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How to Get the Oil Out of Your Life

Petroleum-based products are all around us. Here are some ways to reduce petro in, or eliminate it from, your purchases.

Oil is everywhere.

The

ubiquity

of petroleum as a manufacturing raw material is mind-boggling. There is petroleum in your kitchen, living room, bedroom, home office, den and car (aside from the fuel and oil tanks).

Household items that have petroleum derivatives that you might not expect include health and beauty products (lip balm, moisturizer, diaper cream, eye drops, styling gel, hair color, nail polish and all kinds of make-up), clothes, house paint, CDs, bug repellents, serving and storage bowls, detergent, luggage, golf bags, bicycle and car tires, linoleum floors and pantyhose.

If an item is plastic or plastic-like, rubbery or stretchy, chances are good it's petroleum-based. Natural gas has replaced oil in some of these items, but since gas prices rise and fall with oil prices and gas is often found where oil is, the difference is negligible.

Fariborz Ghadar, director of the

Center for Global Business Studies

at Pennsylvania State University, estimates that 10% to 15% of the petroleum drilled around the world goes to uses other than fuel for transport and heating. In the U.S., an additional 20% of the petroleum we use goes to agriculture in the form of pesticides and other chemicals and fuel for farm equipment, he says.

Why is this significant? For me, it's sobering to realize how reliant we are on foreign fossil fuels -- not just for driving, but also for products as varied as grapes, toys, diapers, exercise clothes and wound-dressings.

It's also sobering to see a broader picture of why prices are rising in every aisle of the supermarket and of the pressure oil prices have on businesses.

Kimberly Clark

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,

Procter & Gamble

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and

Colgate-Palmolive

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have raised or are planning to raise prices on a broad range of items, including diapers, detergent and toothpaste.

In the chemical sector,

Dow Chemical

(DOW) - Get Dow, Inc. Report

said it

"will raise the price of all of its products by up to 20 percent" because of rising fuel, transportation and source-material costs.

BASF blamed

raw material costs for its decision to raise prices on some products. And

DuPont

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cited similar reasons for a string of

price hikes this spring.

Realizing just how many uses corporations have invented for fossil-fuel derivatives like petroleum jelly, paraffin, mineral oil, Lycra, synthetic rubber and myriad plastics also drives home how much synthetic ingredients have supplanted organic ingredients.

Get Rid of It

Subbing in items that aren't made with petroleum is easier for some types of products than others -- sometimes it's not possible at all. But here is some low-hanging fruit to go after:

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  • Opt for clothes made from natural fibers like cotton, linen and silk, or from recycled materials (like some fleece), and try to avoid polyester and spandex.
  • Stop buying plastic serving and storage bowls and rediscover Fiestaware, Corningware and Pyrex.
  • Trade conventional laundry detergents for eco-brands that rely on plant-based surfactants rather than oil-based ones.
  • Steer clear of health and beauty products that have petrolatum, mineral oil, paraffin or phthalates. Seek out brands that use botanical ingredients instead.
  • Borrow and lend washable plastic toys instead of buying new ones.
  • If you're headed to your back yard and not a malaria-infested jungle, skip the chemicals and fight off mosquitoes with repellents containing citronella and lemongrass.
  • Buy fruit and vegetables from local and regional sources whenever you can to reduce the fuel-poundage behind your produce choices.
  • Buy organic when you can to cut down on the chemicals in your produce.

Eco-responsible products are often more expensive than their mass-manufactured counterparts. With prices for conventional products spiking the way they are, that eco-premium might seem smaller than it once did. But given that consumers already are feeling squeezed, paying extra might also seem more extravagant than ever, as Tom Philpott points out in his

Grist

blog on food.

And there's often controversy about how much total energy is saved or spent by choosing renewable resources over synthetic, as has been the case with

grocery bags

and

clothing

.

For me, the argument usually comes down in favor of renewable products because they have better cradle-to-grave potential. We can find greener, cleaner, more efficient and more ethical ways to grow cotton, trees, plants and food and we can get better at disposing of them in ways that allow them to biodegrade. Unless we recycle synthetics, they become permanent waste.

Influencing Industry

The more we choose nonsynthetic materials, the more we encourage giant companies to seek out creative alternatives. I've written about

bioplastics

. And last year, DuPont introduced

Cerenol

, a corn-based material that can replace petrochemicals in running shoes, spandex, cosmetics and automotive components.

If we can turn plants into fuel, water bottles and sneaker material, who knows what else we can do with them. As petroleum alternatives become more mainstream, either through innovation or through stores like

Wal-Mart

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,

Whole Foods

(WFMI)

and Trader Joe's making products based on them more widely available, the more affordable and better understood they'll be.

And the more we can wean our consumer and manufacturing selves off of petroleum and onto less fraught raw materials, the sooner we're likely to breathe a little more easily, in more ways than one.

Eileen P. Gunn writes about the business of life and is the author of "Your Career Is An Extreme Sport." You can learn more about her at

her Web site.