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  • Writer's pictureThe Climate Coach

Breastfeeding - what on earth has that got to do with climate?

Good question. Breastfeeding can be a very emotive topic and as such this post is going to focus on the climate impact of breastfeeding.

Understood, now please explain...

Well in short, in most cases there is almost no negative climate impact at all from breastfeeding - so from a purely climate perspective, it's the ultimate environmentally friendly way to feed babies.

I'm assuming this means there is a climate impact from bottle feeding then?

Yes and it's essentially split into 4 key areas:

1. Plastic

Pretty much all bottle feeding equipment is plastic. This includes the bottles themselves, the teats, sterilisation kits or machines, cleaning equipment, formula boxes or bottles etc etc. Plastic is fairly carbon intensive to produce and some of the items listed above (e.g. formula bottles) are single use and often cannot be recycled.

According to a study conducted by the University of Queensland, the production of formula bottles and associated products generates an estimated 550,000 tonnes of plastic waste each year (Rosendahl et al., 2019)

2. Formula production

Baby formula requires a lot of processing and energy to make, not to mention the emissions created from the ingredients used to make it: the majority of which are from the cows who provide the milk for the formula itself, in the form of methane.

The amount of water used for the ingredients and the formula production is also significant. According to research shared in The BMJ by Imperial College London (Joffe, Webster, Shenker, 2019), the average water footprint of whole cows' milk is around 940 litres per kilogram: one kilogram of milk gives about 200g of milk powder, meaning the water footprint of the milk powder alone is roughly 4,700 litres per kilogram.

Powdered infant formula can be made safely only with water that has been heated to over 70 degrees Celsius. This process requires boiling water and thus utilises increased amounts of gas or electricity multiple times per day, which all adds up to increased greenhouse gas emissions.

3. Waste

Unlike breastfeeding, bottle feeding creates significant amount of waste from the packaging of the products, but also from excess or unused formula, for example out of date formula, formula that has been damaged in transit or even leftover formula when babies do not finish their bottles.

A 2009 study showed that more than 550 million infant formula cans, comprising 86,000 tons of metal and 364,000 tons of paper are added to landfills every year (Coutsoudis A, Coovadia HM, King J, 2009); and the formula industry has more than doubled since then.

4. Transport

All of the things listed above are required to be transported throughout the process. Raw materials to factories, products to distribution centres, then to shops, and finally, people need to travel to buy it.

The food miles involved are therefore considerable: China imported almost 180 kilotons of pre-packed infant formula in 2015, and over 90% of that was from Europe! (Potier, M, ed. 2016)

Breastfeeding is one way to reduce our carbon footprint

Overall, breastfeeding for six months saves an estimated 95-153kg CO2 equivalent per baby compared with formula feeding. For the UK alone, carbon emission savings gained by supporting mothers to breastfeed would equate to taking between 50,000 and 77,500 cars off the road each year (Joffe, Webster, Shenker, 2019).

So there you have it - that's what breastfeeding has got to do with climate!

If you have any thoughts, feedback or ideas you wish to contribute on this or any other topic covered by The Climate Coach - please get in touch, we'd love to hear from you.

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