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Week Twenty-Three - Drink Less

Cut out bottled water and soft drink to save 400 kilograms CO2e per person per year

· Weekly experiments

My kindergartner

- Can I have a milkshake? You can make a special grown-up milkshake, like Daddy makes.


- Does Daddy drink bourbon berry cocktails whenever he looks after you? Is that why he's always so happy?

Cartoon of a tasty berry milkshake

Carbon(ated) madness

When I took a baseline on drinks a couple of weeks ago, I was surprised at their impact. Drinks generate a lot of carbon dioxide and equivalent emissions (CO2e). They were responsible for around 300 kilograms CO2e each year for me and over 600 kilograms CO2e for the 'average' Australian. That doesn't include milk and juice drinks, which would add even more.

I was also surprised at how much alcohol I drink, though perhaps I shouldn't have been. We're a nation of heavy boozers. Wine O'clock and the myth of the Mummy Juice means that middle-aged, middle-class women like me are becoming routine alcoholics. Sooner or later, there'll be health consequences. It's time I saved myself, as well as the planet.

The experiment

You can't live without eating, but you can forgo all drinks except tap water. Cutting them out altogether would eliminate 300 - 600 kilograms CO2e from our carbon footprints each year.

But I enjoy my vices, so I picked a more moderate approach. I continued to drink oodles of home-brewed coffee but I cut out almost everything else. This sliced over 200 kilograms CO2e from my annual footprint. However, I couldn't sustain it the next week. Long-term, I've decided to cut out soft drink and soda water and cut back alcohol, snipping 100 kilograms CO2e from my annual footprint.

The 'average' Australian adult in my baseline data drinks bottled water, soft drink, diet drinks, tea, coffee, wine, spirits and beer. I suspect there's no such person, but that's what happens when you turn national consumption figures into a per-person average. If this average Aussie cut out all booze and caffeinated drinks, they'd save 200 kilograms CO2e per person per year. But environmentally, they'd do even better and save 400 kilograms CO2e per year if they still drank tea, coffee, wine, beer and spirits, but cut out soft drink, diet drinks and bottled water. Way more fun!

Mount Franklin or Moet? Take your pick, just limit your overall quantity (though your doc may disagree).

Photo of a tap running in a kitchen

If you can stick to it, drinking only tap water cuts 300 - 600 kilograms CO2e from your annual carbon footprint.

How do drinks generate CO2e?

When we think about the environmental impacts of the Western diet, we often focus on the wrong issues. Food miles, food processing, eating local, seasonal and organic and packaging waste are popular environmental topics. But my eight weeks of food experiments found that with the exception of air-freighted food, none of those factors made much difference to CO2e, and some take you backwards. For instance, if I bypassed our local supermarket and drove a little further to the specialty co-op shop that sells plastic-free produce, I'd increase my carbon emissions. The extra petrol and food waste generate more CO2e than I can save by skipping the plastic. This is because most of the CO2e from food comes from on-farm emissions.

But the story shifts for drinks, where on-farm emissions only account for a quarter of the impact. Drinks are heavy and bulky, so transporting them burns a lot of fossil fuel. Packaging and refrigeration are also significant. Even bottled water, which has a low emissions factor, compares poorly with its alternative of tap water. Think hard about what and how much you drink.


Which drinks are better?

In terms of CO2e, it makes little difference which drinks you choose. Beer, wine, spirits, soft drink and diet soda all have similar emissions factors of between 1.2 and 2.4. This makes sense when you consider that whether it's Pinot or Pepsi, it's all essentially flavoured water. We're really paying $ and carbon for the other elements - transport, packaging, processing and marketing. Our government and businesses could work together to reduce those elements, but you can take action right now. Cut out as many bought drinks as you can, and choose concentrates wherever possible. If you must drink sweet drinks, have cordial, not soft drink. Replace some beer and wine with shots. Don't buy gallons of bottled water, just turn on the tap.

What about SodaStream?

I suspect a DIY soft drinks is greener, but I haven't run the numbers. SodaStreams and their ilk eliminate most of the packaging and transport, but they're not carbon-free. There's embedded CO2e in the appliance and consumable parts, the device uses electricity and that 'carbonation' is actual carbon. I'll revisit this at a later stage if I can't handle plain water with my whiskey.

Spreadsheet calculations, notes and data sources in the 'Notes' section, Week Twenty-Three.