Environmental Impact of Your Drinks
Updated: Oct 29, 2022
We all know that the stuff we eat has a carbon footprint. Some have a higher carbon footprint than others. But have you ever considered the carbon footprint of the drink you choose? Here we will compare different drinks for their carbon footprint and the water demand.
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The United States is the world’s largest consumer of bottled water in the world but the production of disposable water bottles uses fossil fuels, contributes to global warming, and causes pollution to our soil and oceans. All these bottles require crude oil to manufacture. More than 17 million barrels of crude oil are required to produce enough disposable plastic water bottles to meet America’s yearly demand for bottled water. 86% of these bottles will end up as garbage. The manufacturing process not only requires oil, but it also is responsible for the release of 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. This comes down to 1 bottle of water releasing 85 grams of CO2. If you prefer fancy water from overseas this number increases even further.
It doesn’t stop there, the production of a plastic bottle requires a lot of water. It takes about 5,5 liters of water to produce one half-liter bottle of water.
And if you think bottled water is safer compared to tap water, this is not true. bottled water is tested for microbes and other pollutants 4 times less compared to tap water.
So go for a water filter system so you can drink tap water or go for the largest bottle available when you purchase water.
Cow milk has a large carbon footprint as it is an animal product however, nowadays, agriculture is much more efficient due to better breeding practices. The carbon footprint of individual cows has reduced up to 50% over the past 5 decades which sounds great but the demand for dairy has not reduced over the last 5 decades. The demand for dairy has grown to over 500% in the same time frame.
Milk production impacts the environment in various ways, and the scale of these impacts depends on the practices of dairy farmers and feed growers. Land use for dairy is extremely high as not only do the cows themselves need land area to live. They also need food and their food needs to be produced somewhere which also requires a lot of space. Their food needs to be processed and transported to the farm which again increases the CO2 emission for dairy.
However, the cows themselves are responsible for the largest emission as their manure contains methane which is about 80 times more potent at warming our earth compared to carbon dioxide. Poor handling of manure and fertilizers can also degrade local water resources impacting our environment even further. All this results in carbon emissions of about 800 grams for 1 cup of milk.
More than 90% of the water needed to make milk goes to the production of cattle feed. As cows are large animals, they eat a lot of food. For a glass of milk, you need about 250 liters of water.
Is organic milk better
For the cow's life? Yes. For your body? Yes. For our environment? No. Organic milk production increases methane emission into our atmosphere which has a much higher warming capacity compared to carbon dioxide. It can reduce the emission of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide considerably. Organic milk production reduces pesticide use for the food the cattle eat which is also great, but it increases land use per tonne of milk.
So instead of going for organic milk, go for plant-based milk as an alternative to cow milk.
Orange juice is the most popular fruit juice in the world. To get a better idea of the total environmental impact of your glass of juice, you have to consider the resources needed to grow the fruits, the food waste associated with juice extraction, the materials used to package it, and the energy required to ship and store it. The growing process alone accounts for 60% of orange juice's carbon footprint. This includes pesticides, fertilizers, and gasoline for machines to harvest. Transportation is also a large chunk and when the fruits need to come from further away the amount will increase. The transportation of juice concentrate has a lower carbon footprint as a lot less water is transported this way. It is also much more efficiently packed. Oranges in a container leave lots of room for air which is a lot of wasted space and they are more susceptible to rotting when transported as fruits.
Food waste is a part to not being overlooked. The global orange juice industry alone produces up to 20 million tons of solid and liquid waste annually. When food waste ends up in landfills, it breaks down and produces methane, which has 80 times the warming power compared to CO2. All in all a glass of juice is responsible for the emission of about 250 grams of CO2.
An orange tree requires an immense amount of water. To grow 1 orange your need about 80 liters of water. As a result, you need about 200 liters of water for 1 glass of OJ.
So a more sustainable option is to go for concentrate but it is even better to choose locally produced juice in a glass bottle.
Most of us drink soda every once in a while even though we know it is not very healthy. What most of us don’t know is that soda is a better choice when we are only considering the environmental impact compared to juice.
The main ingredient of soda is sugar which is about 10% of soda’s total carbon footprint.
The packing is the largest portion of the drink's carbon footprint. Between 30 - 70%, depending on the type of container used as cans have a much lower carbon footprint compared to glass. Glass has a high carbon footprint because it requires a lot of energy to make and is very heavy making it harder to transport. However, the research found that using recycled materials and later recycling the containers can decrease the overall carbon footprint of a product by up to 60%.
The carbon in the beverages comes from carbon dioxide. However, the amount of CO2 in a glass of soda is about 1 gram. So it is not a big contributor to this drink. The overall carbon footprint of your soda is about 170 gram CO2 per glass.
The water demand for soda is mostly due to the water requirement of sugar. Sugar cane takes about a year from seed to harvest. During this entire year, the crop needs water. Next to this, also the bottle requires water which in all results in soda needing about 18 liters per cup.
If your want a sparkly drink, go for a home soda-making kit. It eliminates the use of packaging and also transportation is significantly reduced.
In the 1950s, about 15% of the earth’s surface was covered by rainforest, whereas today there is only 6% rainforest left. For every cup of coffee we drink, it is almost certain that about one square inch of rainforest was destroyed.
This doesn’t sound like a lot but a lot of people drink coffee. Some only drink one a day others don’t drink anything else but coffee. These all contribute to this high demand for coffee.
Coffee is a pesticide-heavy crop. Coffee ranks in the top three most heavily pesticide-sprayed crops in the world.
All these pesticides that are not taken up by the plants, build up in the soil as the land area is only used for coffee and no other crops. This leads to chemical runoff of these pesticides to rivers when the crop is irrigated or when it rains. This pollutes rivers and land affecting wildlife and causing soil erosion, and land degradation.
Not only does the high pesticide use increase the CO2 emission of your cup of coffee also transposition is responsible for a large part. Because coffee is often not locally produced it needs to be transported a large distance. All this results in one cup of coffee brewed with an automatic coffee maker having a carbon footprint of about 220 grams of CO2. This includes all required energy and material for everything from crop production, harvesting, roasting, packaging, and transportation to waste management after you drink your cup.
It takes about 4 years for a coffee plant to mature and produce flowers that will become coffee beans. During these 4 years, the plants need to be irrigated and treated with fertilizers and pesticides to ensure it even reaches this phase. Because rain is increasing more irregular due to our changing climate which is among the major problems affecting the production and productivity of coffee. Coffee nowadays relies heavily on irrigation which in the end, results in a cup of coffee needing almost 250 liters of water for a cup. This amount differs a bit in different production areas but it remains an immense amount of water.
But what if you like your coffee with milk? Lattes have a carbon footprint of about 550 grams while a cappuccino is responsible for about 410 grams of CO2. Milk requires about 10 liters per 10 ml so the bigger the ‘splash of milk in your coffee is, the higher the water footprint.
As ditching coffee is not an option for most people, choose an organic coffee brand to reduce the impact of pesticides and go for plant-based milk in your coffee if you prefer milk.
Just like coffee, tea has a large environmental impact. A tea plant has a high water demand and when it is grown in an area with lots of rainfall, irrigation is often not required and the plant has a low water footprint. However, our climate is changing and rain patterns change which affects the tea plants. This means that frequent irrigation may be required when there is low rainfall and this increases the water footprint of the crop.
Because tea is a mono-crop just like coffee which means only 1 crop is produced on a field over and over, it is very susceptible to pests and other diseases. This means also tea requires a lot of pesticides to prevent the crop from being lost when it is affected by a pest.
Just like coffee, tea is often not grown locally and has a rather large carbon footprint because it has to be imported from a faraway country. This results in the carbon footprint of your cup of tea is about 25 grams of CO2 per cup. However, the largest part of the carbon footprint of your tea is the boiling of water to brew your cup which emits about 50 grams of CO2 so make sure you only boil enough water for the cup you are making so you don’t waste any energy.
However, tea is often packed in single portion servings aka, tea bags. This additional packaging and processing add to the carbon footprint of tea increasing it by about five fold. To be similar to coffee. Add sugar or milk into the mix and it increases even further.
A tea plant is much less demanding in water compared to a coffee plant. For one cup of tea, you need about 25 liters of water. This is a little higher if you prefer your tea in a tea bag.
So, go for organic loose tea whenever possible as this has the lowest carbon footprint possible.
Beer is both produced by small breweries and very large breweries alike. Both have a very different carbon footprint due to the distance the end product needs to travel to reach the consumer as small breweries often produce for more local consumers.
If you choose a beer in a glass bottle, this contributes to a large chunk of the carbon footprint as glass is both energy-demanding to make and difficult to transport as it is both heavy and breakable.
The harvest of barley is a big part of the carbon emission due to the use of machinery during harvest but also the brewery itself produces carbon as beer making requires lots of heat.
The waste of beer production is rather low as a large part is either compostable or is sold as cattle feed to farmers which reduces the carbon footprint of beer. In total the carbon emission of 1 glass of beer is 600 gram.
Barley, the main ingredient of beer is the biggest water-demanding ingredient. It requires about 75 Liters of water to make 1 glass of beer.
So, best go for a locally produced beer to cut the carbon footprint and go for cans instead of glass bottles to reduce the carbon footprint even further.
Compared to other crops, grapes don’t demand lots of pesticides or fertilizer for optimal production so this is not a big part of the carbon emission. The largest part of the carbon emission of wine is due to the packing in glass bottles. More than half the co2 production of wine is the result of wine packages in glasses because people often associate a pretty wine bottle with quality. However, this comes at a cost as not only is glass demanding to produce, but it is also harder to transport as it is rather breakable and heavy. The carbon footprint of wine increases further if you live in the US and prefer to drink French wine as in this case wine needs to travel a long distance. However, on average a glass of wine is responsible for about 425 grams of carbon emission.
The water footprint of wines differs greatly depending on where the grapes are grown. The warmer and drier the area in higher the water footprint. On average, a glass of wine takes about 230 liters of water to make 250 ML.
So, to lower your carbon footprint for your glass of wine, go for locally produced wine in a can or buy your wine in bulk in large cartons.