Posts Tagged ‘carbon footprint’

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Vegetable-based diets can be better for the planet.

by Joanna Pustilnik, Bodacious Nutrition

A condo building is going up in my neighborhood, and my husband and I were worried it might cause more traffic congestion. We already live by a highway, and I’ve read that can increase the risk of high blood pressure. But then I read the world is going to house 9.6 billion people by the time my baby daughter is thirty, and the condo suddenly seems like a very minor concern.  

Already, one in nine of us—or about 13 percent of people worldwide—don’t have enough to eat. That’s not fair. I like food. You like food. We should all have enough of it. As a dietitian (and a human), I’m perplexed – how are we going to feed the 3 billion more people that will share our space with us? We’ll have even less resources by then.

Food production would need to increase 70 percent to feed all our new friends. Globally, producing food already eats up 70 percent of fresh water and causes 80 percent of total deforestation. Ten billion acres of land across the globe – an amount the size of Africa – is being used to raise livestock.

We can’t increase our global food production ? we don’t have the space. Instead, we need to drastically change how we grow, produce, and eat food. The most powerful thing we can do as individual consumers is to eat sustainably.

Food security and sustainable dietary patterns

To feed our 3 billion new friends, we need to be food secure. Food security is when we have enough safe, nutritious food. A sustainable dietary pattern has minimal environmental impact but maintains food security and nutritional value.

A “dietary pattern” is essentially the way we normally eat. It includes our typical portions, combination of commonly eaten foods, and the variety in our habitual choices. To be sustainable, a dietary pattern should be healthy, shouldn’t decrease the biodiversity of an ecosystem, should be economically sound, and should optimize our resources.

Plant based diets such as the Mediterranean Diet, the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), and a vegetarian (or vegan) diet seem to fit this bill. Health benefits of these diets include lower risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, and they boast a lower amount of red meat, processed foods, and more fruits and vegetables. Studies are repeatedly finding that diets high in animal foods are not sustainable.

Beef, in particular, uses a lot of resources and produces too much waste. In one Italian study, beef was the food tied to the greatest negative impact on the ecosystem while a vegan diet had the lowest environmental impact and greatest health score. Beef and lamb require the most fossil fuel per calorie of protein ? 250 times more than beans!

Here’s a graph from the World Resources Institute that shows the impact of various foods on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Notice animal-based foods use consistently more resources:

Here’s a graph from the World Resources Institute that shows the impact of various foods on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Notice animal-based foods use consistently more resources

Overall, agriculture is responsible for 30 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but 18 percent of this is due to raising livestock. That’s more than the transportation industry and all industrial processes combined – they only emit fourteen percent.

Another issue is that meat increases per capita land requirements while feeding less people overall. The grain we feed animals doesn’t go as far as it would if we just were to feed it directly to people, and we feed 40 percent of grain globally to livestock instead of our hungry 1 billion human friends.

Meat also produces a large amount of waste – methane and other gases as well as solid waste that pollutes land and waterways. A plant-based diet with a smaller amount of meat is making more sense.

Harvard and the European Union have both looked at sustainability research to develop diets. Harvard’s plate boasts more fruits and vegetables than USDA’s MyPlate, more whole grains, and focuses more on plant protein while limiting red meat intake. It also encourages milk and dairy no more than 1 to 2 times a day.

The European Union’s LiveWell for LIFE diet has been found to reduce GHG production by 25 percent compared to current intake. It too promotes a plant-based diet with a focus on more plant proteins than a typical person eats with no more than 1/3 of the diet consisting of foods from animal sources.

How we eat now

Currently, we are not eating in line with either of these diets. Most of us eat a Western-style diet that’s high in red meat, dairy, and processed foods (think packages, boxes, bags, and the center of the grocery). We include few fruits and vegetables, limited legumes and beans, and not enough whole grains.

We especially love our red meat.

In 2009, we ate 14 million tons of beef ? about 92 lbs. per person. By 2030, this number is projected to increase to 17 million tons. The average man only needs 56 gm of protein per day, but he eats over 100 gm daily! Demand is also increasing worldwide as countries become more industrialized.

Simple changes we can all make

First, we can shop locally. This limits GHG produced by the transportation of food from far away. Eating more fresh fruits and vegetables is also a smart choice, and not just for health reasons. Consumerism is powerful. We need to show our government that sustainable farming practices that maintain the soil are demanded.

We can also limit ourselves to our fair share, because excessive energy intake requires more energy use. We can also shop for fresh food to decrease waste from packaged goods. Also, we throw away 40 percent of our food. Eating more mindfully would help decrease this amount and preserve our vital resources.

And finally, eat less animal products. If just 10 percent of us limited consumption of animal products, enough food would be saved to feed 1 billion people.

That’s huge.

From a nutritional perspective, limiting meat would only promote positive health. We don’t all have to abstain and become vegans, but research shows any decrease in meat consumption increases sustainability AND improves decreases disease risk.

I like to call a plant-based diet a gracious diet. Include small amounts of meat if you like, but let’s remember to conserve. We can get everything we need while still being considerate of future generations. They’ll be hungry, too.

To continue supporting sustainability, DC EcoWomen is partnering with Whole Foods’ program Nickels for Non Profits through December 17th. On your next shopping trip, bring a reusable bag to Whole Foods Markets in Montgomery County, and ask to donate your earned nickel to DC EcoWomen. For more information, visit: 

Looking for healthy and sustainable meals for the holidays? Kristin Bell shares her best vegan holiday fare at I’m getting hungry already…

Joanna Pustilnik is a DC EcoWoman, dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and health coach with a tele-health private practice, Bodacious Nutrition, and a beautiful new baby daughter. She blogs at, and is passionate about sustainability and helping others find their best selves. She hasn’t been eating meat for about 11 years, but she admits she craved the occasional hot dog during her pregnancy. Contact her at [email protected]

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Does your furry friend have an outsized carbon pawprint?

Written by Caroline Selle, the Zero Waste Girl

Each morning, as the cats wind around my legs and meow for their breakfast, I wonder exactly how much damage their canned cat food is doing to the earth. I make every effort to keep my own life sustainable, my carbon footprint low, but I adopted two carnivores.

Dogs can be vegetarian, but cats can’t. They need taurine in their diets, an amino acid that only comes from animals. Forget species: most pet food is problematic anyways. In fact, according to Robert and Brenda Vale, authors of Time to Eat the Dog? The Real Guide to Sustainable Living, a medium-size dog is worse for the environment than an SUV. The worst part of the impact comes from diet. Cats, in comparison, are kind of like a Smart Car. They’re not guzzling gas, but they’re still emitting CO2.

So how can we make our pets more sustainable?

Let’s start with food.

No matter how I budget, there’s only so much of my salary I can afford to spend on sustainably sourced pet food. Plus, my cats like the cheap stuff. Friskies generates more meows than Dave’s, so we’ve settled on Iams, an in-between brand I can still pick up at the local grocery store. None are particularly great options. Purina touts its sustainable practices, but it’s owned by Nestle. I feed the cats a fixed quantity of wet food along with an open supply of higher quality and more eco-friendly dry food.

Vets generally agree that wet food is healthier for pets. If your budget stretches a little farther than mine, you might consider buying dehydrated food, which has a lower carbon footprint when shipped. It’s rehydrated by adding water at home. And if you’re really into getting high quality and eco-friendly food for your pet, you can make your own.  Unfortunately, it’s time consuming and expensive.

My favorite place to find a balanced blend of sustainable and healthy food is the Big Bad Woof, a local pet store chain with locations in Maryland and DC. The employees are always helpful, and there’s a good selection of brands at a variety of price points. The store carries supplies for all common household pets, including birds and small rodents.


If you’ve ever cared for a kitten, you know a balled up piece of newspaper can be just as engrossing as a fancy, ten dollar toy. Cats love boxes. Anything lying around the house. My kitten chases bouncy balls and a laser pointer, and anything tied to a swinging string.

Your cat might chatter at the birds and squirrels outside, but keep them indoors. Not only will the pet avoid being hit by cars, getting into fights with other cats, and a variety of nasty diseases, you’ll keep the predatory instincts in check. Cats are reportedly responsible for billions of small mammal and bird deaths each year.

Dogs, similarly, can be entertained without spending much money. Plenty of parks allow canine companions, and there are several hiking trails in the area that do as well. There are also quite a few companies making more sustainable versions of dog toys, in case you want to pick up something more durable for your pet to chew.

Some smaller pets, like hamsters, enjoy playing in old paper towel or toilet paper tubes.


The stinky part, and the least exciting part of owning a pet. For cleaning up after a dog, some stores and online outlets sell biodegradable doggy bags. In theory, the whole thing degrades in the landfill. Since most landfills are too tightly packed to allow for much biodegradation, I’m a fan of using plastic newspaper bags, tortilla packaging, or anything else that might end up in the trash.

Cat waste is a more serious problem. About 2 million pounds of litter head to landfills each year. Clay litter (the most popular kind) is strip mined, but it lasts longer and contains smells better than many other options. One alternative is pine pellets, but many cats don’t appreciate the change in texture. Some people toilet train their cats, but my supposedly fastidiously clean animals prefer to use the toilet to drink. The lid stays closed now.

Any animal could, in theory, have its waste composted – but not for any compost you’ll put on edible plants. Plus, there’s the smell to contend with. Small animals that live in wood shavings, like hamsters, produce less waste and therefore less smell. If you’re comfortable composting, go for it! (But keep it very, very separate from anything going near your food).

Can we really shrink the pawprint?

In the end, pets don’t create as much of an environmental challenge as humans. It makes more sense to address our own shortcomings first. However, if you really want to make your pet’s life more sustainable, start with food. Go to your local pet store and talk to some experts. When it comes to toys, reuse, reuse, reuse. And, well, waste is difficult. Composting is probably the best option, but it comes with many challenges.

Finally, this wouldn’t be a piece about responsible pet ownership without a disclaimer at the end. Spay and neuter your animals. Puppies, kittens, and other baby pets are cute, but there are already too many animals without homes.

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The Zero Footprint Baby

How do you raise a carbon neutral baby? Should you buy toys? What about relatives who need to fly to visit? If you need a refrigerator, where do you buy the most energy efficient model? The answers to Keya Chatterjee’s questions were far flung: she found some with family members from India, others on the internet, and ended up ordering a refrigerator from Silicon Valley.

Chatterjee, the Director of Renewable Energy and Footprint Outreach at the World Wildlife Fund, was kind enough to take time out of her busy work day and speak with DC EcoWomen about the challenges of raising a zero footprint child, writing a book, and juggling a full-time job.

Before the birth of their son, Chatterjee and her husband were already well acquainted with green living. They had no refrigerator, buried their compost, and had solar panels installed in their backyard. “Some people counted calories,” she wrote in her book’s introduction. “We counted kilowatts.” But a baby changed the math. A former employee at NASA, Chatterjee had the skills to do the research and the training to write up the answers she found. “I wrote the book because I feel that climate change is an important issue for parents and there wasn’t really anything out there about the individual choices parents can make,” Chatterjee said. “The more information I was compiling, the more I thought, I don’t want everyone to do all this work.” Thus, The Zero Footprint Baby was born.

The Zero Footprint Baby looks at all aspects of childrearing, starting with pregnancy. And, of course, Chatterjee addresses the issue of diapers.

“It’s actually funny because I realized long ago in my head that it was possible to not use diapers,” she said, “thinking back to how my family members live in India. There are no books about it. It’s just normal life.” Surprisingly enough, diapers aren’t a huge part of the carbon footprint of a baby. “It’s really more the decisions that parents are making,” said Chatterjee. Though she ended up raising her son without any form of diapering at all, Chatterjee found that the size of your house, the number of flights you take (or relatives take to visit you), and medical care are all a much bigger part of the carbon footprint.

She was surprised to find how much the medical system impacted the numbers. The carbon footprint of the United States medical system is much higher than that of the United Kingdom. “It was interesting to read about as I was reading about the medicalization of birth.”

Though Chatterjee decided to breastfeed her baby, her book lists tips for reducing the carbon footprint of a formula fed child. Don’t drive to pick up the formula, buy in bulk whenever possible, and buy brands with as little secondary packaging (like shrink wrap inside a cardboard container) as possible, she suggests. In fact, many of the chapters include alternatives to some of Chatterjee’s choices, and she explains many of her own personal compromises. She and her husband eventually decided to buy a refrigerator to store breast milk, though they purchased a specialty and extremely energy efficient model.

With The Zero Footprint Baby, “My aspiration was to provide a sense of community,” Chatterjee said. “I feel very strongly that people should do whatever they can and not feel stressed about what they can’t do.”

“The biggest challenges were interacting with people around us and explaining what we were doing,” she said. “You put yourself out there, then you open yourself up to criticism.” One of the arguments she heard most was, “Oh, you’re not doing one hundred percent of what you can do… It’s a prioritization question. There will be criticism no matter how you choose to parent.”

Her book is already making an impact: The Zero Footprint Baby was featured as one of EarthShare’s best environmental stories of 2013.

When asked how she managed to transition to such a low impact lifestyle, “We wouldn’t have done any of the things we’re doing if they were hard for us,” Chatterjee said. For example, she explained, her family doesn’t use a lot of heat or air conditioning. Instead, they go to the pool in the summer or museums in the winter. “For us, our lives are much more rewarding.”

Written by Caroline Selle, Zero Waste Girl