Counting CO2 From Snacks

I once heard that pineapple has the largest carbon footprint of any fruit. I’m pretty sure that’s not true, but I do know that a half gallon of Tropicana orange juice produces 3.75 pounds of carbon dioxide from grove to grocery store.

I behold that tidbit of information because PepsiCo, which owns Tropicana, recently hired the UK-based company Carbon Trust to figure out their juice emissions. The New York Times noted that Pepsi, like many other companies, is trying to get ahead of the game before the U.S. government starts mandating carbon reductions.

But if I lived in London, I wouldn’t have to read the newspaper to know about the carbon footprint of my breakfast. Instead, Carbon Trust has a labeling system used by many products that actually puts a cute little footprint that shows the carbon impact per 100 grams.

Carbon Trust was started by the government in the UK in 2001 to help businesses adapt to a low carbon economy. The labels are not mandatory, but they have popped up on everything from sweatshirts and laundry detergent to potatoes and savings accounts.

Walker’s crisps, a brand of potato chips also owned by PepsiCo, carry a carbon footprint label right on the bag. And it's more than just a declaration. The label explains ways how the company plans to reduce that number over the next few years.

The concept is interesting, but I wonder how many people can process what nearly four pounds of carbon dioxide emissions means (the EPA estimates the average American car emits 12,500 pounds each year). At a minimum, they give a point of comparison between similar products, if enough companies choose to carry the label. For some consumers, they may choose goods that carry the label because they feel it comes from a company that is being more transparent about their greenhouse gas footprint. Like nutrition labels, plenty of buyers probably ignore them all together.

There are also opportunities for confusion in carbon labels, however. There are other labels of nutrition, organic content, and fair-trade that already overwhelm shoppers. My shade-grown, organic, fair-trade coffee from South America is probably pretty carbon-heavy, but less so than any local, organic beef. A lower number on the package could also mean that a company has opted for hybrid trucks, for instance, instead of gas-guzzlers to transport their wares. Either way, companies that audit the carbon footprint of their products are certainly taking footsteps in the right direction.

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