Reducing Waste: Vegan diets, Omnivorous diets and Plastic

There are various studies showing that a vegetarian, and especially a vegan diet, is much more environmentally friendly than a typical diet with animal meat.

I have been a vegetarian for years and I’ve had an on-again off-again relationship with veganism; I want to be vegan for many reasons, from the environment to the animals, and I currently consume very few animal products. Lately, only a couple spoonfuls of half & half in my coffee, perhaps trace amounts of dairy/eggs in other products, and one serving of eggs or dairy a week. That’s pretty typical for me, and not that difficult to keep up most of the time.

I know many zero wasters are vegan. I know it’s hard to change your eating habits, even when you love the animals and want to take care of the earth. I also know it’s hard to be in the position of wanting  to take care of both of these wants when you’re used to eating animal products and many foods that make it easier to be vegan, like mock meats, cheeses, and plants milks, are only available in plastic packaging.

So, let’s look at the question: is it better to buy package free animals products or vegan products in plastic? Specifically, I look to answer this question in regard to carbon footprint and water use, and I'm not considering paper boxes that many products (frozen veggies burgers for example) come in because those are compostable. I have used a series of sources (listed below) and have done my own calculations as well as a compilations of their information. Also, it's worth noting that I’m not tackling any ethical arguments here.

To produce 1 kilogram of the following products:

C02 Emissions (including the farm, factory, on the road, in the shop, and at home)

To refresh you, CO2 emissions are problematic because they contribute largely to the greenhouse gases slowly warming the earth. These calculations are solely in the production of a product. Beef comes in at the top, followed (surprisingly to me) by cheeses. Sorry other vegetarians, cheese pretty much sucks when it comes to C02 emissions. Beans and tofu are at the other end of the spectrum here when it comes to food, and at the bottom we have the emissions from producing a kilogram of plastic. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Water required to produce 1 KG


Next, we can look at the water needed to produce these goods. Again, beef comes in at the highest, followed by pork this time, with tofu and chickpeas requiring the least water per kilogram of these products. Many parts of the world suffer from drought and water must be conserved. It’s also important to consider all of the inputs that go into the products we consume and how much is waste in the upstream.

This information, simply put, tells us that beans like chickpeas and soy products like tofu require less water to produce the same amount as these animal products and that they also generate less C02 in their production.

Next, I attempted to measure the impact of packaging on the footprint of these products.

It was calculated that the average American throws away more than 185 pounds of plastic a year! That’s almost half a pound of plastic a day, and it is often estimated that the average American creates over 4 pounds of waste a day.

I converted that 0.5lb plastic to kilograms to compare it more easily, which is 0.2KG. The CO2 KG equivalent is 1.2 KG emissions for the plastic the average American throws away (0.2 KG).

In this chart, we look at the impact of these diets regarding the food supply itself on our daily carbon emissions, and then with the impact of our plastic waste.

Daily CO2 KG equivalent with and without average platsic CO2 KG equivalent

So, a vegan diet with the use of plastic products still beats a vegetarian or average diet with plastic, but it appears that a vegan producing the average amount of plastic per day compared with an average eater without 0.5lb plastic waste per day is beaten in kilograms of CO2 equivalent waste; the vegan is producing more waste from food and plastic than the plastic free omnivore. The plastic-free omnivore is producing less CO2 in this case than the vegan or vegetarian producing the average amount of plastic waste.

These were not the results I had hoped for, if I’m being honest. I wanted to spread the word that eating vegan products in plastic packaging is always better than eating animal products, both for the animals and for the planet, however, this is what I found and it is still important.

Avoiding animal products is still the most ethical option and still the best choice for the environment when coupled with reducing plastic waste. An 8 oz. plastic packet of vegan sausage or cheese compared with an 8oz. plastic packet of animal sausage or cheese still has the same emission from the plastic, but is not the same when you consider the emissions and water use needed to produce these items to eat in the first place. The animal-free options are the greener option (literally, sometimes).

For any ethical vegans who love their mock meats and cheeses and the like, but who also feel implored to reduce their waste-keep working at it! Products that help you stay vegan, if these products do that for you, are incredibly important and valuable. What if you reduce your waste in every area of your life and diet, but buy vegan cheese twice a month to make pizza? I applaud you for sticking to your values and reducing your waste for the planet and making ethical choices with your diet.

For any omnivores who think this is a green light to continue eating animal products sans plastic-if you’re looking to reduce your waste, truly consider reducing your intake of animal products as well, even if you have package free options. The lack of a wrapper doesn’t take away the emissions and water usage the product created a need for. We’re all trying to lessen our waste as much as we can, so don’t rule out meatless Monday yet.

You, person reading this, are probably somewhere in between the theoretical plastic-using vegan and plastic-free omnivore; we don’t need to operate at any extremes. Take away this- you can still reduce your waste, whether you eat a vegan diet or an omnivorous diet with plastic! There are SO many resources for reducing your waste and so many vegan/vegetarian recipes that rely on ingredients that are accessible package free. Do what you can, make less waste, and eat fewer animals.