Environmental and Sustainability Terms explained!

Navigating the Sustainability world can be confusing! The following glossary is offered as an effort to define and introduce environmental and sustainability terms.

It is by no means a complete list and we welcome your suggestions by sending your suggestions and dropping an email to Ask@goumbook.com

In alphabetical order


Acid rain – acids form when certain atmospheric gases (primarily carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides) come in contact with water in the atmosphere or on the ground and are chemically converted to acidic substances. Oxidants play a major role in several of these acid-forming processes. Carbon dioxide dissolved in rain is converted to a weak acid (carbonic acid). Other gases, primarily oxides of sulfur and nitrogen, are converted to strong acids (sulfuric and nitric acids).

Air pollution – contaminants or substances in the air that interfere with human health or produce other harmful environmental effects. Contaminants in the air we breathe come mainly from manufacturing industries, electric power plants, automobiles, buses, and trucks.

Alternative energy – usually environmentally friendly, this is energy from uncommon sources such as wind power or solar energy, not fossil fuels.

Alternative fuels – similar to above. Not petrol or diesel but different transportation fuels like natural gas, methanol, bio fuels and electricity.

Aquifer – layer of water-bearing permeable rock, sand, or gravel capable of providing significant amounts of water.


Biodegradable – something when left alone break down and be absorbed into the eco-system.

Biosphere – Part of the Earth system in which life can exist, between the outer portion of the geosphere and the inner portion of the atmosphere.

Biota – The plant and animal life of a region or area.

Blackwater – the wastewater generated by toilets.


Carbon dioxide – it is a heavy colorless gas (CO2) that does not support combustion, dissolves in water to form carbonic acid, is formed especially in animal respiration and in the decay or combustion of animal and vegetable matter, is absorbed from the air by plants in photosynthesis, and is used in the carbonation of beverages. CO2 is a naturally occurring greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. However the amount of it increases when we burn fossil fuels, leading to global warming.

Carbon footprint – a measure of the your impact on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced, measured in units of carbon dioxide.

Carbon monoxide – a colourless, odourless and highly toxic gas commonly created during combustion.

Carbon neutral – a company, person or action either not producing any carbon emissions or if it does have been offset elsewhere.

Carbon offsetting – see offsetting.

Carbon rationing – limiting the amount of carbon you use each year. Carbon rationing action groups (crags) help you reduce your carbon footprint.

Carbon sink – carbon dioxide is naturally absorbed by things such as oceans, forests and peat bogs. These are called carbon sinks.

Carbon tax – a charge on fossil fuels based on their carbon content. Chlorofluorocarbons – CFCs are man-made chemical compounds containing carbon, chlorine, fluorine and sometimes hydrogen. Often used in older fridges and air conditions, the chlorine in CFCs damage the ozone layer.

Carbon trade – The carbon trade came about in response to the Kyoto Protocol. Signed in Kyoto, Japan, by some 180 countries in December 1997, the Kyoto Protocol calls for 38 industrialized countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions between the years 2008 to 2012 to levels that are 5.2% lower than those of 1990.
The idea behind carbon trading is quite similar to the trading of securities or commodities in a marketplace. Carbon would be given an economic value, allowing people, companies or nations to trade it. If a nation bought carbon, it would be buying the rights to burn it, and a nation selling carbon would be giving up its rights to burn it. The value of the carbon would be based on the ability of the country owning the carbon to store it or to prevent it from being released into the atmosphere. (The better you are at storing it, the more you can charge for it.)

Climate change – a change in temperature and weather patterns due to human activity like burning fossil fuels.

Composting – a process whereby organic wastes, including food and paper, decompose naturally, resulting in a produce rich in minerals and ideal for gardening and farming as a soil conditioner, mulch, resurfacing material, or landfill cover.

Conservation – preserving and renewing, when possible, human and natural resources. Conservation is the wise use of natural resources (nutrients, minerals, water, plants, animals, etc.). Planned action or non-action to preserve or protect living and non-living resources


Deforestation – when trees of forests are cut down. This is a major problem for wildlife in the area because they lose their habitat, homes, hiding places and food source when deforestation occurs. Deforestation’s main causes are demand for lumber and demand for land. New laws are trying to make lumber companies plant the same or more trees than they cut down.

Dioxin – the popular name for a family of organic compounds that bio-accumulate with toxic effect in humans and wildlife. Two of the most widely studied sources of dioxins are the making of the herbicide Agent Orange and the chlorine bleaching of wood pulp.


Ecology – the study of the interaction between living organisms and their environments. Often used simply to mean the environment.

Ecological footprint – the estimated amount of productive land required to provide all the resources consumed and absorb all the wastes created by an individual or group. The result is usually expressed in terms of how many planets would be needed for all the world’s population to live the same.

Ecosystem – a community of plants and animals that functions as an integrated system.

Ecosystems services – ways in which natural ecosystems support human life and civilization, such as coral reefs providing a barrier to storms, forests changing carbon dioxide into oxygen, wetlands purifying water and so on. Sometimes used by economists to attempt to value natural ecosystems.

Eco-assessment – an evaluation of your home or workplace with the aim of cutting your energy and water usage.

Eco-bag – a ethically, organically made bag to use instead of plastic carrier bags.

Eco-bus – a bus which uses a combination of diesel and electric power

Eco-tourism – tourism that does not harm the local environment; a stronger definition would be tourism that actively contributes to the protection or restoration of ecosystems.

Ecube – a wax cube which mimics food in a fridge to save it energy.

Electric vehicle – a car, bike or other vehicle powered by an electric battery. Electric vehicles can be either hybrids, plug-ins or plug-in hybrids. A hybrid has an electric motor and a petrol or diesel (or biofuel) combustion engine. Excess heat from the engine and/or from braking is used to recharge the electric motor while the vehicle is moving. A plug-in electric vehicle is powered entirely by an electric battery, which is charged from an electricity source when the vehicle is parked. A plug-in hybrid vehicle has a plug-in battery plus a combustion engine which kicks in when the battery runs down and may also recharge the battery, as in a hybrid.

Embodied energy – the amount of energy used to manufacture or grow something (and transport it to where it will be used)

Embodied water – the amount of water used to manufacture or grow something, sometimes referred as ‘water footprint’.

Emissions cap – a limit placed on companies regarding the amount of greenhouse gases it can emit.

Emissions trading scheme – see carbon trading, above

Energy efficiency – ways and technology that can reduce the amount of electricity or fuel used to do the same work. Such as keeping a house warm using less energy.

Energy saving lightbulbs – lightbulbs which use far less energy than conventional bulbs.

Energy rebound – where installing energy-efficient appliances leads to an increase in energy use, because being energy-efficient makes energy cheaper, or makes consumers feel less guilty about using energy

Environmental audit – an assessment the environmental impacts of an organisation’s operations.

Ethical Investment – a range of investment strategies that incorporate environmental and social measures alongside financial returns; also known as socially responsible investment (SRI).

E-waste – discarded electrical equipment such as mobile phones, computers, DVD players and cabling.
Extended producer responsibility: a policy approach in which a producer’s responsibility for a product is extended to the post-consumer stage of the product’s life cycle.


Fair Labor – a code of conduct by which participating companies—mostly in the clothing and shoe industries—agree to provide factory workers with fair wages, reasonable work hours, the right to collective bargaining, a safe and healthy workplace free from abuse and discrimination and fair overtime compensation. Forced and child labor are not allowed.

Fair Trade – crops produced according to principles in which poor farmers in developing countries receive fair prices for their products, workers enjoy safe working conditions and fair wages, communities receive development assistance and investment in social programs and crops are grown with sustainable farming methods and without the use of pesticides or genetically modified organisms. Products labeled as “Fair Trade Certified” are verified and audited by an independent certifier. Fair Trade Certification is currently available in the United States for coffee, tea and herbs, cocoa and chocolate, fresh fruit, sugar, rice and vanilla.

Fuel cell – a technology that uses an electrochemical process to convert energy into electrical power. Often powered by natural gas, fuel cell power is cleaner than grid-connected power sources. In addition, hot water is produced as a by-product.

Fossil fuel – coal, oil and natural gas. A fuel that’s been made by the decomposition of fossilized plants and animals.


Genetically modified organism (GM0) – an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques.

Genetically modified (GM) food – food made using plants that have been genetically engineered. Critics argue that genetic engineering poses a potential risk of biological disaster from unforeseen side-effects, and places too much power over our food supply and the natural world in the hands of a few bio-engineering companies.

Geo-engineering – in climate change terms, refers to engineering projects that will reduce global warming. Proposals include mirrors in space to reflect sunlight and stop it entering the atmosphere, dumping sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight, putting iron in the oceans to stimulate the growth of phytoplankton, tiny micro-organisms that absorb CO2. These proposals are all unproven and seen as desperate last options. Many environmentalist regard them as moral hazards.

Geo sequestration – a process to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere; a variety of sequestration methods, including removing carbon from flue gases, condensing it to a liquid then pumping it underground for storage, are being explored. Underground storage might include injecting it into the rock cavities after oil and gas have been extracted, or sending it to the bottom of oceans.

Geothermal Energy – electricity produced by using geothermal heat (that is, heat found underground) to create steam to drive turbines. Geothermal heat originated in various ways, including the original formation of the planet, or radioactive decay of elements inside the earth.

Glass – glass bottles and jars can be recycled endlessly. That means that unlike some other recycled products, a recycled bottle can be recycled into another glass bottle. And another, and so on forever.

Globalisation – refers to the increasing economic, social and culture interconnectedness around the world. Often taken to imply the spread of predominantly North American/European culture and free-market economics.

Global warming – an increase in the average temperature of the earth, attributed to the burning of fossil fuels.

Green – the adjective used to describe people, behaviors, products, policies, standards, processes, places, movements or ideas that promote, protect, restore or minimize damage to the environment.

Green  jobs – jobs in emerging green industries such as renewable energy, carbon trading, etc… CLICK HERE for more information

Green consumers – people who buy environmentally friendly products and services.

Green design – a design, usually architectural, conforming to environmentally sound principles of building, material and energy use. A green building, for example, might make use of solar panels, skylights, and recycled building materials.

Green fatigue – becoming tired with some of the constant messages of corporate green credentials and tales of impending global doom.

Green Technology Initiative – a consortium of companies pioneering green computing with the aim of helping to educate and inspire British businesses to become more energy efficient and environmentally responsible with their IT infrastructure.

Green wedding – holding your wedding with the least environmental impact possible.

Greenhouse abatement – activity that contributes to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Greenhouse effect – explains global warming. It is the effect of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trapping a certain amount of the sun’s heat as it reflects back off the surface of the earth towards space. The greenhouse effect is what makes the earth’s atmosphere warmer than space, and is thus essential to make the earth habitable. However, if the volume of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increases, it can increase the amount of heat reflected back into the atmosphere, increasing temperatures in an enhanced greenhouse effect.

Greenhouse gas – any atmospheric gas that contributes to the greenhouse effect by reflecting heat rising from the earth back into the atmosphere. Normally the sun’s heat hits the earth then escapes into from the sun. Naturally occurring gases include water vapour (potent but short-lived), carbon dioxide (the major greenhouse gas), methane and nitrous oxide. Other greenhouse gases include hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluocarbons (PFCs, produced by aluminium smelting) and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6).

Green power – electricity generated from renewable sources such as hydro, wind and solar, avoiding the emissions associated with the burning of fossil fuels.

Greywater – waste water that does not contain sewage or fecal contamination (such as from the shower) and can be reused for irrigation after filtration.


Hemp – long a favorite accessory and jewelry piece, hemp is one of the most versatile fibers available. Hemp can now be found in books and paper products, bags, pet supplies, face creams and flour and has long outgrown its hippy roots.

High density polyethylene (HDPE) – a type of plastic that is commonly used in milk and water jugs.

High-octane fuel – a petrol formula that has a third less sulphur than regular unleaded petrol and provides more engine power, lower consumption and cleaner exhaust emissions

Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) – a product that is discarded from a home or a similar source that is either ignitable, corrosive, reactive, or toxic (e.g. used motor oil, oil-based paint, auto batteries, gasoline, pesticides, etc.).

Hybrid vehicle – a vehicle that has both a petrol or diesel and an electric motor, capturing the energy used in braking and/or excess heat from the engine to recharge the electric motor, which is usually used to power the car at slower speeds, such as in urban traffic, thus reducing fuel consumption.

Hydroelectric energy – electric energy produced by moving water.

Hydro fluorocarbons – used as solvents and cleaners in the semiconductor industry, among others; experts say that they possess global warming potentials that are thousands of times greater than CO2.

Hypermiling – driving techniques to minimise fuel consumption


Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – a UN-commissioned international working group formed in 1988. It assesses climate change and its human causes.

Integrated Waste Management – The complementary use of a variety of practices to handle solid waste safely and effectively. Techniques include source reduction, recycling, composting, combustion and land-filling.



Kyoto Protocol – international agreement on global warming and emissions targets set at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997. The protocol sets greenhouse gas abatement (reduction) targets for nations from 2008 to 2012. Australia ratified the protocol in 2008, leaving the United States as the only industrialised nation not to have ratified. Reduction targets are compared to a base year of 1990. The Kyoto protocol was super-ceded by a new set of targets determined at the Copenhagen summit in 2009.

Kilowatt-hours (kWH) – used to measure electricity and natural gas usage.


Landfill – area where waste is dumped and eventually covered with dirt and topsoil.

Lead – harmful to the environment used in a lot of paints. It’s also toxic to humans.

Life cycle assessment – methodology developed to assess a product’s full environmental costs, from raw material to final disposal.

Light pollution – environmental pollution consisting of the excess of harmful or annoying light.

Litter – waste that is improperly disposed of on the street, sidewalk, lakes and other bodies of water, and in the general environment.

Low-emission vehicles – cars etc which emit little pollution compared to conventional engines.


Methane – a gas with a greenhouse effect 23 times greater than carbon dioxide. Methane is produced naturally, including from volcanoes, wetlands, termites and the ocean, and by human activity, including from flatulent livestock and the decomposition of organic matter buried in landfill.

Micro-generation – decentralised electricity generation by small generating plant such as solar panels, small wind turbines, small biofuel plants; in residential and business premises or small neighbourhood power plants.

Moral hazard – something that encourages people to behave irresponsibly or unethically.
Geo-engineering (see above) is seen by some environmentalists as a moral hazard: if people think global warming can be reversed, they won’t act now to prevent it. Similarly, carbon offsetting (see above) may be used as justification for not reducing one’s own carbon emissions.


Natural – purely defined, natural means anything found in nature or derived directly from plants, animals or minerals. Natural products do not contain any man-made (synthetic) ingredients. On food, “Natural” or “All Natural” labels are not meaningful because standards are weak. The USDA will allow a product to be labeled “natural” if it is free from artificial ingredients, added coloring and heavy processing. Natural does not mean organic.

Natural dyes – sometimes known as “organic” dyes, natural dyes come from natural sources. These dyes are different than man-made, synthetic dyes—which, to confuse matters, can also be organic—that often use toxic, non-natural sources and ingredients. Natural dyes typically cost more than synthetic dyes but are generally considered more eco-friendly overall.

Net Zero – the World Green Building Council definition of a net zero carbon building is a building that is highly energy efficient and fully powered from on-site and/or off-site renewable energy sources.

Non-renewable resources – resources that are in limited supply, such as oil, coal, and natural gas.


Offsetting – the process of reducing carbon emissions by ‘offsetting’ it. An example is by taking a flight and in compensation paying a company to plant trees to equal the carbon use out.

Oil – fossil fuel used to produce petrol etc and other materials such as plastics.

Organic – while it technically refers to molecules made up of two ore more atoms of carbon, it’s generally now used as a term for the growth of vegetables etc without the use or artificial pesticides and fertilisers.

Ozone layer – in the upper atmosphere about 15 miles above sea level it forms a protective layer which shields the earth from excessive ultraviolet radiation and occurs naturally.


Parabens – their names are a mouthful—methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben. You’ll find them listed on thousands of personal care products such as shampoos, mascara, foundations and body lotions. But over the past few years, a debate has been building among scientists, product safety regulators and cosmetic manufacturers about whether these ubiquitous chemicals, used for almost 70 years, may actually be harmful to our health. Read more here: goumbook.com/parabens/

Permaculture – a system of natural gardening/farming avoiding chemical pesticides and fertilisers and creating “edible forests” that mimic natural biodiverse ecosystems by using mixed planting, mulching, composting, beneficial bugs and insects.

Petrochemical – chemicals derived from petroleum.

Photovoltaic panels – solar panels that convert sunlight into electricity. Power is produced when sunlight strikes the semiconductor material and creates an electrical current.

Plastic – man-made durable and flexible synthetic-based product. Composed mainly of petroleum.

Plastic bags – they are not good for the environment. If disposed of improperly, plastic bags can create unsightly litter and harm different types of wildlife.

Plastic code – a number identifying the most common plastic type in a product or packaging (see below)

Plastic recycling – is the process of recovering scrap or waste plastics and reprocessing the material into useful products, sometimes completely different in form from their original state. For instance, this could mean melting down soft drink bottles and then casting them as plastic chairs and tables. Typically a plastic is not recycled into the same type of plastic, and products made from recycled plastics are often not recyclable.
Before recycling, most plastics are sorted according to their resin type. In the past, plastic reclaimers used the resin identification code (RIC), a method of categorization of polymer types, which was developed by the Society of the Plastics Industry in 1988. Polyethylene terephthalate, commonly referred to as PET, for instance, has a resin code of 1. Most plastic reclaimers do not rely on the RIC now; they use automatic sort systems to identify the resin, such as near infrared (NIR) technology. Some plastic products are also separated by color before they are recycled. The plastic recyclables are then shredded. These shredded fragments then undergo processes to eliminate impurities like paper labels. This material is melted and often extruded into the form of pellets which are then used to manufacture other products. There are seven different categories of plastics that can be recycled: all plastics marked 1 to 7 are theoretically recyclable though in practice many are not: 1 – polyethylene terephalate (PET); 2 – high density polyethylene (HDPE); 3 – unplasticised polyvinyl chloride (UPVC) or plasticised polyvinyl chloride (PPVC); 4 – low density polyethylene (LDPE): 5 – polypropylene (PP); 6 – polystyrene (PS) or expandable polystyrene (EPS); 7 – other, including nylon and acrylic.

Pollution – contaminants that damage an ecosystem, or organisms living in that ecosystem.

Post consumer waste – waste collected after the consumer has used and disposed of it.



Recycle symbol – the chasing arrow symbol used to show that a product or package can be recycled. The three arrows on the symbol represent different components of the recycling process. The top arrow represents the collection of recyclable materials. The second arrow (right) represents the recyclables being processed into recycled products and the third arrow on the bottom left represents when the consumer actually buys a product with recycled content.

Recycle – the process of collecting, sorting, and reprocessing old material into usable raw materials.

Reduce – not using or buying products in the first place so less waste, less recycling and less reusing.

Renewable energy – alternative energy sources such as wind power or solar energy that can keep producing energy indefinitely without being used up.

Renewable resources – Like renewable energy, resources such as wind, sunlight and trees that regenerate.

Reuse – before throwing away or recycling, a product that can be reused until its time to recycle.


Smart grid – electricity grid using computers to monitor demand and supply and convey that feedback to power stations and consumers. Smart grids can help reduce peak demand by encouraging consumers to use power off-peak, and integrate intermittent and small scale power sources such as solar into the grid.

Solar energy – energy from the sun.

Solar heating – heat from the sun is absorbed by collectors and transferred by pumps or fans to a storage unit for later use or to the house interior directly. Controls regulating the operation are needed. Or the heat can be transferred to water pumps for hot water.

Solar panels – panels of photovoltaic cells (see above) that use sunlight to create electricity.
Sulfur dioxide – SO2 is a heavy, smelly gas which can be condensed into a clear liquid. It’s used to make sulfuric acid, bleaching agents, preservatives and refrigerants and a major source of air pollution.

Sustainable development – raising living standards in poor nations without harming the environment.

Sustainable growth – economic growth brought about in a way that does not harm the environment and which can therefore be sustained indefinitely. Critics argue sustainable growth is an oxymoron – growth, by definition, cannot be sustained indefinitely on a finite planet.

Sustainability – something that can be maintained indefinitely without (in an environmental context) harming the environment.


Thermal mass – a structure capable of absorbing and store heat energy, leading to increased comfort for building occupants and a reduced need for artificial heating and cooling.

Toxic – harmful to living beings.


“USDA Organic” (label) – product contains at least 95 percent certified organic ingredients. The remaining 5 percent can be non-organic or synthetic, as long as they are approved on the US national list (http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/NOP/standards/ListReg.html).

“USDA Made with Organic Ingredients” (label) – product contains at least 70 percent organic ingredients. The remaining 30 percent must be approved on the national list.

“USDA 100 Percent Organic” (label) – product contains only organic ingredients.


Vermicomposting – the process whereby worms feed on slowly decomposing materials (e.g., vegetable scraps) in a controlled environment to produce nutrient-rich soil.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) – organic chemical compounds that have high enough vapor pressures under normal conditions to significantly vaporize and enter the atmosphere. VOCs are sometimes accidentally released into the environment, where they can damage soil and groundwater.


Waste management – action to reduce waste, through material efficiency, waste reduction and the recovery and reuse of discarded material.

Wind power – energy derived from the wind.




Zero carbon / emissions – producing no carbon dioxide (and generally taken to mean no greenhouse gas emissions of any type).

Zero Waste – a production system aiming to eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste
and materials by conserving or recovering all resources.

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