Archive for the ‘Eat’ Category

Not all foods are created (climate) equal. Reference: EWG 2011

Ever wonder how much it matters to eat locally produced organic foods? From a climate change standpoint, turns out what you put on your plate matters a lot more than where it came from. Specifically, avoiding lamb and beef (+ other red meats) will score you the most climate brownie points. This is partly because sheep and cows are not particularly efficient at converting the vegetable protein they eat into animal protein in their muscles (so you need a lot of grain to produce a little bit of lamb and beef). But another important factor is the fact that sheep and cows are ruminant mammals, which during food digestion produce large amounts of methane (CH4), a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more potent than CO2.

Since dairy products also come from ruminants, they suffer the same methane emissions problem, though to a lesser degree which varies depending on the type of dairy product. Cheese looks a lot worse than yogurt and milk, according to a report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which fashioned the spiffy graph you see above.

A study out of Carnegie Mellon University compared eating local to eating less red meat, and concluded that “shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more greenhouse gas reduction than buying all locally sourced food.” Yes, that’s all locally sourced food, as in everything you eat (bananas and coffee included) comes from your friendly farmer down the road.

We point this out not because we don’t love the ethos behind local and organic as much as your average treehugger. There are still plenty of compelling reasons to eat local and organic, like reduced chemical pesticide and fertilizer use, building community, supporting your local farmers, and becoming more connected to your food. Organic farming does have climate benefits, which can come from eliminating chemical fertilizers (made from fossil fuels) and no-till cultivation techniques that enhance carbon storage in the soil. The Carnegie study also showed that eating local can have significant climate benefits, but since only 11% of the climate impact of food comes from transportation, there’s not a whole lot of room for improvement.

So you don’t have to become vegetarian overnight, but if you fancy yourself a mealtime climate warrior then cutting back on your red meat intake should rise high on your to-do list. You can join the “Meat Free Monday” movement, or (if you’re feeling a bit more ambitious) become a “Weekday Vegetarian.” Regardless of where you live, typing “vegetarian” into Yelp will find great options down the street, and that magical system of tubes called the Internet is also awash with advice and recipes for cutting down on meat without your taste-buds skipping a beat.

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Up to 40% of food is wasted on its way to your plate.

We’ve already blogged about how eating less red meat and cheese does more to reduce the environmental impacts of your diet than eating all local and organic. Turns out there’s an even easier way to green up your groceries: only buy what you’ll actually eat. A new study by NRDC estimates that up to 40% of food in the U.S. is wasted, which includes waste at the farm, supermarket, in your fridge, and scrapped off your plate. All this rotten rubbish adds up to a tremendous waste of resources each year: 25% of all freshwater used in U.S.; 4% of total U.S. oil consumption; $165 billion in food costs; $750 million just to dispose of the food; and 33 million tons of landfill waste (leading to methane emissions, a greenhouse gas ~25 times more potent than CO2).

While part of the problem lies with inefficiencies in our food production and distribution infrastructure, which could be rectified with some government intervention, the good news is that you can also be a big part of the solution. Only buy and cook what you’ll eat and don’t shun imperfect produce (that’s still perfectly edible) and you’ll go a long way towards improving the efficiency of the whole system. Efficient eating is made extra enticing by the fact you’ll even save money in the process. And perhaps you’ll also avoid packing on pounds from polishing off overly-plentiful plates, a win for both the wallet and the waistline!

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Bottled water keeps selling BS by the billions.

At about $100 billion in 2010 global sales, projected to rise to $125 billion by 2015, bottled water is big business. The average American consumed over 28 gallons of the stuff in 2010, which starts looking low compared to an average German (34 gallons) or an average Mexican (64 gallons). But is that H2O in a bottle any better than what comes out of the tap? Well, first there’s the fact that you’re paying between 240 and 10,000 times the price you’d pay for the same quantity of tap water, despite the fact that over 25% of bottled water is actually just repackaged tap, and the bottled stuff is less regulated (and therefore often more contaminated) than fluid that flows out of your kitchen sink.

Then there’s the environmental footprint of making a bottle plus trucking that bottle around for your consumptive convenience. A 2006 Pacific Institute study estimated that just producing the bottles for water sold in the US consumed the equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil, emitted more than 2.5 million tons of greenhouse gas, and wasted 2 liters of water in the production process for every one liter that ended up on store shelves (and that’s NOT counting refrigeration and transportation energy). Of course these bottles can be recycled, but about 75% of them still end up in a landfill, and (as any enviro-hip elementary school student will tell you) it’s better to reduce and reuse to render that third “R” unnecessary. Adding it all up, the environmental footprint of bottled water is over 1000 times greater than running the tap.

But that refreshing bottled stuff tastes better, right? According to a highly unscientific televised study by renowned investigators (Penn & Teller), over 75% of people in a blind taste test preferred New York tap water (out of a hose) over “premium” bottled brands. So better taste is probably more in your head than on your tongue, and brands that claim otherwise are likely selling a load of BS (which, given the lax FDA oversight of the bottled water industry, bacteria from that BS may even end up in your cup). So forgo the bottles of blues, and equip yourself with a groovy green refillable canteen.

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Warmer but not wetter: NRDC predicts that a majority of US counties will face moderate to extreme water shortages, due to climate change and increased demand.

Warmer but not always wetter: NRDC predicts that a majority of US counties will face moderate to extreme water shortages by 2050, due to climate change and demand.

‘Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.’ This poetically plagiarized prose precede a, probably unpopular, International Energy Agency (IEAreport. As the climate changes, so do our precipitation expectations, and the latest portrait drawn by the IEA makes those words look like a possible future photographic caption. Water demand is expected to double by 2035, according to the IEA. Around half of the projected 66 billion cubic meter increase will be swallowed by coal production. This is equivalent to the residential consumption of everyone in the US for three years. The United Nations estimates that 1.8 billion people will have to deal with severe water scarcity and two-thirds of the population will be living in ‘water-stressed conditions.’

Fortunately there is no guarantee of being stuck out at sea sans both paddles. Water awareness is a good first step, and you can simultaneously cut your carbon and water footprint, since water, agriculture and energy are so intertwined. We’ve mentioned before how becoming a weekday vegetarian can save you around 2 tons of carbon, there are also benefits for your water footprint. The average American diet uses around 1,000 gallons a person everyday. Choosing to eat less meat and dairy and (if you are eating meat) picking grass-fed over grain-fed can make a real difference. National Geographic estimates that a vegan consumes around 600 fewer gallons of water than the average American. Then there’s all the embodied water in the energy you consume and the products you buy, many of which come from water stressed regions of the world. So as you buy less stuff and make your home a model of energy efficiency you’ll also be working water wonders for the people and ecosystems that need it most.

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Example of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) steps for the clothing industry.

You’ll hear us refer to “life cycle assessment” a fair bit here at Oroeco (or LCA, for acronym aficionados). So what exactly is it? In its broadest sense, LCA is the detailed accounting of something you care about related to the existence of a selected product or service. Sometimes also called “life cycle analysis” or ecological “footprinting,” LCA is most frequently applied to environmental indicators, particularly embodied energy, toxic pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. But LCA can also be applied to indicators without direct environmental links, like labor hours or raw material inputs.

LCA is essentially just accounting, but where traditional accounting deals with relatively well-documented costs and revenues, LCA typically requires substantial additional data collection to convert process input-output data into the metric(s) you’ve selected. Methodology details matter, sometimes immensely.  Just as unaccounted costs and revenue can dramatically alter a corporate balance sheet, what goes into (and gets left out of) any LCA can have profound impacts on LCA results and presumed implications.

Why care about LCA? First off, it’s quite hard to improve what you can’t measure. LCA is a powerful tool to get you information about the true impacts from a pair of Levi’s jeans, a carton of Tropicana orange juice, and all sorts of other consumables, impacts that aren’t otherwise apparent. LCA can be great for producers too, because looking closely at a product’s life cycle highlights where energy, water, and other inputs can be saved at each stage of production, either by upgrading to more efficient techniques, or by switching to more sustainable suppliers. These resource savings often also translate to cost savings, which hopefully get passed on to you. These savings, combined with growing consumer scrutiny of the “green labeling” movement, have pushed retail giants like Tesco and Walmart to start requiring LCA data from their suppliers.

The pic above illustrates the life cycle of a clothing product. If you’re interested in the life cycle carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions linked with owning a T-shirt, for example, you’d start by calculating all the material and energy inputs (and associated CO2) that go with production of raw materials (e.g. cotton, wool, or oil for synthetic fibers), and then include energy used in manufacturing of intermediate products (like yarn and cloth), clothing assembly, and retail sales. You’d also need to add on all the transportation and packaging energy needed to move stuff between each step. In some LCA calculations, known as “cradle-to-gate” LCA, accounting stops there at the checkout counter. But a complete LCA, known as “cradle-to-grave” or “cradle-to-cradle” LCA, will also include all the energy and material inputs linked to using your T-shirt, as well as what goes into disposal.

The results of LCA can be quite informative, and often surprising. For your T-shirt, chances are the use phase of the life cycle will have the largest climate impact, since you wash and dry your shirts many times before they find their way to the landfill (or Goodwill), with each load of laundry requiring a substantial amount of electricity and/or natural gas (as well as embodied energy in laundry detergent, fabric softener, dryer sheets, etc.), though you can reduce your use phase impacts by washing with cold water and hanging your clothes to dry. If you care more about toxics than CO2, it’s the pesticide-laden production of cotton that looks particularly incriminating, though that can also be avoided by buying organic.

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Annual CO2 emissions for an average U.S. household (blue = direct; green = indirect). Reference: Jones & Kammen 2011.

For those of us concerned about climate change and other global issues, the challenges can feel overwhelming. Despite solid scientific consensus that our world is warming from fossil fuels and deforestation, there’s been a lot of talk but very little action to foster sustainable solutions and let cooler heads prevail. The sickly state of the global economy has led many to assume we can’t afford to do anything anyway.

But the good news is we don’t need to wait for politicians and corporations to clean up their acts. We can do it ourselves. The power plants, factory farms, timber mills, and industrial smokestacks are all ultimately producing things that we use. While the Oroeco crew aspires to live by the original Golden Rule, there’s also wisdom in its cynical parody: “(s)he who has the gold makes the rules.” It’s your gold that companies are trying to get, so we think you should also be the one making the rules. The power to change things is ultimately in your hands, and your wallet. It’s both a daunting and an empowering revelation.

Which decisions matter most? Well, the answer depends on where you live, what your lifestyle is like, and what you care about. A great place to start (at least as far as climate is concerned) is a study by Chris Jones and Dan Kammen from the CoolClimate Network (a research team based out of University of California, Berkeley). The graph above shows how greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (measured in annual metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, mtCO2e) look for an average US household. While transportation and housing represent the largest categories of emissions, it may be surprising that food and other goods and services also have substantial GHG footprints.

What makes the CoolClimate study particularly appealing is that it not only shows where there’s room for improvement, it also illustrates (in the graph below) how saving carbon can end up saving you a lot of money. Some savings can come simply from buying less stuff. Additional savings comes from investing in more efficient products, like energy efficient appliances and a low-carbon diet (e.g. more veggies, less meat). Curious where the most carbon and cash can be saved in your life? Take the CoolClimate carbon calculator out for a spin to get a personalized ranking of the actions which maximize your savings based on your lifestyle.

Average $s saved from CO2 reducing actions (green = diet; yellow = transport; gray = home). Reference: Jones & Kammen 2011.

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