Recycling is only one component of a green lifestyle. We need to examine our consumption habits.
Green Queen: Learn about manufacturing processes
There are books you are glad you read and others you wish you hadn't, and Daniel Goleman's Ecological Intelligencefell into the latter category at first. With his tidy examples and deep research, the American psychologist and science journalist helped me come to the depressing realisation that I have been living in a comforting and self-congratulatory "green bubble".
The problem, writes Goleman, is that when we buy a "green" product or pop something into a recycling container, we can feel like we are doing good things for the environment while continuing to ignore the basic issue.
He used the example of making a simple glass jar. The process includes hundreds of substances, many of them not very nice, and almost 2,000 steps, each with their own impact on the environment. When chemicals, some of them known carcinogens, are emitted into the air around a production plant, it's just one step.
"Our indifference to the consequences of the sum total of what we buy and do, and our unexamined habits as consumers, drive a vast number of threats to the environment and health," he writes.
The book has inspired me to live a more examined life when making purchases. Goleman advocates the concept of "radical transparency" so that the average person can find out what went into the products they use most. He profiles an American organisation that is helping this process, Good Guide (www.goodguide.com), by using science to rate products according to how healthy, ethical and green they are.
Since reading Goleman's book I have second-guessed the "oxi-biodegradable plastic bags" on offer in some of our grocery stores. Turns out not all experts agree that they degrade entirely, and until they do I'm going with reusable versions. And after noticing a claim on a trendy glass water bottle that promised "from aquifer to any table in the world, the entire process is carbon neutral", I checked it out on the company's website. It turns out Antipodes, sold in Jones the Grocer, is the rare - if not only - bottled water company to sign up to the United Nations Environment Programme's Climate Neutral Network. Companies that do this must have set ambitious greenhouse gas emissions targets and be working hard to meet them.
We can't always know everything about what we buy, but we should be trying to pay as much attention as we can. In the book Goleman quotes Ian McCallum, a South African physician who also writes about ecological intelligence.
"We have to stop speaking about the Earth being in need of healing," he tells the author. "The Earth doesn't need healing. We do."