Know Your Footprints

You’ve probably heard the term “Carbon Footprint” before. What does it mean? What other types of footprints are there? And how can we use them to measure environmental impact?

Four footprints made of grass on a white background.

Pop Quiz: How many gallons of fresh water does it take to produce one pound of ground beef?
Read on to find out…

A Little Change of Pace

The typical SuperGreener post highlights one or more small changes you can make to help save money and save the planet. (See End Fashion Slavery, Hit the Bar, and others.) But this post is a little different from the others. 

Before tackling another “typical” topic, let’s delve deeper into how we can assess a product or activity’s environmental impact. 

Many people are aware of the energy required to run a gadget, tool, appliance, or vehicle. That one’s hard to ignore. To use it, I have to install the batteries, fill the fuel tank, charge it up, or plug it in.

Most people also consider the waste a product generates. I can smell the unnatural factory odor as I open the box of stuff I ordered. I can hear the plastic packaging crinkle as I tear it open. I can feel the weight of my trash can as I bring it to the curb for pickup.

If you consider those factors before you buy a product, you’re already doing better than the vast majority of your peers. Congratulations!

So what else is there? 

It turns out there’s far more to every product’s environmental impact than what we can see, smell, and feel. It includes land and water used, total emissions released, and total trash generated. Not only during the time YOU use the product but during the product’s entire LIFE. Specifically: 

  • Growing, harvesting, or mining raw materials
  • Refining or other pre-processing
  • Manufacturing
  • Assembling
  • Packaging
  • Transporting at every stage
  • Recycling or disposal

As you can see, there are many different ways a product can impact the environment. We call these different ways “footprints”. 

To illustrate these footprints, we’ll use as an example one pound of “conventionally raised” ground beef. In other words, beef from a cow raised in a feedlot. Incidentally, that’s where the vast majority of U.S. beef comes from. This data was calculated based on the analysis in “One Hamburger at a Time” from Business Insider.

Land Footprint

Land footprint is the real amount of land required to produce the product.

One pound of conventionally raised ground beef requires 248 square feet of land. This is due in large part to the amount of land needed to grow all the food that the animal eats before it’s ready for market.

Water Footprint 

Water footprint is the total volume of fresh water used to produce a product.

This is the answer to our Pop Quiz: One pound of ground beef requires 1,847 gallons of water. This includes not only the water the cow drinks, but also the amount of water required to grow its feed crops. This number does not include any water used during butchering, processing, packaging, or cooking, though it would’ve been okay to do so. 

Carbon Footprint

You may have heard this term before, but have you ever learned what it means? Carbon footprint refers to the total number of pounds of “carbon dioxide equivalent” emitted while making a product. This includes all greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. 

Greenhouse gases absorb and emit infrared radiation in the wavelength range emitted by Earth. The problem? They’re added to the atmosphere faster than they’re removed, which is the primary cause of climate change today. Of these gases, the best known is carbon dioxide. And “carbon footprint” has a nicer ring to it than “greenhouse gas footprint”, don’t you think?

Now that we’ve got that squared away, what’s the carbon footprint of our pound of ground beef? A whopping 16 pounds! This includes:

  • The methane that the cow produces while belching (true story)
  • The fossil fuels burned or released to raise the feed crops
  • The fuel used to transport the beef

It does not include any fuel used in cooking.

Waste Footprint

Waste footprint is the total weight of material associated with a product that has not been reused, recycled, or recovered. For our pound of hamburger, this includes:

  • any of the animal’s bones or scraps that went unused
  • the primary packaging (whatever package you purchased the beef in)
  • the transport packaging (any larger packaging that sets of one-pound packages were transported in)
  • any beef you disposed of yourself (either due to bits that clung to the package or food waste

Ecological Footprint

The term “ecological footprint” is less widely used, and for good reason. It measures “the human impact on Earth’s ecosystem”. In other words, it deals with the impact of populations as a whole, not specific products or actions.

This blog’s purpose is to help you find cheaper, more eco-friendly alternatives to the products you use and actions you take. So I don’t foresee referencing ecological footprint in future posts. But I would be remiss to exclude it from the list.

Why Identify Footprints?

Using “footprints” as a measure of environmental impact can help us perform side-by-side comparisons. But bear in mind: these footprints can be used not only measure the impact of products and actions, but also those of an individual, an organization, a trip, or an event.

Here’s an example. A typical football game at Cowboys Stadium used more electricity than the entire country of Liberia. Contrast that with recent Super Bowls. They use Renewable Energy Credits to offset their electricity usage. Organizers include plans to minimize food waste, minimize water use, and maximize public transit. Thanks, NFL!

Bottom Line

How does learning about footprints impact your bottom line?

By using your newfound awareness, you can start seeing potential purchases in a new light. Unfortunately, just because one product has a smaller footprint vs. another doesn’t always mean it has a lower price. Often, it’s cheaper to manufacture in areas where labor is cheap and regulations lax, and then ship to where demand is strong. 

The biggest cost savings may come through skipping a purchase altogether. Once you tally a product’s land footprint, water footprint, carbon footprint, and waste footprint… even if you can afford it financially, you may decide it’s not worth the ecological cost. Then, not only does the product’s packaging stay out of the landfill and its pollution out of the air, but the dollars stay in your wallet, too.

Thanks for reading, and for taking the next step to becoming SuperGreener!
Multiply your impact by sharing this site with your friends.

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