Should I Go Zero Waste or Vegan? Which Has More of an Environmental Impact?

Updated: May 8, 2020

Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Being zero waste and being vegan are both lifestyle choices that alter your perspective of the world. Most people pursue one or the other, or both, to better their bigger picture understanding and to make a positive change beyond themselves.

At their core, they both boil down to not living at the expense of others, understanding the origin of our products, and wanting to be a part of a collective good in the world.

In my journey to veganism, it started as a plant-based diet for environmental and health reasons. As I learned more, I became a vegan to reject animal exploitation and abuse. It wasn’t until much later that I started to work towards being zero waste. Both are a journey, and we are all in different steps of understanding why both are relevant for moral and environmental reasons.

Unfortunately, I’ve encountered zero waste advocates that oppose veganism, and I’ve met vegans that disregard zero waste initiatives. Luckily, I've also met many that pursue both lifestyles. Still, those encounters and conversations made me wonder if one was better than the other. Or if their environmental impacts were even far-reaching enough to make a difference.

Big Picture Benefits of Going Zero-Waste

The overarching goal of any zero waste system should be to influence product and system redesign. Yes, the zero-wase movement can sometimes feel like a very individualistic approach, but product redesign should be the fundamental basis for our actions.

This makes things tricky because we were raised in a society based on consumerism and a free market system that encourages companies to manufacture products that won’t last long. I like to think of going zero-waste as an all-out boycott of this type of system and the societal ills it perpetuates.

Essentially, if every consumer suddenly went zero-waste, it would be a vote with our dollar. We will have used our collective consumer power to influence change that benefits the environment. We will have made it clear that we value all life and understand we live on a finite planet with finite resources.

Still, it can be demoralizing to go to the grocery store, walk past a mall, or scroll through social media only to be bombarded with disposable products and “buy more” advertisements. Our culture of individualism has made this even more difficult.

So it begs the question: can one person’s change in behavior make a difference environmentally?

Reduces Greenhouse Gas Emissions

A major talking point for many Climate Activists surrounds greenhouse gas emissions, and our current consume, dispose, and buy again system is a significant contributor. It is easy to forget our waste has any impact since our trash is not in our backyard. It is picked up each week, taking it out of sight and out of mind.

Zero wast and greenhouse gas emissions
Sources include EPA, EDF. Yale School of Environmental Studies, ILSR, and SERA

Yes, many of these issues are systemic and have to do with the waste stream. However, by merely creating less waste on a consumer level, we can also bring more attention to our desire for a better system.

There is a lot of waste that occurs in the supply chain as well, and those issues need to be addressed. That’s why eliminating the very concept of trash is the end goal. If there is no trash, there is no need for landfills or incinerators that produce high levels of emissions and pollution.

Reduces Energy-Related Emissions

When we continuously create products from virgin materials, we need a lot of fossil fuels based energy to continue the supply stream. As more fossil fuels are used, more air and water is polluted.

Recycling is one part of the solution as it can cut back on energy use and wastewater during production. However, it is not the answer as it still takes energy and water to recycle.

Zero-waste products are designed to be reused for years, not just one time. They are products that once you buy, you will keep with you and use them until they are recycled. Still, they won’t need to be recycled after one use. So, you not only cut back on the need for the production of new products, but you also cut back on the need for recycling.

Producing fewer unnecessary packages and products and less single-use items means lower energy-related emissions and less air and water pollution.

Protects Our Carbon Sinks

Globally, the two most critical global sinks are the ocean and vegetation. Our current system perpetuates the destruction of these natural spaces to feed the idea of infinite economic growth and consumer culture.

By eliminating the need for the vast majority of consumer goods and unnecessary production of single-use packaging, we can protect the natural environments that are necessary for our very existence.

Although much of the world’s deforestation is due to agricultural development, we can still point to the physical waste currently causing a health decline in all of the world’s oceans. There is material waste, particularly plastic, that has been harmful to the ocean ecosystems for decades. Now, it seems we have reached a peak of the destruction of habitat, and if we go on as we are now, we may destroy what is left.

Not quite sure where to start? Here are some tips on how to jump-start your zero-waste journey.

Environmental Benefits of Plant-Based Diet

From the decline in biodiversity to the spread of infectious disease, it seems that the exploitation of animals in agriculture settings and beyond have wreaked havoc for too long.

As a vegan, I have some strong moral convictions surrounding the exploitation of animals and animal rights. That being said, I am here to share an objective analysis of how a plant-based diet has a positive environmental impact.

First, to clear the air, let’s take a look at the difference between veganism and a plant-based diet.

So although I am an advocate for a vegan lifestyle, we are going to focus primarily on the positive impacts a plant-based diet has, and the negative impacts animal agriculture has on the environment.

Conserve Water

87% of all freshwater usage in the United States is used for agriculture. Now, I know what you’re thinking… and yes, I’m aware that plant-based foods need water to grow as well.

Here’s the thing, livestock consumes at least 70% of the grain that is grown in the United States. Not only that, but we need to factor in that it takes 100 times more water to produce one pound of animal protein than one point of plant-based protein.

When taking into consideration the process of raising an animal to be eaten, you can understand why so much water is needed. They need water to survive, so we give them water to drink. They eat plants, so we need to grow and mix their feed. Once they’ve been slaughtered, we need to dismantle and process their bodies in a sanitary way, thus using even more water.

Worldwide, there are about 19.6 billion chickens, 1.4 billion cows, and 980 million pigs currently being raised for food.

Prevent Ocean Dead Zones

Animal agriculture is the leading cause of water pollution. There’s no way around this one. I rewrote that sentence numerous times to try and make it seem less accusatory, but in this case, I needed to be blunt.

Hundreds of toxins from animal waste in factory farm lagoons, untreated fertilizers, and chemicals used to grow their feed all contribute to agricultural runoff. As these toxins find their way into the groundwater, rivers, and oceans, they increase the nutrient inputs nitrogen and phosphorus. These excess levels encourage algal growth that consumes available oxygen and blocks sunlight—thus creating ocean dead zones.

Although ocean dead zones are a huge issue, they are not the only issue regarding water pollution tied to animal agriculture. Freshwater ecosystems are also at risk as these toxins enter the rivers and groundwater. Human water supplies are at risk as more ecosystem collapse occurs, and less water becomes potable.

Protect Biodiversity

About ⅓ of all arable land is used for animal agriculture worldwide. Take note that this number accounts for the cropland for growing things like soybeans used in the feed for pigs, chickens, and cows.

Animal agriculture has long been pointed to as a significant contributor to deforestation, and deforestation is tied directly to biodiversity loss. Along with deforestation, we must also consider the desertification of landscapes caused by overgrazing of livestock as it contributes to soil erosion and native plant death.

As I mentioned before, soybeans are a crop that is most commonly associated with deforestation. So, how can I, as a vegan, justify eating soy products? Well, about 70% of the world’s soybeans are fed directly to livestock. Then, only about 6% of soybeans are used for human consumption (most of which is consumed in Asia). The rest is turned into soybean oil.

I’m not saying that animal agriculture is the only reason deforestation occurs. There are other contributors like the production of palm oil, the logging industry, burning of biomass as energy, mining, and fossil fuel extraction. All I am pointing out is that animal agriculture is a major player in the worldwide game of deforestation and biodiversity loss.

Deforestation is known for the displacement of many animal species and even causes an average of 137 plant and animal species to go extinct daily. These staggering figures put not only animals species at risk, but entire ecosystems on the brink of collapse. Those ecosystems include humans too.

Less Air Pollution

With so many animals being raised for food, one must also consider the sheer amount of waste that is produced. Animals in factory farms in the United States produce around 300+ million tons of waste each year. Where does all of it go?

While it contributes to water pollution, as discussed earlier, it also contributes to air pollution. Animal waste from factory farms produces high levels of ammonia, nitrogen, methane, hydrogen sulfide, endotoxins, and carbon dioxide.

If you don’t live near a factory farm, then you may not notice the direct impacts of this air pollution. However, for the citizens that do live in communities with a dense concentration of CAFOs, they are well aware of the impacts.

The CDC issued a statement in 2010 regarding the impacts these types of feeding operations had on the communities. This has been a known issue for at least ten years. They concluded that children living near these operations were more likely to develop asthma, adults are more susceptible to lung diseases, and anyone living near these pollutants is expected to experience mental health deterioration.

Factory farming creates environmental injustice.

You may be wondering, what if my meat doesn’t come from a CAFO or factory farm? I’m sorry to say that the meat you eat more than likely does. Last year, it was released that roughly 99% of all US farmed animals are raised on factory farms.

Lower Carbon Footprint

The final environmental impact that could be changed with a switch to a plant-based food system is a lower carbon footprint. The UN FAO estimates that 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions are due to livestock production. Other organizations calculate it at a much higher percentage, but I’ll give this one the benefit of the doubt.

This UN calculation leaves out a few things, though. It leaves out the emissions created by manure, transport, processing, and production of feed. You can see why some organizations calculate a much higher percentage of emissions.

Which One Has a Farther Reaching Environmental Impact?

After all of the information I presented, what do you think?

Is one change more effective than the other? Is going zero waste more effective than eating a plant-based diet? Can one individual make these changes reach beyond themselves?

To me, both should be done on a personal and systemic level. One solution alone cannot change the destruction we have inflicted upon the Earth. We must look at multiple solutions.

One cannot win over the other because they have the same goal: to end the exploitation of others.

There can be a back and forth between which is wrong and which is right, but it will always come back to you. Are you doing all you can to better yourself, your community, and the world as a whole? Are there steps you can take in changing your way of thinking and your daily behavior that can make your impact a positive one? Are you educating yourself or allowing willful ignorance to rule your decisions?

Yes, these changes can be made today, and they can be made individually. However, these systems must change collectively to have the farthest-reaching environmental impact.

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