Are Your Groceries Killing the Environment?

According to a recent article on Sustainable Brands, The Co-operative Group, Nestle, and Sainsbury’s say they will improve the sustainability of some of their products in response to research from the Product Sustainability Forum of WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme), an independent not-for-profit company funded by all four governments across the UK and the EU.

The Product Sustainability Forum just released
an initial assessment of the environmental impact of grocery products which collates information from more than 150 studies across more than 200 grocery products. The main finding, summarized in the executive summary on page 4, is that the production and sale of grocery products contribute between 21% and 33% to household consumption GHG emissions and approximately 24% to abiotic resource depletion impacts. Wow! (In English, abiotic resource depletion is the deletion of non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels, minerals, etc. One calculation for abiotic resource depletion is given in a Wiley publication on Polymers, the Environment, and Sustainable Development.) In fact, food and beverage products constitute eight of the top-ten product groups from an environmental impact perspective:

  • Alcoholic Drinks
    cider, lager, spirits, wine
  • Ambient
    cereals; canned seafood, meat, veggies, soup, pasta, and noodles; pet food; chocolate; coffee; crisps; rice; sugar (confectionary); and processed snacks
  • Bakery
    (sweet) biscuits; breads; cakes; pastries;
  • Dairy
    butter; cheese; milk; cream; yogurt;
  • Fruit & Vegetables
    bananas; onions; potatoes; tomatoes;
  • Meat, Fish, Poultry, Eggs
    beef, deli, eggs, seafood, lamb, pork, poultry
  • Non-Alcoholic Drinks
    carbonates; concentrates; juices
  • Chilled & Frozen
    Veggie & Potato Products; Ice Cream & Frozen Deserts; Margarine; Pizza; Pre-packed Sandwiches; Ready Meals

The other two groups are:

  • Household
    dishwashing products, cleaning products, laundry detergents, paper products
  • Personal Care
    batch and shower products, deodorants, nappies

What’s scary is that these “Top 50″ comprise approximately 80% of all GHG emissions associated with producing, transporting, and retailing the grocery products in the UK and food and drink is 80% of these categories. So, at the current time with current practices, our groceries really are killing the environment and these 50 products are contributing up to 20% of all GHG emissions that are currently produced!

Where’s all that GHG coming from? The worst offenders, according to the initial study, are meat products (at 37.4% of grocery GHG) and dairy and eggs (at 17.3% of grocery GHG). Why? The production process for milk takes a lot of energy. It turns out that the median product embedded energy for liquid milk is 5.1 MJ/kg (Megajoules/kilogram), and at a sales volume of 5,186 Million kg / year, 26,400 TJ (Terrajoules) of energy is required to produce the milk consumed in the UK. Similarly, a lot of energy is required in the fresh poultry production cycle: 40.35 MJ/kg for a total UK market consumption of 17,600 TJ of energy. And, of course, most current methods of energy production emit copious amounts of GHG. And where meat is concerned, many animals produce methane gas, and some in copious quantities. There are other reasons, and some are contained in the report (and the rest of the reasons are in the studies surveyed by the report), but it’s the findings that are important. The current production and distribution methods for many of our staple foods are quite damaging to our environment, and the companies producing and distributing those staples have to shape up. It’s good to see that a few companies have said they will. Let’s hope they follow through.

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