I chose to exclusively breastfeed my two daughters during their first six months of life, as it was the most natural and obvious way to provide them with the nourishment they needed to thrive. I was also admittedly, lazy. Mama’s milk is always at the right temperature, always nutritionally complete, never needs to be sterilized and always readily available. It made no sense to me why any mother would want to get up in the middle of the night, go to the kitchen and prepare a bottle of infant formula when we are all endowed with our own lovely milky way cafes that merely require a half-awake strategic repositioning near our baby’s rooting rosebud mouths — while still dreaming of Tahiti. Okay, I admit I was also addicted to oxytocin and prolactin, those yummy mommy hormones (released while breastfeeding) that make you all warm and fuzzy inside, but love hormones aside, breastfeeding just felt so right.
It wasn’t until my second daughter came along that I contemplated the environmental impact of this choice. One balmy afternoon, while nursing my babe under a weeping willow tree and reading Paul Hawkin’s book, Natural Capital, it dawned on me that breastmilk is not only an invaluable renewable resource but it is also the most environmentally sound food source available and this is why: breastmilk is produced and delivered to the consumer (baby) with a nearly zero ecological and carbon footprint.
In sharp contrast, artificial baby formula production, distribution and consumption pollutes our land, air, and water and sucks up substantial natural resources – and as a result has a HUGE ecological and carbon footprint. For example, every year in the US, over half a million women formula feed their babies from birth. If just these mothers breastfed for a full year (with solids introduced after six months), these resources would be saved:
- 2.5 million pounds of paper
- 25 million pounds of metal
- 27 million gallons of milk, requiring 465 million pounds of dairy feed to produce
- 6 million gallons of oil for production, transportation and refrigeration
- 135 million pounds of carbon dioxide produced by the use of those 6 million gallons of oil
If those statistics are not eye-popping, try these:
- The 550 million containers of artificial baby formula sold each year to the U.S. alone, stacked end to end, would circle the earth one and a half times.
- If every child in America were bottle-fed, almost 86,000 tons of tin would be needed to produced 550 million cans wrapped in 1,230 tons of paper labels for just one year’s worth of formula.
- If every mother in the U.K. breastfed, 3,000 tons of paper would be saved in one year – and that would be just for the labels.
- Breastfeeding delays menstruation on average by 14 months. In Great Britain, this delay in menstruation translates to 3,000 tons of paper saved just from unused sanitary protection products! In addition to saving trees, packaging materials and fuel would be saved, and less items sent to landfills.
- Landfills rise unnecessarily with every formula fed baby. Plastic feeding bottles, nipples, and pacifiers take 200 to 450 years to break down.
- Milk comes from cows or soybeans, both of which require vast amounts of land, water and fertilizers. Nitrate fertilizers used to grow feed for dairy cows contaminates rivers and ground water as does the cow dung itself; cows also produce more than their share of of methane thus adding to global warming.
- To substitute the breastmilk of all the women in India, 135 million lactating cows, requiring 43% of India’s landmass, would be needed.
Few mothers understand or even contemplate the environmental impact when breastmilk is substituted with formula. I know I didn’t with my first baby. The choice to breastfeed seemed an entirely personal decision. But, now in light of the huge environmental cost of not breastfeeding, I realize that my decision to breastfeed my babies was not just a personal decision, but also a planetary decision.
So, all you breastfeeding mamas rejoice knowing you are making one of the best ecological decisions as a parent — even if no one gives you a gold star for your effort!
Thank you to the following sources which were used to write this article:
Baumslag, N. and Michels, D., Milk, Money & Madness: The Culture and Politics of Breastfeeding. Bergin & Garvey, Westport, CT, 1995.
Correa, Wendy. “Eco-Mama,” Mothering Magazine. Issue no. 95, July/Aug. 1999.