Ditching single-use plastic, composting, buying in bulk, cutting out paper towels...these are all things we can do to reduce our waste footprint that has tangible results. We can see and experience these changes for ourselves, helping us quantify and take pride in our achievements!
Making these tangible changes is great and we all absolutely need to continue with these efforts. However, we also need to be cognizant of less obvious and more intangible sources of waste: Upstream Waste. As our family has been working (and succeeding!) in making changes to reduce the waste in our home, lately Upstream Waste has been weighing on my mind.
Upstream Waste as a concept isn’t difficult to understand. It is the waste that is created as a result of growing/producing, processing/manufacturing, and shipping food and other goods. However, because these processes can be rather opaque--either because companies shield the processes they use to create products or because we as consumers haven’t thought to look into these practices--upstream waste can be much more difficult to quantify.
This waste can take the form of energy waste (such as the energy and fossil fuels it takes to ship food thousands of miles), water waste (farming practices that utilize huge quantities of water), and food waste due to imperfect or past prime foods being thrown away, or because heavily processed foods are stripped of nutrients. However, there may be additional layers of wasteful practices we don’t even think about. Sure, those cherry tomatoes in a cardboard container look like they are zero waste, but if they traveled 1000 miles to get to your store and were packaged onto pallets wrapped in layers and layers of plastic while en route, then there is still waste involved, it’s just hidden.
When thinking about Upstream Waste this way, it’s important not to start feeling defeated. If we get into the mindset that we need to be perfect and eliminate every ounce of waste--including upstream waste--it becomes easy to give up. Instead, we need to be informed and conscientious consumers. There are simple ways we can limit our upstream waste where we can at all stages. Below I’ll give my best advice on this subject, and I’ve also included links to interesting articles and supporting information on the subject. As a librarian, I also encourage you not to just take my word for it: pursue information for yourself from authoritative, reliable, and science-backed sources.
For the sake of this article, when I talk about growing and producing, I’m referring to the raw materials involved in creating our food, clothing, and other goods that we use. More than just fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy, we need to think about the fibers that go into our clothing, the metals that go into our cars and cell phones, the wood for our houses and furniture, and so on.
When it comes to food production, it’s well known & documented that reducing our meat intake is one of the best ways to reduce waste and also to combat harmful emissions contributing to climate change as this article from The Guardian sums up quite nicely. However, there are layers of waste in commercial crop production as well. We can’t only focus on energy use and fossil fuels--we must also look at things like water waste, the use of pesticides, and how a loss of biodiversity and the proliferation of monocultures also contribute to waste in various forms. Currently, our food system depends on very few crops with little genetic diversity. This article from the University of Massachusettes does an excellent job explaining why monocultures are so detrimental to our food system and environment, as these practices leave crops open to pests and diseases, leading to the use of more and more pesticides which have widespread impacts on the rest of the environment (not to mention that when crops are lost to pests and diseases this results in a huge waste of land, nutrients, and water resources).
Also, certain crops are much more water-intensive to grow--something to keep in mind as wildfire seasons become more intense throughout the world. The World Wildlife Fund has an excellent booklet on the most water-intensive crops worldwide. In addition to specific food crops, cotton also makes this list. However, the WWF also has an excellent guide to the “Future 50 Foods” which includes 50 crops that can help us use resources more wisely and increase the biodiversity--and therefore the resilience-- of our food systems. The EAT-Lancet diet study from the Lancet primarily focuses on food affordability and strategies to sustainably feed our world’s growing populations, but their findings also support strategies and ideas to reduce waste such as eating more plant-based foods and switching to sustainable farming practices.
These principles can be extended to other goods--such as clothing, furniture, and cell phones. Inform yourself about the practices used to produce these raw materials and make sustainable choices where you can. For example, Bamboo is a sustainable alternative for many products because it grows faster and with fewer resources than trees, and it also absorbs more carbon. TreeHugger and EarthHero both have good articles on situations where bamboo is and is not a sustainable alternative for wood, fabric, and even toilet paper. However, I personally feel that a “better” but “imperfect” alternative is preferable to continuing the status quo as long as we continue to research and support the quest for practices that are more sustainable yet.
Do your own research to look into the methods used to acquire the metals, minerals, and other materials used to create products you use. Even better, buy second-hand or look for products that are sourced from recycled materials to increase demand for recycled products and keep materials that have already been produced from going to waste.
The Bottom Line for Consumers: Eat more plants but also be informed regarding the practices involved in growing all types of foods. Purchase foods that require fewer resources to grow and that contribute to crop diversity. Buy organic where you can but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t (just do the best you can with the resources you can find and afford). Be conscientious of the practices that go into acquiring the raw materials to create products. Buy second-hand and utilize recycled products where you can. (You can read these posts for more about Zero Waste Grocery Shopping and 9 Places to Source Zero Waste Foods.)
Processing takes goods and materials from their raw form and transforms them into something else. When we think of processing foods, this can be something minimal such as grinding wheat into flour or cutting oats into oatmeal, or it can be as complex as taking milk and somehow turning it into a cheese-like product that only utilizes a few isolated compounds from the milk. While it’s fairly intuitive that the more processed a product is, the more energy it takes to process it, we should also note that processing can also strip foods of nutrients and that certain parts of the food may go completely to waste in the pursuit of one particular component. This is not to say that all processing is entirely bad. Most of us don’t have the means to grind our own flours or to fortify certain foods with necessary hard-to-find nutrients such as iodine, and some minimal processing such as blanching and freezing vegetables or canning goods can help to reduce waste by preventing food from spoiling.
Rather, we should look for foods that are as close to their natural form as possible to cut down on the processing waste involved. The Harvard School of Public Health Blog does a good job of explaining the various definitions of food processing. While their perspective is focused on nutrition rather than waste, you can see the point at which processing foods tips the scales from preventing waste by preserving nutritious foods in their whole form to contributing to waste by stripping nutrients and wasting resources.
Additionally, processing is the point at which packaging comes into play for many foods. Generally, the more processed a food is the more packaging it involves (think individual kraft cheese slices vs. a block of real cheese or pre-sliced apples in a plastic container vs. loose apples at the store). By choosing minimally processed foods, we can also reduce packaging waste.
Manufacturing is the non-edible counterpoint to food processing. However, like our food, we should look into how raw materials are manufactured to become the goods we use. Even products that sound like they would be good for the environment like “Vegan” shoes can be deceiving, because often those vegan leathers are made from plastic or petroleum products, and even plant-based materials may be treated with harsh chemicals or be processed in extremely energy-intensive ways (The TreeHugger and EarthHero articles referenced above touch upon this). As mentioned above, buying second-hand can cut down on all forms of manufacturing waste, and buying sustainably produced goods made from recycled materials increases the demand for recyclables, keeping them out of landfills.
Like food, look for clothing and products that are closer to their natural state when you can and purchase from companies that have solid, sustainable practices. Note: Be wary of “greenwashing” where companies use words like “natural” or literally make their bottles green or put leaves in their logo in an attempt to appear more eco-friendly than they are. You can read more about Greenwashing in this article from Medium.
The Bottom Line for Consumers: The closer a food or product is to its natural state, the better. Avoid processed foods to limit food/nutrient waste and to cut down on packaging, and be conscientious of “greenwashing” of material goods. While it's a fact of life that we all will eventually need some processed and/or manufactured products, we can limit the impacts by being conscientious of what we buy. Also when it comes to material goods, purchase items that are high quality and will last a long time, and/or purchase second-hand where you can.
The further something has to travel, the more energy--and therefore the more energy waste--involved. Additionally, shipping products a long way may involve wrapping goods in layers of plastic to hold them in place on pallets and in cargo holds. Shipping goods also results in a huge amount of pollution entering our environments and ecosystems. I recently read a 2019 academic article with the riveting title “A review on the environmental impacts of shipping on aquatic and nearshore ecosystems” from the journal Science of the Total Environment (because the article is behind a paywall, you can find the full citation at the end of this post) and as the study described by this article shows, the ecological impacts of global shipping truly are staggering. While I strongly believe production and shipping companies bear a large part of the responsibility and must switch to more sustainable shipping practices to mitigate negative effects, we as consumers must be aware of the true price and waste involved in transporting goods until these corporations catch up with their responsibilities.
In a nutshell, the more goods and foods you can buy locally, the better. Of course, it’s just not possible to get everything locally, so how do you minimize this shipping waste? Generally, items that involve a high water content tend to be heavier and bulkier to ship, which is why soap tablets or bars are preferable to liquid soaps, as they are much lighter and more compact (not to mention they use significantly less packaging). Frozen foods take a lot of energy to ship long distances because they require both transportation fuel and energy to keep the foods frozen. And while I buy goods in glass containers so I can refill and use them again, I’m also aware that glass is quite heavy, and if it’s traveling a long way, the upstream cost of that glass jar in terms of shipping can be pretty high. This is why instead of buying peanut butter in a glass jar, I’ve started buying peanuts (which are sooo much lighter) and grind my own at home.
Being aware of these high waste practices can help us avoid them where we are able. These little things may not seem like they would make a big difference, but lots of little changes taken together can have big impacts.
The Bottom Line for Consumers: Buy locally wherever you can. Examine your shopping routine. Do you buy a lot of imported goods? Do some of your pantry staples travel thousands of miles in glass jars? Are you addicted to buying frozen vegetables? Look for opportunities to substitute for a more sustainable alternative wherever you can, and where you can’t, know that the other changes you are making are still making positive impacts until a better solution presents itself.
The Final Takeaway:
Cutting down on upstream waste is all about being an informed and conscientious consumer. Think about the waste involved in producing, processing, and shipping anything you are about to buy and assess whether a more sustainable alternative exists.
I can’t stress enough the importance of doing research and finding scientific, reliable resources to guide your decisions. We will never completely eliminate upstream waste, and again, perfection is not the goal. The goal is to make changes where we can because all of these little changes together add up to large benefits for our environment, ourselves, and each other.
If you’re looking for more information on Zero Waste shopping practices, be sure to check out my posts on Sustainable Online Shopping Alternatives, Places to Find Zero Waste Food, and How to Make a Zero Waste Shopping Kit.
Citation for Science of the Total Environment Article:
Jägerbrand, A.K., Brutemark, A., Svedén, J.B., Gren, I. (2019, December). A review on the environmental impacts of shipping on aquatic and nearshore ecosystems, Science of The Total Environment, 695, 10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.133637.