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.


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.

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.

We haven't banned burgers from the grill or cheese from pizzas. Yet in the first two years of the program, we reduced beef by a full third and cheese by more than 10 percent. Standard lower ranges of meat and cheese are now written into the companywide quality assessments that all of our managers and chefs follow, guaranteeing that we're on a Low Carbon Diet every day. From an impact perspective, it's kind of like Meatless Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday combined.

Today, on April 14, we're celebrating our fourth annual Low Carbon Diet Day, the one day a year when we talk about these principles in a very public way. (Had "Low Methane Day" sounded as catchy as a riff on the Atkins craze, that's probably what we would've called it.) The key to the program's ongoing success has been culinary: If the alternative to beef curries had been cardboard, it would have failed. If we had pressed recipes on our chefs instead of letting them develop options tailored to their guests, it would have failed.

And yet for all the satisfaction I feel about helping change a corporate culture, and galvanizing hundreds of chefs who make day-to-day purchasing decisions, I know we've just scratched the surface of what needs to be done. How many delis exist—in our world or beyond—offering four different kinds of meat sandwiches and only one "vegetarian" offering as opposed to multiple vegetable combinations with meat as a tasty topping option? Aside from personal flavor preferences, why do we persist in our belief that it is "normal" not only to have protein at every meal, but a minimum of four ounces of it each time?

The debates about pasture-raised versus intensively produced meats, or local versus global foods, are important demonstrations of our values—maintaining rural ways of life, knowing how our food is grown, improving animal and social welfare, even preserving flavor. They're all important. But to have any sort of impact on climate change—and a host of other environmental and social concerns—we have to commit to some major changes in our diets. And none of those seems to be on the table yet.

Image: avlxyz/flickr