GOOD Instructions: Things You Didn't Know Were Made of Oil—and How to Avoid Them

Posted by Milissa Skoro

title oil


You don't need us to tell you that our dependence on crude needs to change—and this couldn't be truer than it is now. Conservative estimates say the leak in the Gulf spewed 200,000 gallons a day; others say it’s closer to 3 million. Either way the environmental and economic repercussions are going to be disastrous.

We all need to do some adjusting—and we can do much more than just avoid the gas station. There are 42 gallons in one barrel of oil. About 20 gallons of a barrel go to gasoline, and the rest goes into making approximately 6,000 other items we regularly use, consume, and toss. So, what can we do in our own lives to reduce petroleum reliance? We can bring awareness to the products we purchase. Here are few ways you can start to reduce your daily personal intake. 

Get involved. Pay attention to what is going on locally and nationwide with energy policy. Recently the House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act. (For a summary of the 964-page document, see Grist's handy primer.) The senate has yet to vote on it, so if you support it, write to your state senator and let him or her know.

Take another look at the products in your bathroom. Avoid ingredients like mineral oil, petrolatum, and paraffin oil, all of which are unsustainable from a sourcing perspective because—you guessed it—they're derived from crude. They are also not the best option for healthy skin. For moisturizers, look for alternatives like shea butter, lanolin, coconut oil, jojoba oil, or cocoa butter. All health food stores carry lotion, deodorant, make-up, and other products formulated without petrochemicals. Stock up.

Check out your cleaning products, too. This issue was discussed a few columns ago but bears repeating: Many household cleaning products are laced with petrochemicals that are as bad for you as they are for the planet. They also perpetuate our dependence on that ingredient, which is being used in all kinds of products that don't need them. Instead, opt for natural alternatives like vinegar, olive oil, and baking soda.

Swap out your candles (and surfboard wax) for soy, beeswax, or coconut palm oil candles. Most wax we use is paraffin wax, a petroleum-based substance. Again, this is an unrenewable resource—and the fumes given off by most candles are also highly toxic. A recent study found that common candles emitted pollutants such as toluene, benzone, and ketones—fancy words for known allergens, reproductive toxicants, and carcinogens.

Choose natural fibers. Synthetic fibers like polyester, acrylic, rayon, and nylon are made from petroleum—as are many waterproofing agents. Printing on T-shirts, too, is often done with petrochemicals. they don't breathe, and are for the most part highly flammable (yikes). 

Avoid plastics like the plague. This should go without saying at this point, but plastics are a no-no. Not only are they damaging to the planet (Pacific Gyre, anyone?), they, too, are also made from petroleum. Carry your own water bottles, coffee bottles, and shopping bags. Try to buy items that are minimally packaged or come in glass. BioBags, a brand sold at many natural food stores, makes a great alternative to the traditional trash bag.

Paint with awareness. According to the EPA, indoor air is considered one of the top five environmental hazards to human health—and the paints and finishes we choose are among the leading culprits. Most paints are petroleum-based and contain additives, petroleum solvents, and chemicals that are toxic to humans. Choose paints that are low VOC or zero VOC and contain plant based dyes and natural minerals like clay and talcum.

Drive less. This is obvious, but not to be forgotten. Take one trip to the grocery store a week instead of four, ride your bike when possible, carpool, take public transportation or walk.