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Glossary of Environmental Terms


Algal Bloom: Excessive growths of algae in surface waters that can lead to suffocation of fish and other invertebrates; caused by nutrient-rich runoff, mostly from cities and agriculture.

Alternative Fuel: Substitute for traditional motor vehicle fuels like gasoline and diesel.; includes biodiesel, ethanol, and compressed natural gas.


Biodegradable: Capable of decomposing under natural conditions.

Biodiesel: A renewable fuel made from vegetable oils and animal fats that can be used in standard diesel engines with little or no modification.

Biodiversity: The variety of plants, animals and other living things in a particular area or region.

Biodynamic: Agriculture that creates a healthy, self-sustaining ecosystem.

Bycatch: Non-targeted sea life caught in commercial fisheries; usually tossed overboard, dead or dying.


Carbon Footprint: A measure of impact of human activities on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced, measured in units of carbon dioxide.

Carbon Offset: The funding of projects that reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions in order to "offset" greenhouse gas emissions caused by an individual or organization.

Carbon Sink: A part of the Earth that absorbs and holds onto carbon dioxide, such as oceans, soil and forests.

Certified Organic: Certified to have been produced without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, sewage sludge, bioengineering, irradiation, antibiotics or growth hormones.

Common Air Pollution: Commonly found air pollutants that are not acutely toxic but that do pose a threat to human health because so many people are exposed to them over long periods of time.

Common Water Pollution: Nontoxic pollutants that are nonetheless harmful to humans and/or aquatic life (sediment, nutrients, pathogens and trash).

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA): A regional community of farmers and consumers that share in both the risks and the benefits of food production.

Compost: A soil-like material created from the decomposition of organic materials such as food scraps and yard trimmings; can be created with or without the help of worms.

Conservation: The wise use of natural resources.

Crop Rotation: The practice of planting different crops each season on the same piece of land to replenish soil and minimize pests and diseases.


Dioxin: A by-product of incineration and some industrial processes that use chlorine, it is one of the most toxic anthropogenic chemicals known; can cause cancer and severe reproductive and developmental problems.

Dual-flush toilet: Water-saving toilet with two flushes: full flush for solids and half flush for liquids.


E85: A blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline; the only ethanol blend that is considered an alternative fuel by the federal government.

E-waste: Discarded electronics, such as cell phones and computers, which become hazardous waste in a landfill due to their toxic heavy metal content.

Ecological Footprint: The area of land and water required to supply the resources that an individual or group demands, as well as to absorb the wastes that the individual or group produces.

Ecosystem: A community of organisms and its environment functioning as a unit in nature.

Energy Audit: A survey that determines how much energy is used in a building, as well as opportunities for energy conservation.

Energy-efficient: The use of minimal power, with little or none wasted, to achieve a desired result.

ENERGY STAR: A program of the US Government that certifies and labels products that are energy efficient.

Ethanol: A renewable fuel made primarily from corn and sugar crops, and also from cellulosic materials, such as switchgrass.

Evaporative emissions: Emissions from evaporating gasoline, which can occur during vehicle refueling, vehicle operation, and even when the vehicle is parked.


Factory Farm: A large-scale industrial site where many animals (generally chickens, turkeys, cattle, or pigs) are confined and treated with hormones and antibiotics to maximize growth and prevent disease.

Feedlot: A confined area for the controlled feeding of animals; concentrated animal waste that results sometimes enters nearby streams and lakes, causing serious water quality problems.

Flexible Fuel Vehicle (FFV): A vehicle capable of running on E85.

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC): An international accrediting organization that has developed standards to certify wood harvested from well-managed forests and wood products made from FSC certified wood.

Fossil Fuels: Fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas) that resulted from the decomposition of plant and animal matter that lived millions of years ago.

Fuel-cell vehicle: A vehicle that combines hydrogen fuel with oxygen in the air to power an electric motor.


Genetically Modified: An organism in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or combination (check the stickers on your fruits and vegetables: if PLU code is a 5-digit number starting with ‘8’, it’s genetically modified).

Global Warming/Climate Change: The gradual rise in temperature of Earth’s atmosphere, which may be caused by increasing atmospheric concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

Green Building: The practice of creating healthier and more resource-efficient models of construction, renovation, operation, maintenance, and demolition.

Greenhouse Gas: Any gas that absorbs infrared radiation in the atmosphere, warming the earth's surface and contributing to climate change (includes carbon dioxide, methane, water and nitrous oxide).

Greenwashing: The practice of making a product appear to be environmentally friendly by putting it in green packaging, making false claims about its biodegradability, etc.

Greywater: Domestic wastewater that does not contain human wastes, such as that draining from bathtubs, showers, sinks and washing machines.

Groundwater: The supply of fresh water found underground, in cracks and crevices, and in the spaces between sand and gravel.

Digital power meter: A device that measures the amount of energy (in KWh) used by appliances and electrical devices; useful for determining wasteful standby power use.


Habitat: The natural environment in which an organism or population lives.

Household Hazardous Waste: Any product that becomes hazardous upon disposal; includes those products labeled “toxic”, “poison”, “corrosive”, “flammable”, “combustible” or “irritant”, as well as medicines, and electrical devices and other products that contain toxic heavy metals (i.e., fluorescent light bulbs, computers, and batteries)

Hybrid Vehicle: A vehicle that burns gasoline using a traditional internal combustion engine, but that also has on board the battery and electric motor of an electric vehicle.


Integrated Pest Management (IPM): A pest management strategy that uses different techniques in combination to control pests, with pesticides used as a last resort.


Kenaf: A plant used to make 100% tree-free paper.


Leachate: A liquid formed when water seeps through a landfill picking up contaminants, potentially contaminating surface or groundwater.

Light Emitting Diode (LED): A semiconductor device that can emit very bright light while consuming very little energy.

LEED: Leaders in Energy and Environmental Design is a green building certification program developed and operated by the US Green Building Council.

Life-cycle Cost: The true cost of a material or object over its entire lifetime, including production, shipping, environmental impact of use, and disposal.

Low-E window: Window or skylight that is glazed with a microscopically thin, virtually invisible coating to reduce heat flow.


Mercury: A highly toxic heavy metal (symbol Hg) that is liquid at room temperature and can cause learning disabilities, fertility problems, central nervous system effects, and in extreme cases, death.


Nonpoint Source: Pollution from a broad area, such as runoff from city streets or agricultural fields, rather than from one specific point source.


Point Source: Source of pollution that originates from a single point, i.e., an outflow pipe from a factory.

Post-consumer: Material that came from products that were used by consumers, then recycled.

Precycle: An effective approach to waste-reduction that prevents the waste from being produced in the first place through the purchase of items that are easy to recycle, made from recycled materials, and minimally packaged.


Recyclable: An item is considered recyclable if it can be remanufactured into another product.

Recycled Content: The amount of recycled materials, either pre- or post-consumer, in a product.

Recycling: A system of collecting, sorting, and reprocessing old material into usable raw materials.

Renewable: A natural resource that is inexhaustible or replaceable by new growth.

Renewable Energy Certificate: Provides a method for consumers to purchase clean, renewable energy to be dispensed to the national power grid

Re-refined Oil: Previously used motor oil that has been processed into clean oil.

Reusuable: Something that can be used repeatedly over time.


Solar Photovoltaic Panels: Arrays of photovoltaic cells that convert solar radiation from the sun into usable electricity.

Solid Waste: Waste that is disposed of in a landfill or incinerator; in other words, trash.

Standby (“Phantom”) Power: The energy used by appliances and electrical devices when they are turned off and not in use.

Storm Drain: A system of catch basins and underground pipes used to collect and carry stormwater from city streets and other impervious surfaces to receiving waters such as rivers and oceans.

Surface Water: Water that you can see on Earth’s surface, such as rivers, streams, lakes or oceans.

Sustainable: Meeting current needs - environmental, economic and social - without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same.


Tankless Water Heater: Heats water only when needed; can be whole-home, or point-of-use, which provides hot water instantly to the fixture or appliance it’s connected to.

Tax credit: An income tax credit that directly reduces the amount of income tax paid; for example, if you owe $5,000 in income tax, a $500 tax credit will reduce what you owe to $4,500.

TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load): A calculation of the maximum safe amount of a pollutant for a waterbody; and a plan for cleanup of a waterbody with pollutant levels that exceed this amount.

Toxic pollutants: Materials that cause death, disease, or birth defects in organisms that ingest or absorb them.


Universal Waste: Seemingly harmless consumer products (i.e., batteries) that contain hazardous substances inside some sort of casing, and therefore become hazardous when compressed in a landfill.

Urban Runoff/Stormwater: Water that drains from urban areas to local surface waters, either through the storm drain system or directly, usually carrying relatively high concentrations of pollutants.


Vegan: A strict vegetarian who eats no animal or dairy products at all.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): Organic compounds that evaporate readily into the air, play a key role in the formation of smog, and in direct contact with humans, can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, and dizziness.


Wastewater: Water that carries wastes from homes, businesses, and industries to a wastewater treatment plant.

Water Cycle: The continuous movement of water from the sky to the Earth and back to the sky again.

Watershed: An area of land from which all rain, snow, rivers, etc., flow and empty into the same body of water.