I think of myself as someone who, at the very least, considers the environment in my day-to-day choices. You know the type: I pack my lunches in pretty glass containers, my commute is intentionally short, and I control a smart thermostat obsessively from my phone. Okay, maybe I sound a little weird but I am passionate about Mother Nature.
But when I was drinking, I (like many of us) completely threw these green values out the window. Going out for a drink in a city with limited public transportation meant driving back and forth. But, if one drink turns into two or more, you end up driving to the bar, getting an Uber home, getting an Uber back to the bar in the morning for your car, and then driving back home again. That is double the driving for the same evening out with friends sans alcohol, which means a lot more fuel emissions.
The environmental impact of the meat industry has been thoroughly researched and extensively written about. While organizations like PETA may be at the forefront of disseminating this information, it is all over major publications, too. The Washington Post describes this issue in detail including statistics that meat production requires substantially more water than vegetable production.
The same connection does not appear to be made about the alcohol industry and its emissions or overall impact on the environment. Think about it: There are a lot of steps before a wine-of-the-month club subscription ends up at someone’s door. Grapes are grown, processed, bottled up, and shipped across the country. Eat less meat or no meat, and help to save the Earth from methane gases! Drink less and… reduce your carbon footprint, also?
What We Know About Alcohol and the Environment
From peer-reviewed journal articles to blog posts, the conversation about the environmental impacts of alcohol is squarely missing. Is booze just too sacred in America?
Imagine this: Instead of picking up trash on Earth Day, folks are instead going door-to-door to educate their neighbors to stop buying alcohol. It seems wild at first because no connection has been made in the public’s minds.
Although there isn’t much research about the environmental impact of the alcohol industry, there are a few key nuggets out there. In a working paper by the UK’s Food Climate Research Center (2007), researcher Tara Garnett posits that alcohol accounted for at least 1.5% of the U.K’s total emissions. This includes all aspects of the supply chain, from growing crops to transporting them to consumers as well as the packaging of beverages — some of which (but not all) are recycled after consumption. For example, some of my friends have confessed to hiding empty wine bottles in the trash so the neighbors didn’t see how much they drank. That is not helping the Earth. Meanwhile, I can proudly recycle or deposit my LaCroix cans.
While this research is not new, and luckily alcohol consumption in the U.K. seems to be diminishing slightly, there is still cause for concern worldwide. According to the National Beer Wholesalers Association, over 2.8 billion 24-packs of beer were shipped in the U.S. in 2018. Alcohol association websites touted lots of statistics including sales numbers, asserting that this is great for economic growth. They do not explain the impact of anything related to the environment, such as the emissions of wheat production that goes into making beer or how much electricity and water used in their plants, nor the environmental cost of shipping all of that beer across the nation.
Beer maker Heineken has a plan for reducing the company’s emissions by 2030. They are working to increase renewable energy used by their breweries, among other things. So far, they have cut their production emissions by 47%. Yet, they estimate their 2018 emissions as 15.4 million tons of CO2. This number input into the EPA’s emissions calculator shows that Heineken’s impact is equivalent to that of the yearly energy use of over 1.8 million homes. It is wild that just one distributor has that much of an impact. In 2016, their market share was estimated at 9% globally. Given their market share, if all manufacturers/distributors had similar practices, the impact of the beer industry could be enough to power over 18 million homes for a year. And that is just beer and does not include wine or liquor. If all alcohol manufacturers were as transparent as Heineken, then the size of the impact would be easier to draw conclusions from.
What we truly need is a comprehensive environmental impact assessment of the alcohol industry. Many people choose to cut down or abstain from meat to help the environment (hello, Meatless Monday?!). It’s possible that some of the same people could be persuaded to slow down on or eliminate alcohol for the same reasons. At the very least, we as a society need to be informed about the choices we are making, and whether or not they are benefiting or hurting the only planet we have to call home.
Your Personal Carbon Footprint and Alcohol Consumption
Even without an academic assessment of the problem, it is easy to look at our own lives and see how alcohol has impacted or continues to impact our carbon footprints. Has being drunk ever caused you to have a pizza delivered despite having a whole fridge full of food, which then goes bad? Was a weekend trip planned just to visit a trendy winery, adding travel-related emissions up? Or, maybe you felt forced to add additional beauty products to your regimen to cover up the facial redness from drinking, thereby contributing to plastic waste from the containers? All of these things — from extra driving to extra products and packaging, contributes to your carbon footprint.
While I did not personally give up alcohol for the environment, it is one of the factors that has kept me from drinking again — something that many meat-free folks also often say. With a clear head thanks to sobriety, I am now always painfully aware of my feelings. I feel guilty using a plastic fork at a casual restaurant and that reminds me to do better next time. If I have to make an extra trip to the store because I forgot something, I think about the impact of that extra driving. I love how my feelings clue me into when I’m not living consistently with my environmentalism values, which includes all of the harmful ways that the making, packaging, and transporting of alcohol is having on planet Earth.
As I got older, even one drink would interrupt my sleep, leaving me tired the next day. Adding on the fun fact that alcohol is a depressant, my mornings would start with lethargy and a lack of motivation. Clearly, waking up this way even occasionally was not a recipe for walking to a local co-op for organic ingredients to make a nourishing breakfast. It was more likely to cause me to roll out of bed later than I planned to drive to McDonald’s for a coffee and crappy breakfast sandwich on my way to work. Not only was this unhealthy for me and my wallet, but the extra driving and food packaging was not helpful for the planet either. In 2018, it was estimated that 2025 million take-away containers were used in just the E.U. alone, and the environmental cost of that is not low.
Despite the lack of concrete information out there about the alcohol industry’s impact on the environment, it’s pretty clear that being sober (taking fewer cabs, eating less junk food, buying less hangover beauty products) can add up to a smaller carbon footprint for all of us. And at the end of the day, awareness is power. If we are more aware of the impacts of our impaired choices on the environment, we are then free to make choices that are consistent with our values — whatever they may be. If you currently drink or used to drink, think about the impacts of those choices. That is the best that any of us can do.