Guide to Materials

It can be difficult to spot plastic and products which are marketed as eco-friendly, or even plastic-free, can contain some form of plastic.  Below is a guide to materials to help you decipher product information and understand the environmental impact of alternatives.

Glossary of key terms 

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Material found commonly in clothes made from synthetic polymeric fibres, i.e. plastic.


Aluminium is made from Aluminium Sulphate which is a naturally occurring element. It is light, durable, doesn't rust, non-toxic and can hold liquids. Aluminium can be recycled over and over again using only a fraction of the energy required to make new Aluminium. 75% of the Aluminium ever produced is still in use today. It is commonly used (with alloys) for making foil and drinks cans.


Found in chewing gum 



Bamboo is a type of grass and is biodegradable.  It is the fastest growing grass and needs little water to grow compared to other grass and trees. It also absorbs more CO2 than most other trees. Bamboo can be used for all sorts of products; toothbrushes, toilet paper, keyboards, clothing and even scaffolding.  It is incredibly versatile.


A natural wax produced by honey bees and is biodegradable. Beeswax has many uses: use it to make beeswax wrap, a plastic-free alternative to cling film, or as a base for natural cosmetics. Not considered Vegan-friendly. 

Bioplastic / Biopolymer

Bioplastics are a bit of a minefield. Here is a basic introduction. 

Bioplastics are often made of natural materials such as starch from wheat, potatoes or corn or of lactic acid from corn or sugar cane, but some include fossil-based materials.

Not all bioplastics are biodegradable, it depends on their composition, and not all biodegradable bioplastics are compostable. 

The natural materials commonly used in bioplastics often take significant resource to grow and can be damaging to the environment. They can use farming land displaying food production, can cause soil erosion, require pesticides and fertilisers, and often required a lot of water to grown.

Bioplastics as waste can often behave just as plastic does. Marine animals can still end up ingesting it with the same devastating results.

Look for bioplastic certified as ok for home composting.


BPA is a chemical often added to plastics. It is no longer used in baby bottles and other food containers due to health concerns and has been banned in France. 


Cactus Tampico

Tampico a natural material and biodegradable. It is often used as an alternative to nylon brush bristles in products like nail brushes and washing up brushes. 


Made from cotton or linen, or sometimes hemp.  





Citric Acid

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is extracted from the "meat" of a mature coconut.  It has numerous applications in the home, including as cooking oil and a skin moisturiser. Coconuts are not widely grown across the world and are mainly found in South Asia (India, Philippines and Indonesia), so there is an environment impact on transporting these.  In addition, farming practises have not been tightly regulated, however there are more fair-trade options becoming available all the time.


Harvested tree bark from the Cork Oak. Biodegradable.  

Corn Starch 

Popular material used in the production of 'bioplastics'.


Cotton is the soft fibre which grows around the seeds of cotton plants and is biodegradable. Organic cotton farming and fair-trade standards are helping to reduce the economic and ecological impacts that cotton farming has on the world, by ensuring fair pricing and reducing the amount of water and chemicals used for farming. Organic cotton produces clothing and linen that is less irritating to skin (especially for newborns). Cotton is grown in many places; the largest producers are China, India and USA. 



Type of plastic commonly found in chewing gum 

Euphorbia Cerifera Wax

Vegan-friendly alternative to beeswax. Made from a plant grown in North Central Mexico and Texas . Found in products such as plastic-free dental floss. 



See Aluminium 



Most glass containers are soda-lime glass which is made from natural non-toxic substances including sand, soda ash and limestone. It is the ideal material for storage as it doesn’t react with the contents stored inside.  

Recycling glass in to new glass products uses less energy than making new glass and, unlike plastic, most glass can be recycled indefinitely. However glass is much heavier than plastic so has an increased transportation cost, both financially and environmentally through carbon emissions. 


A glossy paper which is both recyclable and biodegradable. It is air, water and grease resistant. Crisp packets used to be made from glassine, and is now commonly used to package pharmaceutical products.



Plant-based material. Biodegradable. Grows quickly. Can be used to make textiles and clothing. 



Blend of cotton and jute. 


Natural material and biodegradable, this is made from vegetable fibre. Often used to make rope, matting or grain bags. 



Made from the flax plant. Biodegradable. Often used to make textiles and clothing. 



Microbeads are small particles of plastic and were commonly found in toiletries and cosmetics (particularly shower gels, exfoliators and scrubs). The manufacture and sale of products containing microbeads has been banned in the UK since June 2018 due to the serious harm to marine life. If you still have old cosmetic products stop using these and dispose of the bottle in the household waste; do not wash the product down the drain.



Material found commonly in clothes made from synthetic polymeric fibres, i.e. plastic.


Made from cellulosic fibres, like wood and bamboo pulp, these materials are treated 



This is a form of plastic (synthetic thermoplastic polymer) and is not biodegradable. It has been used for toothbrush bristles since the 1930s and many bamboo-handled toothbrushes have bristles made of nylon-6 which is not biodegradable. It is also used for tights and fabrics so often found in clothing. 


Palm Oil 

Made from the fruits of African oil palm trees.  It is categorised as a vegetable oil and can be used in lots of products from biscuits to shampoo. It is easily farmed as it doesn’t require many fertilisers or pesticides.  However, it has been widely reported that farmland created for palm oil crops has been a big contributor to deforestation, and forest fires are a typical way of clearing land to plant the oil palm trees.


Type of plastic used to line the inside of the metal lids found on glass jars. 


Type of plastic used for the production of plastic bottles. It is the most commonly recycled plastic.


This is a 'catch all' term for a range of materials. 

On ingredients anything starting with 'poly' will be a plastic material.  


Material found commonly in clothes made from synthetic polymeric fibres, i.e. plastic.


Very toxic plastic made from fossil fuels and is not biodegradable.

Bio-PVC is still toxic and should be avoided.


Rayon / Viscose / Modal / Lyocell

These are a man-made fibre that is created from natural products, mainly from regenerated cellulose fibre (i.e bio-based material like wood pulp).  It is primarily used to recreate the feel and texture of more natural products like; silk, wool, cotton, linen and bamboo.  Because of their natural ingredients they are often classed as a natural product, however the process used to actually create these fabrics depends on many chemicals and pollutants, and ultimately man's intervention.  It is cheaper to manufacture than cotton and silk, and so it has become popular with "fast fashion" or "disposable fashion" brands.  It often requires dry cleaning and doesn’t hold it’s shape as long, leading to the garments being disposed off.





Silicone is like a rubber but is a man-made polymer similar to plastics.  Fossil-based materials are used to make silicone and it is not biodegradable or easily recyclable.  However it is much more durable than most plastics and tends to to have a longer life.


Natural material and biodegradable. Not considered Vegan-friendly. 

Sodium Carbonate (Na2CO3)

Also known as washing soda, soda ash, soda crystals and soda Solvay. It is familiar in the home as an everyday water-softener used in laundering: it counteracts the magnesium and calcium ions in hard water and prevents them bonding with the detergent being used; however, it does not prevent scaling. It is environmentally safe. Originally, it was intended as a laundry booster, so it can be used to scrub and to remove grease or oil stains. Available from The Green Boutique

Sodium Citrate (Na3C6H5O7)

It is suitable for use as a 'builder' in laundry detergents because of its ability to sequester positively-charged calcium and magnesium ions found in tap-water and, unlike phosphate builders, it is environmentally safe. Sodium citrate, acting as a water softener, basically allows the detergent to work more effectively. In fact, the resulting soft water - treated with sodium citrate - requires less soap for the same cleaning effort, as soap is not wasted mopping up calcium ions. Soft water also extends the lifetime of plumbing by reducing or eliminating scale build-up in pipes and fittings. Available from The Green Boutique

Sodium Percarbonate (Na2H3CO6)

This is basically the 'friendly' alternative to bleach. As a bleaching agent, it is used to get rid of stains, to deodorise, to improve fabric whiteness and to get whites white. It is very effective as a laundry pre-soak for heavily- stained articles. You can also use it for cleaning and removing organic stains (such as coffee, tea, wine, fruit juice, food, sauce, grass) from fabric, plastic, porcelain, ceramic, wood, carpet, asphalt, concrete etc. It's ideal for whitening and deodorising your nappies or whitening old linens and yellowing whites. Always remember that in order for it to release the oxygen and be effective as a disinfectant, sodium percarbonate needs temperatures over 40°C, as hot water accelerates the bleaching action; otherwise, it won’t work and will be wasted. Available from The Green Boutique


Often found in shampoos and other toiletries. This ingredient is safe but does contain palm oil which has a devastating environmental impact. 





Made of tin and steel. Fully recyclable. 





See Rayon



Wood is a natural bio-based material and biodegradable. When buying wood products you need to be careful to ensure you are purchasing a wood that comes from sustainably managed forests and that the wood itself is not endangered.  

Unsustainable wood has a profound effect on the areas it is harvested from, be it effects on wildlife and human rights abuses.  The EU has introduced many laws to help with ensuring the sustainability of wood, but you should look out for 2 main official certifications: The Forest Stewardship Council – FSC and Programme for the Endorsement of Forestry Certification - PEFC.

If buying wood outside of the EU try to avoid endangered species, you can review lists of threatened trees on the United Nations website and also on the Friends of the Earth website.

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