ELIMINATING FOOD PACKAGING & MEAT EATING- BAD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT!
Dear EarthTalk: Everybody says stop using plastic bags, but what about all the plastic, cellophane, cardboard and other materials used for packaging the food itself? What can we do to reduce how much of this unnecessary stuff comes wrapped around our food? Sunil Sreedharan, Mumbai, India
Yes, food packaging is a big problem in North America as well as elsewhere around the world, with landfills filling up and recyclers facing a glut of materials to process. It’s hard to say just how much of the 130 million tons of paper, plastic and metals that get tossed or sorted for recycling in major U.S. cities is from food packaging, but the percentage is no doubt sizable. The main problem is in the psychology of marketing: Manufacturers know that products in big flashy-looking packages attract more buyers.
A 1994 European Union directive requires companies operating in its 27 member nations to take back and recycle (or otherwise deal with, taking the burden off of local communities) at least 60 percent of their packaging waste, including that used for food items. But no such “producer pays” laws, which provide incentive for manufacturers to cut back on waste to begin with, exist in the United States or Canada. As such, it falls to consumers to patronize stores and manufacturers that minimize packaging.
One way to take a bite out of packaging is to buy as much in bulk as your family can keep up with. It may take longer to get through that gigantic box of cereal you got at Costco, but think of all the cardboard and plastic your bulk purchase saved over buying several small boxes. Similarly, instead of sending the kids off to school every day with a new juice box in the lunch bag, how about a safe metal or plastic reusable, washable container that you can refill each morning from the gallon jug you keep in the fridge?
Another way to forego packaging is to reduce time spent in large supermarkets, where wasteful product packaging rules. Most natural foods stores have large bulk-buying sections so you can haul away in large paper or plastic bags the equivalent of many containers of beans, pastas, rice or other staples. Frequenting local farmers’ markets—armed with your reusable shopping tote, of course—is another way to keep food packaging out of your home. The website Local Harvest offers a free searchable database of farms across the U.S. that run Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs and participate in farmers’ markets.
It’s worth noting that we tend to toss way too much food packaging where a quick rinse would make the same cans, jars and jugs useful storage containers or quality recycling fodder. Soup cans, for example, can easily be recycled into new steel and are collected universally by municipal recycling programs. And while you’re buying soup, opt for the family size cans and save leftovers instead of buying single-serving containers. Even when packaging material is recyclable, there’s no reason to waste it, as even recycling uses resources and costs money.
Beyond shopping and sorting more responsibly, individuals also have the power of their voices to pressure food makers to cut back on packaging. You can also try to persuade your elected officials to look into the feasibility of enacting “producer pays” laws in your community, city or state. And you can talk to co-workers, friends, relatives and others about the importance of buying in bulk and reducing waste.
CONTACTS: European Union Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, http://europa.eu/scadplus/leg/en/lvb/l21207.html; Local Harvest, www.localharvest.org.
Dear EarthTalk: Vegetarians and vegans are so self-righteous about not eating meat and how meat eating is so bad for the environment. How true are these claims? -- Frank Doolittle, Sudbury, MA
There has never been a better time to go vegetarian. Mounting evidence suggests that meat-based diets are not only unhealthy, but that just about every aspect of meat production—from grazing-related loss of cropland, to the inefficiencies of feeding vast quantities of water and grain to cattle, to pollution from “factory farms”—is an environmental disaster with wide and sometimes catastrophic consequences.
There are 20 billion head of livestock on Earth, more than triple the number of people. According to the Worldwatch Institute, global livestock population has increased 60 percent since 1961, and the number of fowl being raised for food has nearly quadrupled in the same time period, from 4.2 billion to 15.7 billion.
The 4.8 pounds of grain fed to cattle to make one pound of beef represents a colossal waste of resources in a world teeming with hungry and malnourished people. According to Vegfam, a 10-acre farm can support 60 people growing soy, 24 people growing wheat, 10 people growing corn—but only two raising cattle.
Food First’s Frances Moore Lappé says to imagine sitting down to an eight-ounce steak. “Then imagine the room filled with 45 to 50 people with empty bowls... For the feed cost of your steak, each of their bowls could be filled with a full cup of cooked cereal grains.” Harvard nutritionist Jean Mayer says that reducing U.S. meat production 10 percent would free grain to feed 60 million people.
U.S. animal farms generate billion of tons of animal waste every year, which the Environmental Protection Agency says pollute our waterways more than all other industrial sources combined. The infamous 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Prudoe Bay, but the relatively unknown 1995 New River hog waste spill in North Carolina poured 25 million gallons of excrement into the water, killing 14 million fish and closing 364,000 acres of shell fishing beds. Hog waste spills have caused the rapid spread of Pfiesteria piscicida, which has killed a billion fish in North Carolina alone.
Other than polluting water, beef production alone uses more water than is used in growing our entire fruit and vegetable crop. And over a third of all raw materials and fossil fuels consumed in the U.S. are used in animal production. Meat also increases our carbon footprints. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock around the world contribute more greenhouse gases (mostly methane) to the atmosphere—18 percent of our total output—than emissions from all the world’s cars and trucks.
“There is no question that the choice to become a vegetarian or lower meat consumption is one of the most positive lifestyle changes a person could make in terms of reducing one’s personal impact on the environment,” says Christopher Flavin of the Worldwatch Institute. “The resource requirements and environmental degradation associated with a meat-based diet are very substantial.”
CONTACTS: Food First, www.foodfirst.org; UN Food and Agriculture Organization, www.fao.org; Worldwatch Institute, www.worldwatch.org.
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