Environmental impacts

Sustainable Materials Management: A Life-cycle Perspective

As companies and decision-makers seek sustainable ways to manage resources and meet consumer needs, they are confronted with an array of choices, labels and practices that claim to be better for the environment. Terms such as “recyclable,” “recycled-content,” “biodegradable,” or “organic,” all suggest a more sustainable use of resources, but all focus on a limited set of environmental impacts. At EPA, we found that asking which of these practices is better for the environment may not be the right question. We’ve found benefit by taking a broader perspective that considers the full “life cycle” of a product.

Governments and businesses can make better-informed choices with “life-cycle thinking,” or considering the environmental impacts caused at all of the stages of a product’s life cycle. These impacts may include releases of pollutants to air or water; raw material depletion; loss of trees, vegetation and wildlife through disturbance of land and water ecosystems; and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The stages of a product’s life cycle include extraction of resources, manufacturing, use, and end-of-life management. Focusing on just one stage (such as waste management) or one effect (such as organically-raised or grown) can be misleading in total environmental impact. A broader look at life-cycle considerations can show unsuspected or surprising effects – such as high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from washing clothes with hot as opposed to cold water (since fossil fuels were likely burned for the energy used to heat the water). More

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Living without Meat

I used to eat meat throughout my childhood, but never really enjoyed the taste. Only after a graphic showing of a pig slaughter I witnessed in elementary school did I stop eating pig, and once I was in high-school I became of full-on vegetarian. My main reasoning for this was more that I disliked the taste of meat, but the ethics against killing animals was a reasoning as well.

I soon learned that there was another great motive to becoming vegetarian; the negative environmental effects of meat production . There are a variety of different environmental impacts that occur due to the production of meat:

  • Air pollution due to dust and liquid manures.
  • Fossil fuels, water, and land over-use
  • Rainforest erosion and destruction for pasture land
  • Water contamination due to animal waste
  • Grain and corn grown for animal feed instead of addressing world hunger

The two natural resources that are perhaps most tapped by meat manufacturing are land and water. According to the British group, VegFarm, a 10-acre piece of land can feed 60 people when used for the production of soybeans, 24 people when used for wheat, 10 people when used for corn, and only a mere 2 people when used for cattle. Similarly, the amount of water used is severely disproportional when comparing wheat to meat. In a book written by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, one pound of wheat uses approximately 60 pounds of water while one pound of meat requires about 2,500 to 6,000 pounds of water.

Another issue that the EPA is specifically interested in is the pollution that feedlots and animal wastes are causing in waterways . The runoff from feedlots and animals feces-covered fields is causing some of our waters, such as areas in the Chesapeake Bay, to become unhealthy.

Regulations can be made to help prevent the effects of meat production, but the easiest way to lessen the environmental impacts is to become a vegetarian or vegan. The vegetarian/vegan alternative can be easily accomplished in today’s markets and restaurants. Meat substitutes including tofu, seitan, and soy-based products are more easily accessible in grocery stores and especially in the rising organic food markets. Also, many restaurants are now providing vegetarian options to better suit those who do not eat meat. Making the change can be difficult, but persistence in becoming a vegetarian can lead to a more eco-friendly lifestyle

About the author: Nicole Reising is an intern at the Office of Children’s Health Protection. She is a sophomore studying non-profit management at Indiana University.

Editor’s note: As stated on the “About” page, “The opinions and comments expressed in Greenversations are those of the authors alone and do not reflect an Agency policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy of the contents of the blog.”

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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