image of two open-faced cheese burgers on a blue plate. The cheese burgers are topped with cheddar, crispy jalapenos, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and pickles.

The Sustainability Teeter Totter

I ‘m going to bring your to my home for a moment on a typical Saturday night from this winter. We are sitting around the table eating dinner. Tonight I’ve made a delicious deluxe cheese burger, and on the side we’re eating roasted veggies smothered in delicious butter. When you look at the bounty on our plates, take a moment to really look at it and think; what part of the meal, the burger or the veggies, is the least sustainable part of the meal?

image of two open-faced cheese burgers on a blue plate. The cheese burgers are topped with cheddar, crispy jalapenos, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and pickles.
Yummy, juicy loaded cheese burgers. Imagine the veggies, will ya?

Without knowing much about how all that food got to my plate, you’re likely going to answer something along the lines of “the burger” because of the vegetarian = sustainability rhetoric that people tend to tout. And in a lot of cases, you probably wouldn’t be wrong. Meat products generally have much higher footprints than vegetables. But look closely at the hypothetical meal. This is being served up in January, and the roasted veggies are all in the nightshade and squash families. There’s peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, and zucchini. None of these fruit grow naturally here in January. I got them all from the grocery store. While the tomato boasted a title of locally grown, the rest of the yummies all came from different countries. How were those tomatoes grown in the dead of winter?

“None of these fruit grow naturally here in January.”

Notice that I refer to the goods on my plate as both fruits and vegetables in different instances? They’re all technically fruit as they all are vehicles for seed growth and distribution, and they are all vegetables as they are all edible crops.

And this is where we start to get into what I like to call the sustainability teeter totter. When two different actions both have different footprints involved and you, the end user, need to evaluate which footprint is the one that you should care more about reducing.

footprint

the measurement of the resource(s) that are used in order for the individual or organization to be able to consume/produce the end product.

When we are trying to live more consciously and trying to minimize the harm our actions and consumption take on the planet, we tend to listen to the general statements made about actions we should take. So you might hear that the carbon footprint of meat is astronomical when compared to that of vegetables, or that you should be putting your plastics into recycling to divert it to from the landfills, or that you should take the bus instead of driving. While these are all generally good “tips” they don’t encompass the full picture and often leave people with larger footprints than they intend.

But the issue is when you do start looking more at the different kinds of footprints, aside from the science informing choices, there’s a lot of personal opinions that come into play when making the “more sustainable” option. This is because what is more sustainable and why can be interpretive. Is your water footprint more impactful than your carbon footprint because you value our fresh water more? Well then maybe you only want to purchase hydroponically grown veggies, even if that means they’re trucked in from the states.

So one person may say “in my house I have ceramic dishware because I can wash the plates between each use and there is no waste” but another may say “I use only paper plates in my house as they can be composted and it helps me to keep my water footprint low.” I know at a glance, you may think the second person foolish. Sure, they don’t waste water washing dishes, but what about the water used to make that paper plate? They may argue back “what about the water used to make the ceramic plates?” Different people are going to value different sustainability methods. And hello teeter totter.

Many large boxes, stacked in the back of a car, with the back seats folded down.
This is a whole cow, shoved, somehow, into the back of my little Pontiac Vibe.

Going back to my plate of delicious food. Knowing what you know of the vegetables, you may still say that my burger is still the less sustainable option on my plate. In my personal opinion, it isn’t. The beef in that burger comes from a local farm where I purchased the whole cow. I like to point out that this farm also grows food and uses the composted manure from their cattle to help fertilize their crop, which is so much better for the soil and the plants than synthetic fertilizers. While I may not have gotten the hide, I did get the bones, the various cuts of meat, meat that didn’t make the cut (pun intended) was turned into ground beef. I also skipped out on the organs, but the butcher (who is attached to the farm) did keep them and hopefully was able to sell them in his market. Now, we do not eat enough beef to make a full cow worth it, so I split it among 4 other families. So what you can see here is I did not buy mass produced meat (which is definitely not a sustainable option), little of my cow went to waste, the meat I received came in minimal, paper packaging, and didn’t travel far to get from the farm to the butcher, nor did it travel far to get from the butcher to my home. Additionally because I wanted yummy fresh, local meat but couldn’t take on a whole cow, I was able to have 4 other families make a more sustainable meat option (we all live in the metro area and usually shop at places like Great Canadian Superstore, so this beef option wouldn’t usually be our first go-to). Ultimately, the meat from the burger had far less impact on the environment than if I had gone to, say, a chain restaurant. Another good note here is that that bun was homemade and the pickles were all from cucumbers I grew fresh in my garden. The overall plastic footprint of the burger is minimal, the carbon footprint is below average (as it is still meat from a cow, but the cow was not transported), and the water footprint is also smaller.

Basket with many different sized cucumbers in it
Lookie these homegrown monstrosities!
Clear glass jar filled with cucumbers, dill, garlic, and vinegar.
One of the first jars of homemade pickles I ever made!
6 golden buns sitting on parchment paper
Is there anything better than a home baked bun?

But those veggies? The tomatoes were grown locally, but likely in a greenhouse; how much power was required to keep that greenhouse running; how many contaminates are added to the soil? How much water is used? And the international veggies all took a very long car ride to get to my house. Without doing proper calculations (because I’m not a scientist, I am you regular Joe-shmo consumer who is basing my judgement on the parts of this equation that I understand) I am going to make the calculated guess that my veggies have an equal-to or higher carbon footprint to that of the burger on my plate.

So that makes another valuable point to the teeter totter here. How much information do I know about the choices I am making? If my information is limited, all I know is I have a cheese burger and roasted veggies on my plate, I am going to agree that yes, the vegetables are the more sustainable part of my meal. But the more information I’m given, the clearer the image becomes of the sustainability in each option.

Two vacuum sealed bags containing palak paneer.
I recently made up a bunch of Palak paneer and it was SOOOO yummy, I had to make sure I had more for the freezer. I pack them in these bags so I don’t need to worry about freezer burn.

So when you’re trying to live in a more sustainable fashion and trying to make changes to everyday actions, try to look into what the impact of each action is before coming to the conclusion of which is more sustainable. And try to remember that sustainability can also be a point of view. Is vacuum sealing my freezer food in bags better for the environment, or should I be storing all my food in reusable plastic containers? It doesn’t matter which you view to be more sustainable, and you shouldn’t pass judgement on others for what they’ve deemed to be more important. Personally, I vacuum seal because it means that my food is less likely to get freezer burnt and is therefore less likely to go to waste.

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