can implement are air-drying your laundry (instead of using the dryer), using more eco-friendly detergents, and being more conscious of how often you really need to wash your clothes.

Are All Biodegradable Cups Really 100% Sustainable?

More and more places are abandoning plastic cups and cutlery for more sustainable, biodegradable options, which is definitely a positive. But it's also good to keep in mind that these items are still single-use, so they still require raw materials and a lot of energy to produce.

These new cups also claim to be compostable, but the reality is that they require very specific conditions—such as composting at extremely high temperatures before they can be completely broken down. What you assume is broken down quickly, might actually take a lot longer. "We still don't know what exactly it means," Moiseeva says. "Does it mean it's going to biodegrade in a month, a week, or three years?"

Since most materials aren’t recyclable, they can instead contaminate an otherwise recyclable load and in turn create more landfill waste. One simple solution is to opt for reusable cups and containers that can be used over and over again for years to come.