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Our Actions Matter: Zero Waste Vegetarian Lunch

By: Natalie Wennyk

August 13th, 2020

Actions Matter 

Our individual actions are consequential.  We all have a part in making changes in our day-to-day lives, for Waterloo Region to meet our community goal of 80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050. 

Individual actions matter: Switching from disposable cups to a reusable mug for one year saves the equivalent amount of carbon emissions as the emissions absorbed by 5 trees growing for 1 year. That’s a big impact! 
Source: Almeida, Joana & Pellec, Marie & Bengtsson, Jonas. (2018). Reusable coffee cups life cycle assessment and benchmark 

Join the region-wide collaboration to transform Waterloo Region to a low carbon community by pledging your intention to take climate action at your home, at your place of employment, and/or everywhere in between.

Those who make pledges receive custom resources with action ideas – such as our highlighted idea today from the workplace pledge: Make zero-waste, vegetarian lunches as least three days per week. 

The following post is part of a new series of blogs highlighting climate action pledge action ideas.  This blog focuses on the workplace pledge: zero-waste vegetarian lunches.

Action Idea Highlight: Zero Waste Vegetarian Lunch

Whether we eat most of our lunches at work or school, or primarily at home right now… what we eat, how we package it, and how we dispose of our apple cores affect our carbon emissions. 

Zero waste vegetarian lunches reduce local emissions from waste disposal. 
Source: ClimateActionWR. (2017).  Our progress, our path.
How Zero Waste Reduces Emissions

Zero waste means two-fold:

  1. That packaging is eliminated or reduced, and
  2. Waste that is generated (such as an apple core) is kept out of the landfill by waste diversion (in this case by using the composting service provided at your workplace, Waterloo Region’s Green Bins, or by backyard composting). 

Packaging must be produced, shipped, and ultimately disposed of.  These activities create greenhouse gas emissions – that are not unsubstantial!  As an example, Annie’s (a food producer which packages in primarily recyclable materials) estimates that 11% of it’s products’ carbon footprint comes from packing.

Annie’s products carbon footprint: 11% of which is from packaging.
Source: Annie’s. (2012). Growing goodness sustainability report fiscal year 2012

Waste fills our landfill, releases emissions during anaerobic decomposition, and continues the demand for virgin resource extraction and processing.  These activities create greenhouse gas emissions.  The greenhouse gas emissions associated with anaerobic decomposition alone at our landfill accounted for 1% of Waterloo Region’s overall emissions in 2015.

As waste, especially organic waste such as food scraps, decay slowly in oxygen poor landfill piles landfill gas is produced.  Landfill gas is primarily methane, carbon dioxide, and water vapour.  Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases at 28 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide (28 carbon dioxide equivalents).  The good news is that much, but not all, of the methane produced at our Waterloo Region landfill is now captured and turned into electricity.

In addition to our garbage releasing greenhouse gasses, it takes up a lot of space.  In 2018 we threw 147,000 tonnes of garbage into our landfill, and at our current rate our landfill will be full in 15-20 years.  Landfill expansions (land-use change) consumes natural areas whose vegetation and soil otherwise can act as carbon sinks, which further increases the imbalance between emissions produced and emissions captured in Waterloo Region.  In Waterloo Region it is unlikely we will expand our landfill, but instead build an incinerator to generate energy from waste.  This will be expensive (estimated at half a billion dollars) and incinerators too also generate greenhouse gas emissions (namely carbon dioxide).  The best course of action is to extend the life of our existing landfill by reducing the amount of waste we are throwing away.

When we cannot eliminate packaging, and there is no longer use for the material, recycling is the next best option.  The reasons are two-fold: recycling extends the life of our landfill through waste diversion, and recycling materials reduces the demand for virgin material (aka raw material).  Since the extraction, transportation, and processing of virgin materials is energy intensive, making products from recycled materials generally uses less energy and results in less greenhouse gas emissions.    

How Reducing Meat Consumption Reduces Emissions

With agriculture contributing 47% of global human-generated methane emissions, and 58% of nitrous oxide (298 carbon dioxide equivalents!), choosing to consume less greenhouse gas intensive foods makes a significant impact. 

Animal protein sources are more intensive than plant-based alternatives.  Ruminant animals (lambs and cows) generate methane through their enteric fermentation digestive process.  Also, ruminant animals require energy-intensive feed.  The processing of animal proteins – particularly chicken processing – is energy and water intensive as well.  Finally, the shipping and cool storage requirements of animal proteins is energy demanding and therefore greenhouse gas emitting.  Plant-based proteins such as nuts, seeds, and legumes are less energy demanding throughout their production, processing, transportation, and storage and thus produce significantly less greenhouse gas emissions for the same protein and calorie benefits.

Carbon emissions from food: comparison of emissions from different protein sources. 
Source: McDonald, Bob. CBC. (2016). We can’t fight climate change without tackling agriculture emissions

Eating meat-free lunches just 3 times per week reduces your carbon footprint significantly.  Switching from roast beef to lentils on just Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for a year saves the equivalent amount of greenhouse gasses as eliminating almost ten round trip drives from Waterloo Region to Toronto.

More Than Emissions…

Eating zero-waste vegetarian lunches has co-benefits beyond our individual and community carbon footprint.  Zero-waste is a great opportunity to save costs by purchasing in bulk, and plant-based proteins are often more affordable than meat alternatives.  Vegetarian meals are also a great way to take care of your heart.  Canada’s food guide encourages Canadians to choose plant-based proteins more often.  Plant-based proteins provide more fibre and less saturated fat than meat alternatives, which is beneficial for heart health. 

How To: Zero Waste Vegetarian Lunches

What’s great about zero waste vegetarian lunches is that with a little preparation they are fast and easy!  To reap all the personal and environmental benefits highlighted above, here are some tips to help kick start your waste free, meat free meals:

1. Gather your reusable packaging

  • Insulated lunch bags, with the option of a reusable freezer pack, keep your food cool and eliminate plastic or paper brown bags.  A stainless-steel lunch box is a great option if you want to eliminate all plastic.
  • Plastic reusable containers are lightweight options in a variety of sizes to meet your every need.  Glass containers are especially useful for reheating food – and won’t stain from tasty vegetarian curry.  Cloth bags are great for packing dry snacks and beeswax wraps are useful for sandwiches and cheese!
  • A reusable travel mug for your java and reusable water bottle will keep you energized and hydrated all day long.
  • Remember utensils and napkins: you can pack the utensils you need in a cloth napkin to keep your cutlery clean and be prepared to clean up any spills during your meal without needing paper products!
  • Consider how best to dispose of apple cores and other unavoidable wastes: does your workplace offer waste diversion receptacles including composting and recycling?  Can you advocate for your workplace to implement waste diversion?  Do you have backyard composting or Green Bin options at your home?

2. Plan, prepare, and pack your meals

  • Assess what you currently enjoy for lunch, to help plan your new zero-waste vegetarian lunches.  For inspiration, here are 25 vegetarian lunch ideas beyond a simple salad, and 18 more vegetarian lunch ideas that are perfect for work.
  • Prepare your grocery list and purchase items in bulk to reduce packaging and cost.
  • Prepare your meals and snacks – many foods can be prepared or made in advance and portioned into containers for use all week long – saving you time!

Two additional helpful resources:

Let’s Act Together

Zero-waste vegetarian lunches are great ways to reduce our individual and community carbon emissions.  Join our region-wide collaborative effort towards reducing emissions 80% by 2050 by pledging now to implement this action idea of indulging thoughtfully at lunch, and/or pledge to take other carbon-conscious actions. 

Get our Community Action Report

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