EcoWatch is a community of experts publishing quality, science-based content on environmental issues, causes, and solutions for a healthier planet and life. 
Mentioned by:
A woman reads the label on a yogurt container at a supermarket in Torpoint, UK. Peter Cade / Stone / Getty Images

What if when you went grocery shopping, the food and drink labels at the supermarket not only had nutrition information, but details about the environmental impact of products as well?

This could soon be a reality in the UK, as the first “transparent and reproducible method” of determining the environmental impact of food and drink products with multiple ingredients has been developed by a team of researchers from University of Oxford.

What if when you went grocery shopping, the food and drink labels at the supermarket not only had nutrition information, but details about the environmental impact of products as well?

This could soon be a reality in the UK, as the first “transparent and reproducible method” of determining the environmental impact of food and drink products with multiple ingredients has been developed by a team of researchers from University of Oxford.

The study, “Estimating the environmental impacts of 57,000 food products,” was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study of the environmental impact of 57,000 food products — the majority of food and drink products for sale in supermarkets in Ireland and the UK — could aid consumers, as well as policymakers and retailers, in making educated choices regarding these impacts when purchasing food and drink products from their local supermarket, a University of Oxford press release said.

“By estimating the environmental impact of food and drink products in a standardised way we have taken a significant first step towards providing information that could enable informed decision-making. We still need to find how to most effectively communicate this information in order to shift behaviour towards more sustainable outcomes, but assessing the impact of products is an important step forward,” said postdoctoral researcher at Oxford Martin School and lead author of the study Dr. Michael Clark in the press release.

In the study, the researchers found that the environmental impact of a great number of meat alternatives was one-fifth to one-tenth less than corresponding meat-based products.

According to a Food Standards Agency study, more than half of UK consumers want to make more sustainable choices regarding the environmental impact of the food they eat, but there isn’t enough information available for them to do so.

The study’s research team estimated the environmental impact of the food products based on information available to the public, including land use, greenhouse gas emissions, water stress and the potential of bodies of water to develop unhealthy and destructive algal blooms. The research team then put together the scores in each of the four categories to come up with an estimated environmental impact score for every 100 grams of a product.

“This work is very exciting – for the first time we have a transparent and comparable method for assessing the environmental footprint of multi-ingredient processed foods. These types of foods make up most of the supermarket shopping that we do, but until now there was no way of directly comparing their impact on the environment,” said Peter Scarborough, professor of population health at the University of Oxford, in the press release. “This work could support tools that help consumers make more environmentally sustainable food purchasing decisions. More importantly, it could prompt retailers and food manufacturers to reduce the environmental impact of the food supply thereby making it easier for all of us to have healthier, more sustainable diets.”

The researchers found that the environmental impact of fruits and vegetables, along with products like flour, sugar, soups, bread and many cereals, was low, while fish, cheese and meat had higher environmental impact scores. Products made of dried beef like jerky frequently scored the highest.

The environmental impact of particular types of food products like cookies, lasagne and pesto sauces ran the gamut, with lower-scoring products frequently having one-tenth to one-half of the environmental impact of higher-scoring products. This information could be useful in helping to encourage retailers and consumers to opt for more sustainable food products without consumers having to drastically change their diets.

Using a method called Nutri-score, it was found that sustainability and nutrition of products tended to go hand in hand. Certain exceptions included beverages with lots of sugar, which scored low on environmental impact and nutrition.

“An important aspect of the study was linking the environmental impacts of composite foods with the nutritional quality, showing some of the synergies and trade-offs between different parameters. Using this new method manufacturers can reduce the environmental impact, while ensuring a high nutritional quality of products,” said Jennie Macdiarmid, professor of sustainable nutrition and health at the the Rowett Institute, University of Aberdeen, according to the press release.

Typically, only the manufacturer knows the quantity of each ingredient in a food or drink product, but the UK requires that the percentages for certain ingredients be listed, and ingredients are listed in the order of their amounts.

“The algorithms we developed can estimate the percentage contribution of each individual ingredient within a product and match those ingredients to existing environmental impact databases. Applying this methodology to generate impact scores for large numbers of products, we illustrated how this can be used to derive quantifiable insight on the sustainability of those products, and their relationship to their nutritional quality,” said head of foodDB Dr. Richie Harrington, as reported by the Daily Mail.

Information regarding agricultural production methods or country of origin of ingredients that would help improve environmental impact estimate accuracy was not used in the study, the press release said. Variations in portion sizes of products also lead to a certain level of unpredictability as to the full environmental impacts of certain products.

Scarborough told BBC News he has hope that the findings will result in eco-labeling of foods, but thinks that the food industry using the information to reduce its environmental impact would be the most beneficial result.

“It fills a huge gap. Manufacturers, caterers and retailers have targets for reaching net zero [emissions] and they don’t have the tools they need to get there. Now they have this data, and some of them are talking to us about things they can do to help people move towards more sustainable food purchasing. The data could help manufacturers adjust their formulations,” Scarborough said, as BBC News reported.

COOK, a frozen food company in Kent that has collaborated with the researchers, is interested in whether using eco-labels would aid consumers in adopting a diet that is more sustainable.

“The tool could help us by ensuring that as we are developing new recipes there is a delicious option for someone who is actively looking to reduce their environmental impact through what they eat,” said head of sustainable food at COOK Andy Stephens, as reported by BBC News.

Read More
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) gives the thumbs up as he leaves the Senate Chamber after passage of the Inflation Reduction Act at the U.S. Capitol on Aug. 7, 2022 in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

On Sunday, the U.S. Senate passed the $430 billion Inflation Reduction Act, aimed at fighting climate change, lowering prescription drug prices and raising certain corporate taxes. Following a long debate over the weekend, the tie-breaking vote along party lines was cast by Vice President Kamala Harris.

The bill will now be sent to the House of Representatives, which is expected to pass it when they reconvene at the end of the week, reported Reuters.

On Sunday, the U.S. Senate passed the $430 billion Inflation Reduction Act, aimed at fighting climate change, lowering prescription drug prices and raising certain corporate taxes. Following a long debate over the weekend, the tie-breaking vote along party lines was cast by Vice President Kamala Harris.

The bill will now be sent to the House of Representatives, which is expected to pass it when they reconvene at the end of the week, reported Reuters.

“To Americans who’ve lost faith that Congress can do big things, this bill is for you,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, as Reuters reported. “This bill is going to change America for decades.”

Schumer added that the legislation has “the boldest clean energy package in American history.”

The bill contains more than $430 billion in new spending to lower carbon emissions, extend Affordable Care Act subsidies and lower the deficit, and would raise more than $700 billion in new revenue over the next decade, reported CNN.

The Act could make it possible for the U.S. to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, according to independent analysis, The Guardian reported.

This would bring America closer to President Joe Biden’s goal of slashing emissions in half by the end of the decade. The entire planet must meet that goal in order to avoid disastrous global heating, scientists say, which will lead to a rise in droughts, heat waves and flooding.

The bill includes more than $370 billion directed at programs for climate and energy, The New York Times reported.

The bill has numerous tax incentives to lower electric costs by using more renewable energy and to encourage Americans to switch to electric vehicles (EVs) and electricity at home, reported CNN.

Up to a $7,500 tax credit could be given to some households for the purchase of an EV and $4,000 for the purchase of a used car, BBC News reported.

According to research firm Rewiring America, households that install rooftop solar panels, a modern heat pump and use an EV will see a savings of $1,800 on their energy bills, reported The Guardian.

The bill includes billions in incentives for U.S. producers of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, carbon capture and storage, as well as additional innovations.

If the bill passes the House, U.S. Postal Service trucks will also switch to electric.

The bill represents the biggest climate investment in American history and the largest win for the environment since the Clean Air Act, CNN reported.

The reduction of air pollution produced by fossil fuels would lead to thousands of fewer deaths, especially among people of color who live near oil and gas plants, reported The Guardian.

“You’ll have a lot of mutually beneficial impacts,” Gopal said, as The Guardian reported. “This should change the way the U.S. is viewed on the global stage and will encourage better pledges from other large emitters such as China and India. Increasingly I’m more optimistic that keeping the temperature rise under 2C (3.6F) is more reachable. 1.5C is a stretch goal at this point.”

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who led to the demise of the original Build Back Better plan when he refused to vote for it last year, told CNN he thought the new legislation, which he assisted in writing, was “a good balanced bill.”

“I think we’ll all benefit from it; the country will,” Manchin said to CNN. “We have energy security, that’s what we were looking for. And we have the ability to invest in the energy of the future.”

The condition by Manchin that oil and gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska be included in the bill has been denounced by climate advocates like the Center for Biological Diversity. Manchin’s demand that, in order for wind and solar developers to be able to access millions of acres of federal land and water, those areas also need to be accessible for fossil fuel developments, was also criticized, reported The Guardian.

Legislators said the new bill is only the beginning of what is necessary in the fight against the climate crisis, CNN reported.

“This isn’t about the laws of politics, this is about the laws of physics,” Democratic Senator from Hawaii Brian Schatz told CNN. “We all knew coming into this effort that we had to do what the science tells us what we need to do.”

Read More
The Great Bubble Barrier was installed to prevent Amsterdam canal plastic from flowing into the North Sea. The Great Bubble Barrier

Plastic pollution has quickly become one of the biggest environmental issues of the 21st century. Plastics that end up in waterways are the cause of millions of animal deaths each year when birds, turtles, fish and other marine organisms ingest or become entangled in plastic waste.

Plastics contain toxic chemicals like PCBs and DDT that can contaminate waterways, and they can absorb and carry harmful pollutants and invasive species from rivers to the ocean. Once plastic is in the ocean, it slowly decomposes, breaking down into tiny microplastics that can enter the marine food chain.

Plastic pollution has quickly become one of the biggest environmental issues of the 21st century. Plastics that end up in waterways are the cause of millions of animal deaths each year when birds, turtles, fish and other marine organisms ingest or become entangled in plastic waste.

Plastics contain toxic chemicals like PCBs and DDT that can contaminate waterways, and they can absorb and carry harmful pollutants and invasive species from rivers to the ocean. Once plastic is in the ocean, it slowly decomposes, breaking down into tiny microplastics that can enter the marine food chain.

But what if there was a way to prevent plastics from reaching the ocean in the first place?

According to Plastic Smart Cities, more than eight million tons of plastic pollute the world’s oceans each year, and 60 to 80 percent of that comes from rivers.

In order to reduce the amount of plastic that makes its way from rivers to the ocean, co-founder of nonprofit Coast Busters, Claar-els van Delft, developed a new way to stop plastic from migrating that won’t disrupt fish or ship traffic: The Great Bubble Barrier.

Van Delft noticed something five years ago that indicated that the plastic waste washing up on the beach of the seaside town of Katwijk in the Netherlands was coming from a local river, reported The Guardian.

“We started picking up litter and we noticed, near the river entrance, pieces that came from fresh water – all kinds of plastic,” said Van Delft, as The Guardian reported. “Tampon sheaths, brush bristles, but also crisp packages, drink packages, everything.”

Last month, Katwijk became the home of the first river bubble barrier in the world.

According to The Great Bubble Barrier website, the barricade of bubbles comes from air being pumped through perforated tubing that produces a diagonal curtain of bubbles that guides plastics to the surface and then to a catchment system on the side of the waterway.

The team at The Great Bubble Barrier is made up of surfers, sailors and other water lovers who won a Postcode Lottery Green Challenge in 2018 and started their first trial bubble barrier the next year in an Amsterdam canal, reported The Guardian. The success of the pilot led a dozen municipalities, the Rijnland water board, Coast Busters, the Holland Rijnland and Zuid-Holland regions and community fundraisers to put more than $470,000 into the construction of the company’s first river bubble barrier.

“We notice plastic pollution by visitors to the beach, leaving wrappers and other plastic behind, but we are also the last stop before all the plastics collected along the Oude Rijn flow into the sea. With this bubble barrier we can stop those plastics,” said Deputy Mayor of Katwijk Jacco Knape, as The Guardian reported.

Executive board member of the Rijnland water board Bas Knapp, who is investing in the operations of the bubble barrier, does not believe the barrier will interfere with fish migration. 

Knapp said they expected the bubble barrier to remove from 86 to 90 percent of the plastic pollution in the river.

In a test in Amsterdam using tangerines released into the water, on the catchment side of the barrier the capture rate was as high as 90 percent, but on the other side it was much lower, likely due to lesser bubble intensity, said environmental hydrodynamics researcher Dr. Frans Buschman, as reported by The Guardian.

Buschman went on to say that floating objects also had the potential to be blown over the barrier, but that the technique still had “great potential.”

Other Great Bubble Barrier projects are being discussed in Portugal and Southeast Asia.

With the variety of types of waterways worldwide, strategies to deal with plastic pollution like The Great Bubble Barrier will work better in some scenarios and not others, said assistant professor at Wageningen University’s hydrology and quantitative water management group Tim van Emmerik, The Guardian reported.

“Of course, consuming and polluting less plastics will help no matter where you go, and may in fact have the greatest impact,” Van Emmerik said.

Read More
Spinning icon while loading more posts.