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The great oat milk debate: how making changes was easier than I thought

Sustainability By Prarthana Ravikumar, Placement Student – 06 April 2022

3 suspended cups with milk pouring from the first and cascading down

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Prarthana smiling and looking to camera in front of a green living wall

Prarthana Ravikumar

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I am lucky enough to study business management at a university that encourages me to think critically about the choices a consumer makes, and the impact organisations have on our environment. However, I have always wondered, “At what point do we shift the blame back to the decision-makers and not the consumers?”

There is a growing narrative from mainstream media that climate change is OUR fault. Not big oil and gas companies, but your everyday person on the street. This is, let's be honest, a pathetic attempt to distract us from the real drivers of global warming – however, it’s working. The reality is that total indirect greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from oil and gas companies alone is 5200 million tonnes. Only 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global GHG emissions. The Amazon rainforest has seen 13,235sq km destroyed in a year alone, biodiversity in oceans is damaged because of numerous irreversible oil spills - NOT because I had a cocktail with a plastic straw once upon a time! I am furious and I am scared. Why do I have to look for more sustainable alternatives in my everyday choices? Why do I now need to fix the mess they have made?

After a bit of self-evaluation, I established that this may be a problematic attitude to have.

Like a lot of people these days, I try to be more conscious of the impact my choices have on the environment. I am also always curious about what other people are doing to be kinder to the planet. I’m a member of the Newcastle office’s SusTeam, a group of individuals in every Cundall office that are responsible for implementing initiatives to make our everyday working life more sustainable. Duncan Cox, one of Cundall’s Partners and I were discussing dairy milk alternatives (just your average Tuesday afternoon chat) and he suggested that a great SusTeam initiative would be to switch the milk in our office fridges to oat milk. I, however, held a different view. I did not think it would be great, I thought it would cause a riot!

However, purely out of curiosity, I explored our options. I knew it was important to consider the entire journey of the milk and how that affects our emissions. I wanted this process to be as sustainable and ethical as it could be. I found a nearby independent refill shop, Something Good in Jesmond, who offered to supply oat milk to us. Support local business. CHECK. They have a zero-carbon delivery service, using bikes. Zero emissions for transportation. CHECK. The packaging is widely recyclable. CHECK!

I had everything sorted but my anxiety about potentially wrecking everyone’s coffee had not gone away – as a foreigner to these shores, I know how passionate people are about their coffees being exactly right. With Duncan’s help, I found statistics that showed how scary the carbon footprint from our milk actually is.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that the dairy industry produces a shocking amount of greenhouse gas emissions. An article in the Independent in 2021 quoted an analysis by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation that found meat and dairy accounts for 14.5 per cent of the world’s emissions — the same as all cars, HGVs, aircraft, and ships combined.

Just one litre of cow’s milk is estimated to produce approximately 3kg of carbon in the UK.

In our office, the coffee machine goes through approximately eight litres of cow’s milk per day, which means that, in the Newcastle office alone, we produce 24kg of GHG per day and 120kg of GHG per week! By making this change, we could reduce our GHG emissions to 1.6kg per day and 8kg per week. As an alternative, oat milk is not only sustainable, it also goes incredibly well with coffee.

Having been convinced to implement the change in the office, I drafted an email to notify colleagues and hit send, anxiously waiting for a barrage of angry responses. But there were none! In fact, the only replies I got were extremely positive. After a successful trial, Cundall Newcastle are all happy oat milk drinkers!

The SusTeam's initiatives did not stop there however. All of our kitchen products have been switched to eco-friendly alternatives in refillable containers that do not pollute our water supply. This activity has helped to educate myself, the SusTeam and (hopefully) the Newcastle office on how easy it is to integrate sustainable choices into our lives. It also provided a refreshing perspective on everyone’s shared goal to do better.

Change is seldom easy to get accustomed to. However, we need be brave enough to lead the way and set an example, even if others are not. As an organisation, we have a responsibility to create an environment that is sustainable and ethical for ourselves and the generations that follow. Our engineering designers know and understand that. As individuals, we have an added responsibility to make choices to protect our planet. It may not be entirely our fault, but as global citizens, it is our responsibility.

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