7 products that aren't as eco-friendly as you think

coffee cups

Jessica Taylor Yates

Posted April 14, 2022

Although you may have good intentions, and these products might be considered good for the planet... they actually aren't. 

While recycling has become ingrained in Australian households, many of us may still get confused when it comes to being eco-friendly. Though we have learned more in recent years about the harm from plastic bags, bottles, and straws, some items can be a little trickier, where we mistakenly end up doing more harm than good for the environment we live in.  

According to Sustainability Victoria, over 13.3 per cent of all kerbside recyclables in the last year were contaminated, meaning that while households might have meant well, these items were not fit for recyclable consumption. 

Sometimes the answer isn't so black and white. Is it better to buy a plastic Christmas tree that can be used repeatedly over pulling a tree from the ground? Are wooden chopsticks good for the environment? Is my paper coffee cup recyclable? 

It turns out that some items we may think are sustainable, long-lasting or recyclable are quite damaging to our planet, and not eco-friendly at all. 

Here are seven products that aren’t as environmentally friendly as you might think – and their sustainable alternatives. 

Products that are not that eco friendly 


Plastic Christmas trees

Many people think that despite being made of plastic, which is obviously not great for the planet, you can reuse it for years to come, rather than chopping down a living tree. So that makes it a better trade-off for the planet, right? Wrong.  

According to ecosystem ecologist Dr. Chris Weston in a research piece for the University of Melbourne, real trees will always win. They are “100 per cent recyclable and biodegradable,” and can be used “as compost…[and] to sequester carbon.” 

Plastic Christmas trees, on the other hand, can wreak havoc on the environment – from overseas factory transport to ending up in landfills on our shores. Additionally, they are only truly sustainable after anywhere from six to 20 years depending on the type – not something that happens often as new ‘tree trends’ appear every couple of years.  

The better option: If you still want to hang baubles on a traditional Christmas tree but wish to keep your holiday eco-friendly, consider buying a potted Christmas tree. This means it can be reused in your garden year-round.

Versions that can survive the Australian summer include the She-Oak or the Woolly Bush.  

Preserved flowers

All the rage on your social media, at weddings and as table centrepieces in many homes, you would be forgiven for thinking preserved flowers are the more sustainable option. After all, they’re not dated plastic peonies, they are still real flowers; you’re not using any water and it avoids cutting down any further flora.

However, there is a difference between ‘dried’ and ‘preserved’ flowers. 

Preserved flowers generally have bolder colours, such as pinks, golds, and bright blues. These may have undergone heat treatment, bleaching, dying, and can be covered in chemicals or plastic coating. This means they are no longer sustainable and cannot be composted. 

The better option: If the long-lasting look is what you are after, look for ‘naturally dried’ flowers. These are real flowers that have been dried out over several weeks and will have more autumnal or ‘natural’ colouring, with no added chemicals or dyes. 

Paper coffee cups and lids

As many people return to work and their daily takeaway cuppa routine resumes, you may think because the cups can be paper or plastic, they can go straight into the recycle bin. No harm done. 

While you can, and should, recycle the lid, unfortunately, most takeaway coffee cups are coated in waterproof plastic called polyethylene, making them non-recyclable. Even if it’s just one – with the number of people who buy a hot beverage each morning, Planet Ark estimates that 50,000 coffee cups go into landfills every 30 minutes – and that’s just in Australia. 

The better option: Get a reusable cup! They’re sustainable, are less likely to burn your hand from a coffee that’s too hot, can be personalised, and they last. Many cafes also supply discounts for providing your own cup and helping the planet. 


Ensure your bamboo products are eco-friendly. Image: Getty.
The most sustainable cutlery is reusable. Image: Getty.
Natural loose leaf tea ensures no plastic is used. Image: Getty.
Dired flowers like these tend to have more of a natural look, and are better for the environment. Image: Getty.

Bamboo fabrics

Supposedly made from natural fibres, bamboo can be found in everything from linen to shirts, towels, toothbrushes and even reusable nappies. It has been marketed as a ‘green’ alternative for many reasons – it grows quickly, leaves no wastage as the whole plant can be used, absorbs greenhouse gases, and releases oxygen into the environment. However, a lot of this can change during the production stage.  

Most commonly, the way bamboo turns into fibre to be used for products is through a chemical process involving bleaching, sodium hydroxide soaking, and made into a manufactured fibre called bamboo rayon or bamboo viscose. Rayon production can waste anywhere from 50 – 70 per cent of the tree the pulp was taken from, while forestry is cleared at an alarming rate to create rayon bamboo plantations. 

The better option: Look for products with the ‘bamboo lyocell’ label. These products are made from bamboo pulp, free of chemicals and toxic solutions. 

Tea bags

Whether you like it black, iced, or with milk and two sugars, a tea bag is a staple in households and dining institutions across the country. Unfortunately, many teabags hold polypropylene, a sealing plastic that keeps the tea bag together and is therefore non-biodegradable.

Not only that, but a study by McGill University found that some of these teabags can leak plastic particles into our drinks – 11.6 billion microplastics are released from a single tea bag! 

The better option: Go for a loose-leaf tea while taking time out to enjoy a good cuppa, or look for a brand that has plastic-free tea bags.


Sunscreen is a big part of staying sun smart, protecting our skin from harmful UV rays and painful sunburn. But some sunscreens are more equal than others. Chemicals found in some sunscreens can be harmful to marine life, as it washes off our bodies and into the waterways. This can affect fish fertility, dolphin tissue, mussel defects and coral bleaching, affecting our oceans.  

The better option: While wearing sunscreen is important, look for a brand that is chemical-free, biodegradable, and all-natural to protect both the ocean and your skin. 

Single-use chopsticks

We may have become accustomed to knowing that plastic single-use cutlery is not good for the environment, but what about those wooden chopsticks you get with your takeaway sashimi? They appear wooden, so they must be fine and good for the environment, right? 

Unfortunately not.

Planet Ark reports that while 50 per cent of us believe we can recycle single-use cutlery, even the takeaway chopsticks cannot be recycled. They are also creating havoc for deforestation – 25 million trees are cut down in China alone each year to create over 45 billion chopsticks in the country.  

The better option: Buy yourself a reusable set (along with your reusable cup, cutlery, and straw) that fits in your bag, so you never need to use plastic or non-recyclable cutlery again!