Science·What on Earth?

Meat and the environment: Do Canadians know what's at stake?

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at the the impact of meat-eating on the environment and provide a primer on electronic waste.

Also: A primer on e-waste

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(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, people! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

Note: The What on Earth? team is taking a much-needed break next week. We'll be back on May 2.

In the meantime, April 22 is Earth Day. Do something to make Mother Nature proud.

This week:

  • Meat and the environment: Do Canadians know what's at stake?
  • The carbon footprint of protein
  • A primer on e-waste
  • Nice day for a green wedding

Meat and the environment: Do Canadians know what's at stake?

(William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)

Our story last week on the five things that Canada could do to significantly reduce carbon emissions garnered a lot of reader feedback, and one recurring criticism: Why didn't we mention eating less meat?

First off: Fair point. Meat production is indeed one of the biggest culprits for greenhouse gases. According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock accounts for nearly 15 per cent of worldwide emissions. The emissions are produced through a variety of factors, including energy use (which often requires fossil fuels) and methane from the animals themselves.

Derek Gladwin, a fellow of the UBC Sustainability Initiative at the University of British Columbia, said the largest chunk of these emissions — 11 per cent — comes from "unsustainable forms of mass-scale factory farming." Gladwin said as much as 70 per cent of the Amazon has been deforested for factory-farmed beef.

Mandating that Canadians eat less meat for the good of the planet would be a challenge for any government (likely even more so than getting countrywide buy-in for a carbon tax). Yet the latest version of the Canada Food Guide provided a nudge in that direction, suggesting consumers "choose protein foods that come from plants more often."

Gladwin said there are "many" challenges when it comes to promoting a more plant-based diet. "The meat industry is one of the largest sectors of the Canadian economy and it retains strong social influence on politics, marketing, media and education more generally."

He doesn't think most Canadians grasp the connection between meat production and carbon emissions. That may be so, but there's no denying that more people are, if not shunning meat outright, looking for alternatives.

Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph, noted that for reasons of health, animal welfare, cost, convenience and selection, more people are willing to give non-meat proteins a try. A study released in October estimated that more than six million Canadians restrict their meat intake, and a third are thinking of reducing their meat consumption over the next six months.

And the market is responding. Fraser said one major sign of change is the fact that Maple Leaf Foods, one of Canada's most recognizable purveyors of meat, now offers a variety of plant-based options (e.g., soy- and pea-protein hot dogs) through its Lightlife brand. It's part of Maple Leaf's self-styled mission to become "the most sustainable protein company on Earth."

Fraser said it's hard to discern a single driver of this eating trend. It seems that health, variety and the environment are all a part of consumers' decision-making processes.

"It's a bit of everything, is my sense," Fraser said. But he said one thing is clear: "We're at a point of major disruption."

Andre Mayer

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The Big Picture: The carbon footprint of protein-rich foods

We've established that meat production, at least on a massive scale, is not good for the environment. But are some forms of animal agriculture better than others? And what about growing legumes and other meat substitutes? The graph below shows the carbon footprint of various proteins — namely, the CO2 emitted in producing one kilo of each food item. (The figure includes the emissions on the farm or factory, and in transit.


How do you solve a problem like e-waste?

(Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Associated Press)

Electronic gadgetry, from smartphones to dishwashers, has made our lives easier and more comfortable. But once they've outlived their usefulness, these items become … a bit of a problem.

What is e-waste?

E-waste refers to electronic equipment that is no longer wanted or has reached its end of life. From refrigerators to phones to used batteries, e-waste can pile up in our homes and in our landfills.

Why can't I throw it in the garbage?

E-waste is hazardous material. Over time, electronics can leak toxic elements such as mercury and lead, which can be harmful to the environment and to humans.

How big is the problem?

According to the Brussels-based Bureau of International Recycling (BIR), Canada generated about 638,000 tonnes of "e-scrap" (electronic and electrical equipment) in 2017. And the amounts are expected to climb. The BIR estimates that Canada and the U.S. will cumulatively generate 9.25 million tonnes of e-scrap in 2025.

Where can I recycle?

Each province and territory has a variety of options, although they can vary from municipality to municipality. Some of these locations can include:

  • Municipal collection sites (like waste depots and recycling centres).

  • Special collection events (like those arranged for Earth Day).

  • Non-profit organizations with recycling and reuse programs, such as the CNIB Foundation.

  • Manufacturers/stores involved with "return to retail" (R2R) and recycling initiatives, such as Staples, Best Buy and Canadian Tire — some of which offer gift cards as incentives. (These places typically partner with non-profits such as Call2Recycle Canada and the Electronic Products Recycling Association, which implement the actual recycling program.)

Accepted items change by location, even within the same organization. Check online or call before you head out to your nearest drop-off location.

How do they actually recycle these items?

Each organization has its own method of meeting the goal of reusing and recycling. Items like reusable batteries are typically separated and melted down into various elements, such as lead and nickel. Powerful shredders are used to break up other electronic material into a powder, which may contain zinc, for example. Extracted zinc can be reused in products like sunscreens and fertilizers.

Some old electronic products are refurbished for reuse. Independent Free Geek locations across Canada collect technology, like old laptops, which may be circulated to the public for free or sold at a low cost. (It is illegal in Canada to export e-waste to developing countries.)

One last thing to consider: Recycling an item is the last "R" of reduce, reuse and recycle. While it involves proper disposal of toxic elements, experts note that dealing with e-waste actually starts at the beginning, with our consumption.

Which means: Think hard about whether you need that item in the first place.

— Christine Rankin

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • One of the less-publicized effects of higher concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere is how it alters the jet stream and causes violent turbulence for air travellers. This essay in Vox by an American flight attendant brings it all home: "I know firsthand the threat climate change poses to our safety and our jobs."

Wedding bells ring for Elizabeth May

(Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

In what can only be described as the pinnacle of environmental synergy, federal Green Party Leader Elizabeth May is getting married … on Earth Day.

On April 22, May will wed John Kidder, co-founder of the Green Party of B.C. — the first Green Party in North America — in Victoria.

Naturally, the event will have the smallest possible carbon footprint. Among other things, bouquets are being made with locally sourced flowers and guests are being encouraged to travel by bicycle, bus, train or ferry.

The environmentally conscious couple is asking guests to donate to a variety of charities in lieu of presents. One additional gift could arrive next week, care of Prince Edward Island, where the Green Party has a good chance of becoming the next government.

Stay in touch!

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty