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Milky Way: weighing up the most sustainable plant milk for you and the planet

Confused about coconut? Suspicious of soya? Let’s get the record straight about which plant-based drinks are best for us and the environment.

For those of us new to the plant milk world, shopping for the perfect replacement to dairy is more complex than ever. Long gone are the days of a token carton of UHT soya milk forgotten at the back of the supermarket shelf, probably out of date and highly likely to curdle in your morning brew. Now, there’s a dizzying array of alternatives, each claiming to be more environmentally friendly–and tastier!–than the last. With 44% of British citizens aged 25-44 reporting using plant-based milks (April 2021), and the demand for these drinks set to soar to new heights, it’s time to put the environmental benefits and drawbacks of each product against each other to find one that aligns with your planet-saving priorities.

I’ve gone into more detail about packaging in this blog post, but a quick summary of the packaging specific to dairy alternatives is the following:

Glass bottles

Traditional and aesthetically pleasing when lined up on display in the form of minimalist milk bottles, glass is easily recycled and is the first material most think of for milk-like products. However, producing virgin glass is energy-intensive, and it’s vital to consider that mining sand destined for glass manufacturing is by no means harmless to the environment. Irresponsible sand use has even been linked to the creation of ‘sand mafias’ (read more here). Don’t forget that the high density of glass makes it weighty and therefore requires more fuel to transport; however, at least glass can be endlessly recycled with no drop in quality, unlike plastic.

Plastic bottles

Lighter and therefore easier to transport, but made from fossil fuels, and release toxic substances during their very slow decomposition (if they break down at all). They are infiltrating our food chain in the form of microplastics and contribute to the plastic waste problem already choking our planet. Need we say more?

Food-safe cartons

Just as light but not containing quite as much plastic as plastic bottles, these are ubiquitous in most countries. However, it’s important to note that whilst they can be recycled, not every area has the facilities to do this, so a lot end up in landfill sites anyway, and the thin layers of polyethylene that make the packaging waterproof actually get downcycled. The paperboard that makes up the majority of these packs consists of virgin fibres rather than recycled, earning this packaging option another minus point for sustainability. However, is this just the best of a bad bunch?

Maybe it’s time to look to the past for inspiration; powdered milk might be reminiscent of wartime rationing, but could this method of selling and storing milk be the way forward in terms of sustainability? Powdered soya and nut milks are very light to transport in aluminium cans, which are also readily recyclable, and you have the added bonus of not having to pay for the water you’ll add to them as part of your tea or coffee anyway. Powdered milks are shelf-stable for much longer than their liquid counterparts, preventing food waste. Dried plant-based milks are trickier to find than fresh or UHT alternatives, but are definitely something to consider if you have access to them.

Another dimension contributing to the sustainable nature of plant milks is the resources required for production. You may already be aware of the problems caused in California by water-hungry orchards growing almonds destined for almond milk, but there’s also land usage and greenhouse gas emissions associated with the milk types to consider. Converting wild landscapes into areas used for intensive monoculture causes nutrient depletion in the soil with each successive crop, not forgetting the destruction of various habitats. To counter this, we as consumers can choose to support businesses supporting poly- and permaculture and small-scale rather than intensive agriculture to provide us with our dairy alternatives. As far as greenhouse gas emissions are concerned, this popular study shows a clear winner; surprisingly, the same almond milk associated with droughts and harm to the bee population in California is the same milk with the lowest greenhouse gas emissions of all the plant milks. Rice milk, however, whilst still miles better than dairy, is the most contributory to greenhouse gas emissions of all plant milks tested, due to bacteria living in flooded rice fields producing methane.

We’ve discussed issues with the production process; what about the sneakier impacts of plant milks on the environment? For example, whilst coconut milk only requires a modest quantity of water for production (approximately 500ml per 200ml glass) ,coconuts are only native to tropical regions meaning coconut milk must travel long distances to consumers around the world, introducing transport-related air pollution by the burning of fossil fuels. This might also be true of more commonly used milk alternatives like almond milk, i.e. Californian almonds being used to make milk destined for EU member states. However, a number of companies in southwest Europe (Spain in particular) are capitalising on the region’s ideal climate for the crop, and so Europe’s reliance on almonds from across the Atlantic is growing ever smaller.

Pollution of the soil and even the end product in terms of pesticides can’t be ignored. Whilst oat milk has stolen the limelight in recent years as plant milk’s planet-friendly poster child, it’s also true that non-organic oats that may be used in oat milk are traditionally cultivated with glyphosate-containing pesticides, potential carcinogens that are known to interfere with the delicate ecosystems in soil. More research definitely needs to be done here, but it is worth considering how easily the grain, nut, legume, or seed from which your favourite plant milk is made can be grown locally without the use of pesticides.

To sum up, there’s no easy answer to the question of which plant milk is the most sustainable. It depends on your environmental priorities as well as your location. Here’s a list of points to keep in mind when you’re next out grocery shopping; the more you can answer ‘yes’ to, the more likely it is that the plant milk is sustainable!

  • Is the packaging made from renewable materials? Can it be easily recycled in your area? Are the resultant recycled materials of equal quality?

  • How light and compact is the packaging? Is most of the shipping weight a valuable product rather than water?

  • Is it water-, land-, and energy-efficient to produce?

  • Are its ingredients produced locally? Can the crops be grown organically, without destroying habitats and disrupting ecosystems?

Lastly, you can spread the impact by diversifying the dairy-free milk you consume to avoid over-exploitation of the market demand for one type. And, of course, let’s not forget that switching to any plant milk from dairy is already a massive improvement!


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