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Reducing your Carbon Footprint at the Co-op

Everyone in the world has one; some are huge, some miniscule, most need to be reduced, and quickly, according to many scientists. What is it? Your carbon footprint!

Every person, nation and business on the planet has a carbon footprint that is a measurement of the activities that create or influence greenhouse gases and climate change; this is figured in units of carbon dioxide. The issue of climate change still churns up some controversy, but most experts agree that the problem is real and needs to be turned around—and soon—for the health of our planet and all of us that call Earth home. Those of us in the developed world currently contribute a disproportionate amount of the carbon emissions known as greenhouse gases, but citizens of quickly developing countries like India and China are racing to achieve Western lifestyles and also increasing the rate of change. Climate change can seem like an insurmountable challenge, and many aspects need major intervention at government levels, but there are things each of us can do every day that will contribute to positive change.

The litany of suggestions for living in a more sustainable way has become so familiar to many people that it can be easy to tune out some proven conservation ideas like switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs, installing low-flow water fixtures, turning down the heat, recycling, reducing the amount you drive and driving the most efficient vehicle you can afford. The truth is that all of these practices will reduce your personal carbon footprint and they will save you money in the long term as well. These are great starting points, but there is much more that most of us can do fairly easily: walk, bike or use public transportation whenever possible; turn off and unplug lights, appliances and electronics that are not in use; wash clothes in cold water and dry them on a clothesline; reuse and repair cars and household items until they are truly worn out and purchase previously used items when possible; share more—neighbors can often share the use of tools, ladders, snow removal and garden equipment, and sometimes even trucks or trailers, and sharing has the side benefit of creating new friendships while reducing manufacturing needs.

Food production and consumption have enormous impacts on our carbon footprint. A study by researchers at the University of Chicago showed that 17 percent of the fossil fuel used in the United States is consumed by agriculture. This figure does not include transportation of products to markets or consumer transportation to markets. Other greenhouse gases produced by agriculture include non-fossil fuel emissions like methane and nitrous oxide produced by livestock production. Overall, food production is responsible for 19 percent of the total energy used in the U.S. Buying organic food is not a complete solution, either. Organic agriculture uses up to 30 percent less fossil fuel, but it is still shipped thousands of miles in many cases. Large-scale organic farming can burn just as much fuel as its conventional cousin, but does not incorporate the use of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides.

Three areas to make a difference

Most climate researchers agree that home energy use, personal transportation and food are three areas of greenhouse gas production where consumers can really make a difference. Of these, food is thought to be the change most easily within our reach.


To affect greenhouse gases caused by transportation requires strong commitment and, often, major lifestyle changes. Lifestyle change is usually slow to happen though, unless an urgent event dictates the change. Over the past 50 or so years, more and more Americans have purchased suburbanhomes, requiring a daily commute to work. All too often, that commute happens in a private vehicle for a number of reasons, such as: lack of public transportation, carpools are “too difficult” to arrange or a vehicle may be needed to perform one’s job.

The Co-op can help you reduce the miles you drive each week with our Co-Shop program. Sign up online for Co-Shop at and then let us do the shopping and driving! With Co-Shop you can order groceries online and have them delivered or pick them up at the store when you are out anyway. Take advantage of the pleasant spring weather and walk or bike to the store (we have over 35 bike parking spots for customers and several more dedicated for staff use!), choose your groceries yourself and have us deliver when the Co-Shop van is out on its daily route. Our van can deliver to several households in the same time it might take you to make the round trip in your vehicle. Co-Shop isnow available seven days a week.

Home energy use

While many Americans have made the switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs—and now, even LEDs—and we are learning to unplug our energy “thieves,” we still face some limits when it comes to home energy use. We can lower the thermostat, but at least in the northern half of the country, our homes require heat in the winter. Most heat is generated from natural gas or electricity and requires burning fossil fuel. We enjoy our air conditioning in the summer and the convenience of a houseful of appliances of all sizes, but previous generations led rewarding lives with less mechanization. Once again, pesky lifestyle changes can take some time to implement.


Reducing our carbon footprint in relation to food can be a challenge too, but one with delicious results that we can all repeat several times each day. Energy use certainly plays a role in our kitchen carbon footprint—refrigerators and freezers use more energy than any other household appliance, accounting for about one-sixth of the average home’s electric use. If your refrigerator is more than 20 years old, consider a newer, more efficient model. Refrigerators and freezers operate more efficiently when they are kept full; cleaning the coils is important too. Cooking also creates emissions, so do it as efficiently as you can. Use a toaster oven rather than the stove oven for small tasks like a few baked potatoes; match the size of your saucepan to the size of the stove burner to optimize the heat source, and put a lid on the pan to reduce heat loss. Slow cookers use much less electricity than stoves; pressure cookers can reduce cooking time drastically. If you use a dishwasher only run full loads and let them air dry; when washing dishes by hand do not run a continuous stream of water for rinsing; washing dishes in a dishpan, rather than the sink reduces the amount of water needed.

Experts agree on several other things that can help reduce consumers’ food-related carbon footprint. Their suggestions incorporate some delicious choices and might even help you hang onto some spare change—something we can all appreciate these days!

Food miles

The first thing you can consider involves “food miles” or transportation. “Food miles” simply refers to the distance food has traveled before it hits your plate. This concept has been getting a great deal of press in the past few years, but according to researchers Christopher Weber and H. Scott Matthews of Carnegie Mellon University, food transportation from farm to processor represents only 11 percent of the average American household’s annual 8.1 tons of carbon dioxide emissions related to food consumption; the mileage from processor or distributor to the store adds another four percent. Weber and Matthews reached some startling conclusions about food choices and our carbon footprint that I’ll share soon, but first, consider their transportation findings. If you eat anything closeto the typical American diet, reducing that total 15 percent of emissions is a goal worth working for because every gallon of gasoline burned dumps 19.6 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The way to reduce your food miles is by buying and eating locally grown and produced food and the place with the best local variety around is your Co-op!

Local food

We are in the very early stages of the new growing season, but our local produce farmers have been growing vegetables for weeks already in their hoop houses and soon those seedlings will be transplanted outdoors and start producing fresh bounty for the Co-op’s shelves and your tables. Take advantage of the farmers’ hard work—eat seasonally and preserve some of the harvest for the cold months. Local produce gives you more nutritional bang for your buck, too. As soon as a plant is harvested, nutrient stores begin to shrink, so there is a measurable difference between spring greens harvested several days ago and thousands of miles away and fresh, tender young greens that were still in the soil just a day or two ago, a dozen or so miles down the road.

Our local produce farms are all relatively small scale, compared to the giant industrial organic farms out West. That gives them the freedom to farm in a way that preserves the sustainability of organic agriculture, resulting in top-quality fruits and vegetables while generating much lower amounts of greenhouse gases. This happens because smaller growers tend to do more work by hand from planting all the way to harvest. Smaller acreages require respectful care of the soil and the soil responds by absorbing and holding carbon dioxide and then releasing it to plants as a form of carbon that is beneficial to growth. Smaller organic farms rely on time-honored methods like composting, planting cover crops to protect and enrich bare soil and rotating and intermixing crops to deter insects and disease. Add to that the lower-mileage end product and we have several carbon-friendly reasons to celebrate the new growing season.

Now that spring is here, consider some of your own locally grown food. Gardens provide the freshest vegetables at the lowest cost. If you do not have space for a typical garden, consider a container garden. Many garden vegetables can be successfully grown in containers on a porch or balcony, or be placed close to the foundation of your house or in your driveway. We have a wide assortment of seeds and gardening books to get you started as well as vegetable transplants for your garden.

Eat less meat and dairy

One of the biggest climate impacts comes from a diet that is heavy in animal products. Remember Weber and Matthews? They came to the conclusion that what we eat can actually have a larger impact on greenhouse gases than where our food comes from. Their research ( makes a compelling case for reducing or eliminating the red meat and dairy products in your diet. Weber and Matthews state, “Different food groups exhibit a large range in GHG [greenhouse gas]-intensity; on average, red meat is around 150% more GHG-intensive than chicken or fish. Thus, we suggest that dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household’s food-related climate footprint than “buying local.” Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.”

So, if you eat red meat and dairy products, start your carbon “diet” by substituting something else at least once each week. Reducing consumption of these foods is still only part of the story though. It is still important to know where your meat and dairy products come from. Aside from the effect on the animals’ health and the potential human health hazards, livestock raised on feedlots or huge factory farms are problematic for a few reasons. These animals require large rations of grain feed every day. The grain is industrially farmed in huge monoculture fields using gigantic equipment; it is often grown from genetically engineered seed and fertilized heavily; the fields are usually irrigated from deep wells that threaten aquifers in some parts of the country. And, where there are thousands of animals, there is an enormous amount of animal waste—an estimated 335 million tons of manure per year in this country, according to the USDA. This manure is often stored in open lagoons until being sprayed on cropland as fertilizer. If the spraying is done incorrectly the liquid waste can pollute waterways. As the manure decomposes in the storage lagoons it gives off gases, including ammonia, carbon dioxide, methane and hydrogen sulfide. These gases have been implicated as a cause of illness in farm workers and residents of communities near the farms. They also accumulate in the atmosphere, along with methane that isnormally produced by the digestive systems of beef cattle and dairy cows. If you eat meat and dairy products, choose those produced by small farmers in our area, rather than anonymous factory-farmed selections. Most of the meat, cheese and dairy products sold at the Co-op are raised on family farms; the environmental policies of larger companies like Bell and Evans are taken into consideration when they are selected as Co-op vendors.

Soy controversy

Do you skip the meat entirely and favor soy products instead? While a vegetarian diet can shrink your carbon footprint greatly, be mindful of the soy products you consume. There has long been controversy over the health effects of large quantities of soy in the diet, but there is not too much controversy over the environmental effects. Huge amounts of soybeans for processed foods are grown in China and South America. While the South American beans have a shorter shipping route, they are often planted on land that was, until recently, virgin rainforest. The rainforests on our planet are home to an incredible diversity of plant and animal life-species that are often lost forever when the forests become fields. The rainforests are vital to the health of the planet because of the amount of carbon they store. Land is cleared for soybean plantations by first bulldozing vegetation and then burning everything until the soil is bare. According to the Rainforest Action Network ( this “slash and burn” clear-cutting has given Indonesia the distinction of being the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter; Brazil is the fourth largest. The Amazon rainforest is being replaced with enormous swaths of soybeans; U.S. agribusiness corporations including ADM and Cargill own over 60 percent of these farms. The Indonesian forests are being cleared for palm oil plantations. Palm oil has been used as cooking oil in parts of Africa and Southeast Asia for centuries, but recently became important to food processors as a replacement for partially hydrogenated oils. It is also used in the manufacture of many cosmetics and body care products. This increased demand has greatly increased the pace of rainforest destruction and turned land that once cleaned the air into some of the most polluting.

Simple Soyman, Eden Foods and Organic Valley all use soybeans grown in the U.S.; many of those growers are located within a day’s drive of Madison. Give their products a try, and look for skin care products that use oils other than palm.

Environmentally friendly business

Many of our product vendors have incorporated a range of environmentally friendly practices into their businesses. Nature’s Bakery sources many of its raw ingredients from small producers in Wisconsin and Minnesota, reducing greenhouse gases from transport. They choose organic ingredients with an eye to the environment as well as for quality and flavor. Just Coffee delivers our order by bicycle; when they need to use a motorized vehicle they rely on a 1997 Chevy van converted torun on bio-diesel. Larger companies are doing their part as well—Eden Foods recycles extensively and uses paper and cardboard made from recycled materials. The company has strict standards for maintaining its fleet of trucks and does not sell products that require refrigerated transport. They contract with growers in North America for virtually all of the raw food products they use, most within a few hundred miles of company headquarters; compost all kitchen waste; use efficient lighting in company buildings and take pride in investing in customer and environmental health by using enamel can linings that do not contain bisphenol-A.


The more highly processed a food item is, the higher its carbon footprint is likely to be. For example, rice is considered a moderate-impact food—it can be fussy to grow and harvest, requires a great deal of water and is often transported long distances. If you choose to eat instant rice, that product has also been precooked and then dehydrated again before you cook it a second time. Roasted potatoes are a lower impact choice, especially if you start with Wisconsin-grown potatoes. The shipping distance is much shorter; if you cut your spuds into wedges they will roast fairly quickly and you can use the oven for something else at the same time. Mashed or boiled potatoes are a good choice too, just be sure to cover the pot to maximize the efficiency of your heat source. It is also less expensive to cook whole foods yourself, even when you figure in the cost of the energy. To reduce your carbon footprint, and eat more economically, try to limit the amount of pre-prepared foods you buy. We all need some super-quick ingredients in our pantry for occasional use, but cutting back on them is something most of us could do.

Bottled water

The American love affair with bottled water has had a huge impact on the manufacture and disposal of plastic. According to Food and Water Watch ( more than 47 million barrels of oil go into the production of plastic bottles for water each year in the U.S.; about 86 percent of those bottles are thrown away rather than being recycled—1.5 million tons of plastic waste! When you consider that major brands like Aquafina and Dasani are nothing more than filtered tap water, does it make sense that we expend such large quantities of both fossil fuel and groundwater? If you buy bottled water, think about choosing glass over plastic, or bring your reusable container and fill it from our bulk water machine. Our Housewares department has a variety of stainless steel water bottles for your convenience, as well as ceramic dispensers for large jugs of bulk water.


Another carbon-greedy aspect of processed food is packaging. Many items on supermarket shelves are dressed in multiple layers of packaging, much of it plastic derived from petroleum. When you choose whole foods from our Bulk aisle you control the packaging. You may opt for a plastic bag or container over paper or glass, but most likely you will only use a single layer. You can choose packaging for your bulk items that is reusable at the Co-op or at home—a glass jar can be washed and reused countless times, paper bags used to transport grains or flour can be shaken out and reused for tomorrow’s lunch or to store mushrooms, plastic bags can be rinsed and reused to store produce from the garden, CSA box or farmers’ market. Those tiny zip lock bags that carried your spices home will store anything small from garden seeds to extra buttons. Plastic food containers can be re-employed to store dry goods in the pantry or leftovers in the refrigerator.

Recycling and composting

When a container really has outlived its usefulness, recycle or compost it if possible. Americans throw away frightening amounts of trash each year—1,600 pounds per person on average. Landfills accept over 246 million tons of trash annually and much of itcould be handled in other ways. Nationally about 35 percent of “trash” consists of paper and cardboard; food waste and yard waste make up 25 percent.

George Dreckmann, Recycling Coordinator for the City of Madison, told me that in 2008 the city recycled 224 tons of aluminum, 3,678 tons of glass, 654 tons of steel cans, 695 tons of PETE plastic and 537 tons of HDPE plastic, including 262 tons of milk jugs. The city collected 1,815 tons of non-recyclable material in the green recycling carts.

Willy Street Co-op recycles those materials too. We also bale all of our unwaxed cardboard for recycling, recycle paper and make vegetable trimmings available for Owners and farmers to compost. We have made it a priority to save packaging materials for those vendors that will reuse them—they range from cardboard boxes, to honey tubs and plastic buckets. We reduce the amount of office paper we use by printing on both sides of most sheets, sending faxes to email rather than the printer, and employing web-based worker logs and office documentation rather than paper.

Plastic bags

Consumers in the U.S. use 100 billion plastic shopping bags every year, requiring 12 million barrels of oil to make. Plastic never biodegrades, it just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. Much of the plastic thrown away each year washes out to sea where it is often eaten by or entangles birds and marine life. Floating islands of plastic debris are found in various parts of the Pacific. According to The Algalita Marine Research Foundation, “broken, degraded plastic pieces outweigh surface zooplankton in the central North Pacific by a factor of six-to-one. That means six pounds of plastic for every single pound of zooplankton.” For more information, check this site:; for visual images, try a Google image search for “plastic gyre.”

We encourage you to reuse paper or permanent shopping bags and the new paper bags we buy are made with a high percentage of post-consumer recycled material, water-based inks and sugar-based adhesives. The roll bags found in Produce and Bulk are now made from recycled plastic.

Willy Street Co-op efficiencies

We employ efficient refrigeration equipment and the heat it generates is reclaimed to help heat the store. Our HVAC contractor fine-tunes the system twice per year and has trained Maintenance staff in its optimal use. Our photovoltaic (solar panel) system cuts our use of coal-generated electricity and almost 20 percent of the electricity we purchase is wind-generated—this alone keeps over 288,000 pounds out of the air. You can track our solar output here: Throughout our store, kitchen and offices we employ efficient lighting, mostly operated by motion detectors or timers. Our computers go into “sleep” mode after fairly brief periods of inactivity and most have LCD monitors.

Our walk-in coolers and freezers are equipped with alarms to let us know when doors are ajar and all staff members are trained to firmly close those doors each time we pass through. We keep an eye on the cooler doors in the Bulk and Wellness aisles too, and encourage you to do the same—if you notice those doors hanging open, please push them shut.

A huge percentage of our staff pedal or walk to work year round in all kinds of weather and others are regular bus riders. We always offer group shuttles when we are having a meeting or other gathering at another site, rather than encouraging everyone to drive individually.

The Co-op is proud to support local farmers and producers and we are always working to increase our local and regional offerings. Since 2006, our Produce department has had locally grown vegetables on the shelf year-round. At the peak of the season more than 80 percent of our produce is locally grown and local produce accounts for 25 percent of our annual produce sales. Look for special pricing on dozens of local products throughout the store when we celebrate Earth Week later this month.

Check the Spotlight sidebar in this issue of the Reader for more details on our commitment to energy efficiency. If you are curious about your own carbon footprint, there are several online calculators that can give you an estimate. The ones I found tend to be rather general, but they do give a starting point for thinking about personal changes. One of the most specific is at: For a food-specific calculator, take a look at: