There are lots of words which fly around when talking about environmental problems and at times these can have little meaning if we don't know the explanation of the words. The purpose of this page is to simplify these words so that you can use the rest of this site with more understanding.


Harmful substances in the air, often consisting of waste from industry and vehicles, for example, diesel exhaust fumes.


Something which breaks down into natural materials which do not harm the environment, typically in less than a year. Biodegradable items should be designed to be able to breakdown quickly in a landfill site.



The number and types of plants and animals that exist in a particular area or the world generally.


The accidental capture of non-target species, e.g. turtles and dolphins, in commercial fishing.


Also shortened to just 'footprint'. The impression each person has on global warming (see below) through what we do. In the UK the average person’s footprint is double the worldwide average. That’s because many other countries have a lower average for lots of reasons - less access to electricity, more home grown food and more renewable energy to name but a few. You can work out your footprint here.


If a person, organisation or country does more to reduce levels of carbon than they actually produce. Bhutan is officially the only carbon-negative country in the world. This is because as well as having a small population, 72% of the country's land is covered in forest. Their government have also implemented brilliant environmental initiatives such as producing energy from renewable energy sources and protecting vast areas of wild spaces.


If a person, organisation or country takes actions to reduce the same amount of carbon dioxide as they produce, e.g. by planting trees or seagrass.


A reference to global warming and the affects it has on the Earth’s climate, for example, longer draught periods. Find out more here.


Recognition of the serious problems occurring due to climate change.


The protection of plants, animals and natural areas mostly from human activity.


Compostable materials break down into natural materials which don't harm the environment. Unlike biodegradable materials (see above), these have the added advantage of providing the earth with nutrients once the material has broken down completely. Compostable materials require specific conditions to break down. Find out how to make your own compost here.


The cutting down or burning of large areas of natural forest by humans in order to use the land for other purposes, e.g. cattle farms or coffee plantations.


Short for environmentally friendly. Very rarely does this actually mean there is no harm done to the environment at all as almost everything we create has an impact on the environment in some way. For example, it could be that it causes global warming or wildlife loss. However something labelled with this term should at least be putting in much better practices to prevent this harm to the environment. In the best circumstances, practices are being carried out to neutralise any harm to the environment or even benefit the environment positively.


Short for 'carbon footprint' (see above).


Fuels such as coal, oil and gas formed underground from the remains of living creatures millions of years ago. These fuels are burned to create much of our energy however this is a major contributor to global warming (see below).


A method of getting oil or gas from the rock below the Earth's surface by making large cracks in it. It involves using toxic chemicals and risks causing air, water and sound pollution. Fracked fuels can be even more damaging to the environment than regular fossil fuels (see above) as they require more energy to get at and more gas is released during the process so it contributes more to global warming (see below).


The long-term increase in the Earth’s average temperature due to greenhouse gases (see below). This can happen naturally but is also accelerated by human activity. Find out more here.


Another way of saying 'eco-friendly' (see above).


The same as 'renewable energy' (see below).


Gases which become trapped in the atmosphere surrounding the Earth, for example carbon dioxide. These gases absorb heat and so cause the planet to heat up, this is known as 'the greenhouse affect' or 'global warming'. These gases can occur naturally although they are also let off by most human activity.


Short for 'landfill sites' where waste is disposed of instead of being recycled. Some of this may be buried under the Earth or in some places, such as India; it can grow into mountains of waste. Find out how landfill contributes to climate change here.


Large numbers of animal and plant species being wiped out entirely in a short space of time. This is generally due to changes in climate, something which human activity is accelerating at the moment (see climate change above). Scientists say we are currently facing the 6th mass extinction in the Earth's history.


A protected area of the ocean where sea life has protection from industrial fishing, drilling and mining.



A vegetable oil used in over half the day-to-day products found in our supermarkets such as bread, biscuits, pizzas, crisps, shampoo and lipstick. Controversial due to its links to deforestation though many say boycotting it completely could be worse for the environment. Find out more here.


An area of land dedicated solely to palm trees grown for palm oil. Due to the lack of diversity of trees like a natural forest it is very difficult for a lot of wildlife to survive in a palm oil plantation. Find out more here.


The introduction of plastic products into the environment. This causes much harm to wildlife and can enter the food chain and our drinking water. Find out more here.


To sort rubbish in order to treat it so that it can be remade into a useful material to use again. Generally it uses much less energy and resources to recycle materials than it does to create new materials.


In environmental terms this refers to waste which is destined for landfill instead of recycling.



Types of energy which can be replaced as quickly as they are used, e.g. wind, tidal and solar power. These energy sources, also known as green energy (see above), are much better to use for the planet than fossil fuels (see above).


Referring to a product which is only used once and then thrown away. This is not sustainable for the planet as it takes lots of energy and resources to create many materials. It's much better for the environment if we can focus on reusing things as much as possible.


Causing little or no damage to the environment so it can continue for a long time. For example, solar power is sustainable as it creates little impact on the environment to produce and comes from a never ending source, the sun. Coal power would be described as non-sustainable as it contributes heavily to global warming to produce and comes from a limited source which will run out some day.


Palm oil produced by companies who pledge not to cut down rainforests, have a transparent supply chain (see below), check how much carbon is being emitted, create wildlife zones, limit planting on peatlands and treat workers fairly. Find out more here.


When a business keeps everything out in the open about supply chain operations. For example, a transparent business should show where their products are manufactured, how they are transported and how the required materials are sourced.


Making new objects out of old or used things or waste material.


Trying to avoid any material waste. For example a zero waste shop allows you to fill up your own reusable container instead of purchasing goods in single-use packaging. That way the goods will be used and there is no material waste from packaging and so 'zero waste'.