There's a great article in the July/August 2007 issue of Natural Home magazine. It's called "How Do I Know I'm Buying Green?" and should be required reading for anyone interested in sustainable living and negotiating the current retail/business "greenwashing" of products and services.
A sidebar to the article discusses the life cycle of concrete, but the points made could be applied to any product.
The truth is, there are probably no perfect products or materials. Everything has positive and negative environmental aspects. Ask yourself some basic questions, and weigh the pros and cons before making a personal choice.
- Where does the material come from? If it's a naturally-occurring material, that's good. If it's a renewable resource, even better.
- What are the byproducts of its manufacture? Vinyl is made from petroleum, which is a naturally-occurring resource, but not renewable. Its manufacture, however, puts it squarely on the negative side, since it releases toxins into the environment.
- How is it delivered and/or installed? If a product has to be shipped thousands of miles from its source to be manufactured or used, that's not as good as something which is locally available.
- How is the product maintained, operated or used? If it doesn't outgas toxins or pollute the environment, that's good. If it lasts a long time, that's also good.
- How healthy is it? If it doesn't create health problems in humans, animals, or eco-systems, that's good.
- What do we do with it when we're done with it? If it can be reused or recycled, all the better. If its disposal doesn't pollute the environment, bonus.
Baking soda is made from soda ash, also known as sodium carbonate. To make baking soda, the soda ash is mined in the form of an ore called trona. The soda ash is then dissolved into a solution through which carbon dioxide is bubbled, and sodium bicarbonate precipitates out, forming baking soda. (For a more detailed explanation of the source and manufacture of baking soda, read this online article.)
So baking soda comes from a natural source, albeit a non-renewable one. (But the article I cite above indicates that the trona deposits in Wyoming are large enough to supply the world with baking soda for thousands of years.)
The trona ore is mined from extensive tunnels, so it's not as damaging as strip mining. There are two processes for precipitating the sodium bicarbonate, one of which is more toxic than the other. So sometimes the manufacture of baking soda is less than eco-friendly.
Baking soda has to be shipped from Wyoming to wherever it is used, so it's not locally available in most of the world.
Baking soda is used in powdered form or dissolved in water. It is non-toxic to humans (as long as it's not consumed in huge doses), and its crystals are non-irritating either as a powder or solution. (In fact we regularly eat baking soda in baked goods, and it's even recommended as a treatment for mild skin irritations.)
Baking soda is generally not recycled, but allowed to be washed away into sewage systems, and from there possibly into natural waterways. In large amounts, it is conceivable that it could adversely salinate (i.e. make salty) water systems and disrupt ecosystems.
So what's the verdict? Yes, baking soda comes from a non-renewable, non-recyclable resource. It is energy-intensive in its manufacture and transport. But its manifold household uses in the face of much more toxic commercial alternatives still make it a preferable alternative.
So there you go. Use your head. Ask questions. Seek better solutions. And at the end of the day, be content with the best that you can do under the circumstances.