Recycling Isn't the Answer: To Save the Planet, Eat Plants

Landfills contain 10 times more food than plastic. It's time to think about what we eat (and waste) in a new way.

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Lincolnshire, England, is populated with few townspeople and many livestock ranches on land that's flat as far as the eye can see. It was there, in the middle of nowhere and more than five years ago, that I attended my first seminar connecting the dots between the food system and climate change. Back then, before An Inconvenient Truth, climate change wasn't on most Americans' radar, and even fewer were thinking about whether food production was contributing to it.

So much has changed since then. And yet, so little.

What's become clear is that one-third of the world's greenhouse gas emissions are food-related. And study after study shows that some food products—meat and dairy products from ruminant animals (primarily cattle and lamb), highly processed foods derived from industrially grown grains, and air-freighted specialty foods—use a far greater percentage of resources than plant-based foods and whole grains, regardless of where those plant-based foods come from or who produces them. Another way of putting this is that the calories of energy expended to produce meat, processed foods, and specialty foods far outweigh the caloric energy those foods provide. (And they use a heck of a lot more water, too.) It's the very definition of "unsustainable." The American diet is dependent on this greenhouse gas-intensive food, and we waste (by eating too much or simply tossing) more than 25 percent of it.

To really chip away at climate change, we need to change our diets in a very fundamental way, and that doesn't mean vegan is the only way to go.

But the public is still focused on the symbols of waste dating from the earliest Earth Days—plastic bottles, fast food packaging, whether and what to recycle (as opposed to doing anything meaningful with reclaimed materials). How much of landfill waste is composed of consumer plastics? Just 1 percent, and none of it degrades into methane, which has 25 times more warming potential than carbon dioxide. How much landfill waste does food contribute? About 10 percent, according to The Garbage Project. And food waste does produce methane in a landfill.

In addition to being distracted by the plastic versus paper question, we've engaged in many sideline fights: whether pasture-finished beef is better than grain-fed from a climate change perspective; whether methane digester technology is good or bad; and whether local, conventional food or organic food shipped long distances gets the halo of being a "lower-carbon" food.

In sum, few people think about food from a climate-change perspective, and many that do are arguing over nuances. To really chip away at climate change, we need to change our diets in a very fundamental way, and that doesn't mean vegan is the only way to go.

Back to Lincolnshire. I was there to learn about emerging science, available only in Europe at the time. By signing the Kyoto Protocol, European countries had to develop greenhouse gas inventories, which led them down a path of studying food a decade before we in the U.S. even considered those questions. In 2007, after more than a year of research, the company I work for, Bon Appetit Management Company, announced its Low Carbon Diet program. The cornerstone of the program was a commitment to reducing the amount of beef and cheese we serve, radically reducing food waste and air-freighted foods in all of our kitchens, and to auditing equipment and changing how much energy and water we use to prepare the 120 million meals a year we serve.

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Helene York is the director of strategic initiatives for Bon-Appetit Management, an onsite restaurant company based in Palo Alto, California.

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