Environmental Terminology

Deciphering environmental claims made by suppliers can be a challenge. Below, you'll find terms that you may encounter when reviewing manufacturers' information or environmental certification programs. Note that some terminology has a standardized meaning and can require certification prior to being used by suppliers. Other terminology is more generic and can be meaningless, unless evidence is provided to support the claim.

It is also important to note that some environmental features are achieved by compromising others. For example, a good that shows high durability may contain more hazardous materials or volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than lower durability competitors. It is therefore important to understand the overall environmental qualities of a good, and not only individual features.

The following points should be considered when reviewing environmental claims:

  • Be wary of 'generic' environmental claims that are unregulated or vaguely defined;
  • Encourage suppliers to highlight environmental product attributes; and
  • Validate supplier claims by checking for certification, and asking for proof of environmental attributes, such as standards and methods used to reduce environmental impacts.

For further information on what suppliers are allowed to claim, refer to the Competition Bureau's Enforcement Guidelines on Environmental Claims.

Glossary of Environmental Terminology

3Rs – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle

The 3Rs are a basic methodology that can be applied to almost any activity or purchase. They are hierarchical, with 'reduce' being the most important, followed by 'reuse' and 'recycle'. Recycling has no impact on consumption (of finished products), whereas the first two options do. The 3Rs should be considered when deciding if an item needs to be purchased and in determining which item to choose.

  • Reduce – Do we really need it or can we find an alternative?
  • Reuse – Can we find a surplus item, or repair or upgrade an existing item? If we have to purchase a new item, what is its potential for reusability?
  • Recycle – Purchase goods that can be recycled and/or contain recycled content.

For example:

The Government of Canada recommended minimum criteria for paper is currently certification from a Sustainable Forestry Management certification program, preferably with 30% recycled content from post consumer sources. Reducing the use of fine paper is an effective way of saving money and resources. Re-use of old paper further slows down the rate at which new paper is consumed. At a cost of $600 to $1000 per tonne of fine paper, savings add up quickly.

Recycling used paper also reduces environmental impacts when a paper recycling plant is located nearby. More than half the paper consumed in Canada annually is recovered for use in recycling programs. As of 2008, sawmill residues and recycled paper together provide 87% of the fibre used to make new paper and paperboard in Canada. New fibre is required as recycled fibre disintegrates and becomes unusable for paper-making after a number of uses.

Degradable / Biodegradable / Compostable

A degradable material is one that breaks down in such a way that the resulting materials can be easily assimilated into the environment, without having any significant negative impact on the environment. Degradability claims on package labels usually refer to biodegradability and/or photodegradability. While many materials are ultimately degradable, the conditions under which these materials are disposed of, usually through a landfill, may hinder the degradation process. Generally, light must be present in order for a good to photodegrade, while biological degradation requires oxygen to be present. Neither light nor oxygen is readily available in conventional landfills. Therefore, a supplier's claim of degradability only has value if the disposal conditions are appropriate for degradation to occur. Furthermore, if a good is only partly degradable, those ingredients that are identified as degradable should comprise a significant part of the good.

Suppliers should cite specific standards when making claims of degradability. The American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) and Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD) publish degradability standards for a range of materiel, including plastics and chemicals. For example, ASTM standard 6400 sets out criteria (60% degraded within 180 days) that plastics must meet to be considered compostable.

For a claim of compostability to be made, further criteria must be met; the good must break down into carbon dioxide, water and biomass at the same rate as paper, should not produce any toxic material and should be able to support plant life.

Suppliers should cite specific standards when making claims of degradability, biodegradability or compostability. The American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) publish degradability standards for a range of materiel, including plastics and chemicals. For example, ASTM standard 6400 sets out criteria (60% degraded within 180 days) that plastics must meet to be considered compostable.


Durable means a good is useful for a long period by resisting wear, decay, etc. Durable goods are environmentally preferred, in principle, because they can be reused or upgraded, helping keep resources out of a landfill and reducing the need for the consumption of raw materials. However, there are no set criteria for durability as a green procurement term. When a supplier claims that a good is more durable compared to competitors, ask for further information, such as the expected lifetime of the good, options for reuse and/or upgrade, and availability of replaceable parts that prevent disposal in the event of a breakdown. Compare this to similar information for competing goods. Also, consider the claim of durability in the context of ultimate degradability and hazardous materials content as chemical treatments are sometimes used to improve durability.

Environmentally Preferable, Environmentally Safe, Environmentally Friendly, Green

An 'environmentally preferable' good or service is one that is less harmful to the environment and human health over the life cycle of the good or service, when compared with competing goods or services that serve the same purpose.

The terms environmentally 'preferred', 'safe' or 'friendly' do not have a standard definition. Suppliers using these terms could mean something quite different from each other. The same is true for terms such as 'environmentally responsible', 'natural', or 'green'. Therefore, this claim can be meaningless, unless specific environmental standards are cited. Suppliers should be requested to provide complete information as to why they deem their good or service to be environmentally preferable to its competitors.

Greenhouse Gas (GhG) Emissions

Greenhouse gases include any of the atmospheric gases that contribute to the 'greenhouse effect'. The greenhouse effect is the trapping of heat within the Earth's atmosphere by atmospheric gases, and is a cause of climate change. The greenhouse gases include gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), ozone (O3), perfluorinated carbons (PFCs), and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Emissions and accumulation of these gases in the atmosphere are caused by a number of things, including the burning of fossil fuels (e.g. oil, gas, coal, etc.) and the release of some manmade chemicals. Reduction in emissions of these gases is being targeted to reduce the effects of climate change.

Goods and services that burn less fuel or consume less energy can claim that they have lower GhG emissions. The claim can be verified by looking at the good's or service's total fuel and/or energy consumption, compared to its competitors. Some examples include:

  • A vehicle that burns less fuel per kilometre driven and therefore emits fewer GhG emissions.
  • The less electricity an appliance uses, the less GhG emissions will need to be released to the atmosphere by electricity generating stations.
  • The better insulated a building is, the less heat is lost to the exterior and therefore the less fuel burned to maintain comfortable temperatures. As a result, the building will emit fewer GhG emissions than one that is poorly insulated.

Hazardous Materials

Generally speaking, goods considered "hazardous" are dangerous to living organisms and the environment. The two most common Canadian references to hazardous materials can be found in the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) and the Transportation of Dangerous Goods (TDG) Act. Industrial suppliers must provide Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), which provide information regarding the risks of using a good and precautions to be taken to safely use, store and dispose of such goods. However, only goods for use in an industrial setting are regulated by WHMIS and TDG.

The Hazardous Products Act and the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act regulate the labelling of consumer products, for use in both industrial settings and by consumer households. Consumer products that can pose a safety risk are marked as being flammable, corrosive, poisonous, explosive, etc. Related to hazardous materials, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act maintains a list of Priority Substances  that are deemed toxic to the environment and many American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM)  standards contain provisions for toxicity.

Specifications should be checked for hazardous material content. Replacement options that contain no hazardous materials should be considered. If non-hazardous options are not feasible, compare available options to identify those with the lowest hazardous material content. Ensure that appropriate use and disposal arrangements exist, to ensure that the good can be safely used and discarded.

International Organization for Standardization (ISO)

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is a worldwide federation of national standards bodies. The ISO 14001 standard is being used by organizations around the world to develop Environmental Management Systems (EMS). An EMS provides a framework for managing environmental responsibilities efficiently and supports their integration into overall business operations. An organization may simply base their EMS on the standard or it may choose to become officially registered to the standard, in which case it must periodically undergo audits by an ISO 14001 "registrar." The establishment and registration of an EMS to ISO 14001 demonstrates that a company has procedures for monitoring and complying with regulatory requirements, exercises due diligence with respect to environmental risks and is continually improving their environmental performance.

ISO 14020 to 14024 eco-labelling standards address product labelling, environmental claims made by suppliers, and the standardization of environmental terminology.

Procurement officers have access to more detailed information about the ISO 14000  standards through the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB).


Toxicity is defined as "the inherent potential or capacity of a material to cause adverse effects in a living organism." (State of the Environment Report, 1991). There is little value or consistency to the 'non-toxic' label, unless backed up by a certification. The certification standards cited should be reviewed to better understand the meaning of the 'non-toxic' claim.

When comparing 'non-toxic' goods to conventional goods, ask the supplier to specifically indicate what makes their good non-toxic. For example, non-toxic markers do not contain xylene and toluene, two substances specifically named as "hazardous" by Workplace Hazardous Material Information System (WHMIS) standards (see WHMIS website). The Canadian Environmental Protection Act maintains a list of Priority Substances that are deemed toxic to the environment.

Ozone Depleting Substances (ODSs), Ozone Friendly

The ozone (O3) layer protects the Earth against ultra violet (UV) radiation. A class of chemicals known as halocarbons are used in packaging, foam, and as solvents, propellants and refrigerants. Halocarbons are ozone depleting substances that thin the ozone layer, allowing harmful UV radiation to pass through to the Earth's surface.

There is no set definition of 'ozone-friendly' but it is generally intended to indicate that a good is free of chemicals, typically halocarbons, which damage the ozone layer. The most commonly cited example of ozone depleting substances, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), have been banned in industrialized countries since 1996. However, replacement substances, such as hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), that are still in use have some potential to deplete the ozone layer and should be avoided wherever possible. HCFCs are commonly used in the manufacture of polyurethane and polyethylene foams, which are then used in goods such as seating, insulation panels, wheels and tires, high performance adhesives and sealants, Spandex fibers, carpet, and hard plastic parts.

Refer to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act Ozone-depleting Substances Regulations for more on which substances are considered ozone depleting. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) also maintains a list of ozone depleting substances .

Products containing non-ozone-depleting substitutes should be considered preferable over those that deplete ozone. It's important to note that replacements do exist. For example, hydroflurocarbons (HFCs) can be used as a refrigerant, in place of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs).

For more information on ozone, visit Environment Canada: Ozone.

Recycled Content / Recyclable

Recycled content is the portion of a good, by weight or volume, which is composed of materials recovered from recycling. Packaging can also have recycled content, usually measured by weight. Goods containing recycled content have a positive environmental impact because they divert waste material from a landfill and can reduce energy consumption, by re-processing recycled materials, rather than using virgin resources.

There are two types of recycled material:

Pre-consumer material indicates material recycled prior to use by the consumer, i.e., industrial scrap material left over from an industrial process that is not capable of being reused or reprocessed within the same plant or process (e.g.  paper mill scraps that are recycled at a paper mill). To make an appropriate "pre-consumer" recycled content claim, a supplier must be able to substantiate that the pre-consumer material would otherwise have gone into the solid waste stream.

Post-consumer materials are generated by commercial and institutional facilities, or households. They can no longer be used for their intended purpose and are separated from the waste stream for recycling (e.g. paper and aluminum cans). Post-use material excludes the in-plant reutilization of materials, such as re-work, re-grind, re-pulp, or scrap materials generated within the plant and capable of being reused within the process that generated it.

When an item is recycled, it is separated from the solid waste stream, diverted from a landfill and re-processed into a new good through an established recycling program. A claim of recyclability should make clear to consumers whether it refers to the good, the package, or both.

To determine if a good is recyclable, information on recycling facilities and processes is needed. Many goods may be recyclable in principle but without local processing facilities, they will be directed to a landfill. Once a facility is in place for receiving and recycling goods, it is important to have a recycling system in the workplace that can sort goods before they are brought to the local recycling facilities.

The Canadian Standards Association and International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards attempt to define the term 'recyclability', by requiring that a recyclable claim be made only if the material in question is currently being accepted at "reasonable" levels for recycling. An industry benchmark for the claim of recyclability is that "at least one third (1/3) of the population in the area where the good is distributed has convenient access to collection or drop-off facilities for recycling."

Recycled Content / Recyclable

The Mobius loop, shown to the left, is a symbol in the shape of three twisted chasing arrows forming a triangle. It may refer to recycled content in the good or the packaging or it may mean that one or both are recyclable. When referring to recycled content, the Competition Bureau requires the percentage of recycled content to be identified to avoid giving the impression that the symbol refers to recyclability. If the symbol is intended to indicate both recycled content and recyclability, an explanatory statement should appear near the symbol. If there is confusion over whether the symbol is meant for the good or the packaging, advertisers are asked to include an explanatory statement.

Plastics should be stamped with their plastic resin identification number to facilitate recycling of the plastic. Not all recycling plants accept all types of plastics. If the plastic resin identification number appears inside a Mobius loop, this indicates that the plastic is recyclable in facilities across Canada, however it is still necessary to verify that it is accepted at the recycling facility in your area.

Resource Efficient

Resources include raw materials such as timber, minerals and metals, water and energy sources. Resource efficiency means that resources are used in the most productive and economical way possible, keeping quantities consumed and waste to a minimum. Ideally an item should be resource-efficient throughout its life – from design and manufacture through to use/maintenance and disposal. When assessing resource efficiency, consider elements such as:

  • quantity of raw material consumed during production (e.g. miniaturized electronics may use twenty times more resources then their final weight);
  • waste generation during manufacture and use;
  • energy consumption during manufacture, delivery, use/maintenance and disposal;
  • features that reduce energy, fuel or water use;
  • capacity of good (e.g. is it larger than necessary to meet the need?); and
  • quantity of packaging.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) change rapidly from a liquid state to a gaseous state when exposed to air. VOC vapours react with oxides of nitrogen in the presence of sunlight to produce low level ozone, an air pollutant and a contributor to smog. Indoors, VOCs can adversely impact indoor air quality (IAQ), a measurement of the quality of air in a particular building based on the concentration of chemicals, particulates and other elements harmful to human health. Sources of VOCs include off-gassing from furniture, carpets, printers, cleaning products, markers and paint fumes.

Goods that contain fewer VOCs are better for the environment. For example, paints that are water-based contain no heavy metals or formaldehyde and contain less than 25 grams/litre of VOCs. As a result, they have fewer air emissions than standard paints and are considered environmentally preferable.

More information on VOCs and air quality is available from Environment Canada, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment , the Canadian Council on Health & Safety (CCOHS) and GreenGuard .