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The dirty dozen: 12 products you should avoid

By Chris Baskind, MNN.com
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(MNN) -- So you've decided to take the plunge -- to embrace lighter living, green your life and do something to help the environment. But where to begin?

The best place to start is by moderating your consumption. You can dramatically reduce the size of your footstep on the planet by making smarter choices in the things you buy and the amount your household uses.

It's not something you have to do all at once: just commit to steady, incremental change. Small steps become big journeys over time.

Our article, 10 first steps toward lighter living, is a good place to get grounded. If you're ready to take on taming your shopping cart, we've put together a list we call the dirty dozen. These are 12 unhealthy or resource-intensive products you should consider reducing or eliminating from your life entirely.

Once you've tackled these, you'll probably think of others -- and you'll be well on your way to a lighter, more sustainable lifestyle.

1. Styrofoam

Polystyrene foam is actually recyclable, but most of it ends up in landfills or scattered around the environment. Being made of petroleum, Styrofoam is a non-renewable resource -- and it's not biodegradable.

Carry your own reusable coffee mugs, skip the fast food, and use glass and metal storage containers whenever possible.

MNN: High school girl discovers Styrofoam-eating bacterium

2. Plastic food containers with bisphenol-A (BPA)

You'll recognize these polycarbonate bottles and containers by their No. 7 recycling codes. Health concerns have dogged BPA for years.

If you really must use plastic, choose BPA-free varieties (such as those marked with No. 2, No. 4 and No. 5 codes). And be sure to recycle them when you're done.

3. Tropical hardwoods

Teak and mahogany are beautiful, long-lasting woods. But worldwide demand has driven their irresponsible harvesting from old-growth forests, destroying wildlife and biodiversity in some of the world's most critical natural habitats.

Don't know where the wood in that magnificent dining table was sourced? Leave it at the store, and look for goods manufactured through certified forestry programs.

4. Aluminum in cosmetics

Almost all commercial antiperspirants contain aluminum chlorohydrate or aluminum zirconium. Both are easily absorbed through the skin.

While no definitive studies link them to cancer, some researchers remain concerned about their long-term use -- particularly by women. We already get plenty of aluminum in our diet, thanks to anti-caking agents in processed foods.

Fortunately, there are a wide variety of alternatives to conventional antiperspirants.

MNN: Skin and hair care solutions from your fridge

5. Incandescent bulbs

With relatively inexpensive CFL light bulbs available everywhere, it makes no sense to buy old-style bulbs for most applications.

CFLs don't radiate light quite the same way as conventional bulbs, so take some time to find out how to live with them. And since CFLs contain a small amount of mercury, be sure to dispose of them properly.

6. Petroleum-based fabric sheets and laundry detergent

Sure, fabric sheets smell great. They're engineered that way -- with powerful chemicals. Like most laundry detergents, they're derived from non-renewable petroleum products. Switch to vegetable-based laundry soaps and seek out less potent alternatives.

7. Overpackaged goods

Ask any marketer: the store shelf is a retail battleground. Often, the first casualty is common sense when it comes to packaging. Unusual plastic bubble wraps; huge boxes for small products -- competition for your attention sometimes results in a wasteful mess.

Rather than contributing to our already overcrowded landfills, vote for more responsible packaging with your feet. Buy something else, and let companies that overpackage their wares know why you're not a customer.

MNN: Food packaging is a significant source of BPA

8. Paper towels and napkins

No, you needn't give up your toilet paper, as our friend Colin Beavan -- No-Impact Man -- and his family chose to do. Paper is a renewable resource, if properly managed. But let's face it: we squander more paper than we should.

That means wasted trees and all the resources that went into farming them. And that, in turn, means more monoculture pulpwood forests, soil erosion and chemicals used to keep tree-damaging pests away. There are some messes best cleaned up with paper, but couldn't you use more kitchen cloths and napkins?

It takes a little planning, but makes a big difference. If you're interested in more environmentally friendly paper products, check out Colin's list at the No Impact Man site.

9. Plastic utensils

Like paper products, plastic utensils rate high on the waste scale. While some are marked for recycling, most convenient disposable cutlery gets used once and thrown away.

Plastic is forever once it's in the environment, and the petroleum used to make it is increasingly precious. Consider some alternative strategies: portable metal mess kits for picnics, or simply washing plastic goods and using them again.

10. Disposable batteries

There are about 15 billion batteries manufactured each year. Most are alkaline batteries, discarded after a single duty cycle. Once sent to a landfill, they break down and begin leeching chemicals into the groundwater. Convenient, yes -- but so are rechargables.

With all the electronic devices in our lives these days, it makes environmental (and financial) sense to switch to rechargeable nickel metal hydride (NiMH) and lithium ion (Li-Ion) batteries. They're less toxic and save you money.

But do your homework: not all batteries and chargers are appropriate for a given job. Check out GreenBatteries.com for helpful background information.

MNN: How to recycle batteries

11. Commercial insecticides

If it's not good for bugs, it's probably not good for your family or your pets. In-home pesticide use has been linked to everything from lung disorders to Parkinson's disease.

Household insects are a destructive nuisance, and outdoor pests can become a public health issue. But there are less toxic and nontoxic ways of controlling bugs, from borax (a poison) to essential oils, select plants, and ways to make common insects feel less welcome in your cupboard.

Get some tips from Organic Garden Pests, or this article on taking the sting out of mosquitoes without pesticides.

12. Household cleaners

Your cleaning cabinet is filled with some of the most powerful toxins on the consumer market. Check the warning labels and lists of unpronounceable compounds: it's amazing some of these things are sold at all. But old tried-and-true, natural cleaners will often do the trick without exposing your family to exotic chemical fumes and residues.

Baking soda, vinegar and salt are the backbone of a cleaner-and-greener home. Take those commercial cleaners to a hazardous disposal facility and start cleaning the natural way. It'll even save you money.

© Copyright 2011 Mother Nature Network