Where’s the impact of an Easter egg?

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A new series for the blog looks into the impacts of our consumption habits.

Where does our stuff come from? Consumption habits today are remarkably anonymous. Buying from the globalised marketplace, we know little about the origins – or indeed the impacts – of the products we buy.

In this series, we’ll be looking into particular types of products to attempt to unpick the tangled web that contributes to their production. It’ll be a brief insight into some of the issues around commercial production – help us write the story by leaving a comment below to add to the picture. Also let us know about any suggestions of alternatives, and ideas for what we could investigate in the future.

This week we’ve started things off with an Easter egg by looking at the impact of a classic chocolate egg. We’ve narrowed our research down to three key areas: aluminium foil, cocoa and milk.

Let’s begin with the foil wrapper. Aluminium, bauxite in its purest form, is the third most abundant material on the planet. It’s mined all over the world – from Australia to Siberia, Brazil to Guinea. Extracting raw bauxite from the ground is ‘low impact’ as bauxite ore is usually found close to the surface in deep seams – but that’s ‘low impact’ in mining terms.

Bauxite mining is a truly international business. The biggest suppliers of raw bauxite in 2009 were Australia (topping the scales at 65, 231 metric tonnes), China, Brazil, India and Guinea. Bauxite is then processed in its country of origin – or shipped to a processing plant somewhere else in the world. The top three alumina producers are China (churning out 12, 900 thousand metric tonnes), Russia and Canada, suggesting that the majority of raw bauxite is shipped somewhere else to be processed. Transport of mineral ore clocks up a considerable carbon toll – the average freight ship emits between 5 and 22 grams of C02 per kilometre, and raw bauxite ore may travel 6000km just to be processed.

Turning bauxite into alumina is done by electrolysis which is incredibly energy hungry. The energy is often produced by huge-scale hydroelectric dams in Russia or China, which have their own associated environmental and social impacts.

Moving on, let’s look at the best bit of a chocolate egg – cocoa! If you’re anything like us, it’s hard to imagine  life without the Mayan delicacy, and we’re not alone. In 2009 the average amount of chocolate consumed in the EU per capita was a whopping 10.4 kgs. However, our appetite has a considerable effect on farming communities – it is estimated that between 50 and 70 million people depend on cocoa for their livelihood.

How about this for scary economics: cocoa fetches £1550 per tonne on the London International Financial Futures Exchange. Farmers, who produce 700kg and 2 tonnes of cocoa per year, receive at most 70% of the market price – often considerably less.  Their average income is somewhere between £1085 and £3100. However, 1 tonne of cocoa makes about 111 chocolate bars; sold for 60p each, consumers pay £6660 per tonne of chocolate – about six times what farmers receive.

Cocoa is one of those products that isn’t enjoyed by the people who make it. While the top producers are the Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Indonesia, the top consumers are the EU, who gobble up 41.7%, then the US at 32.7%, and Russia at 7.7%.

If you fiddled with a supermarket’s heating you’d probably end up with a chocolate river. However, for something so seemingly plentiful, it’s a long and complicated journey from seed to mouth. Usually grown in smallholdings, the cocoa pods are harvested with machetes, the beans removed by hand. They’re then fermented on the farm, dried in wind and sunlight, and then finally transported to a sea port for export. Transport – as with the aluminium wrapper – is a major part of the carbon footprint.

Zero Carbon Britain is a good place for more information on transport. Freight accounts for a considerable amount of our transport emissions and adds a considerable amount onto consumer products.

However, we don’t we take our chocolate like the Mayans (bitter – mixed with chillies!), and instead mix it with sugar and milk products. Milk’s one of the few components of a chocolate egg which may have local origins. However, somewhat nonsensically, the UK imports 126 million litres while exporting 270 million litres.

Milk, like other animal products, is very carbon intensive. Ruminants – animals, like cows, which chew cud – burp methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. A cow will burp 120kgs of the stuff annually, which George Marshall in Carbon Detox equates to driving a car for 100,000 kms.

Its inefficiency largely comes down to the amount of resources and energy needed in order to produce a relatively small amount of milk – cows expend a lot of the energy that they get from feed walking around and keeping warm; it’d be more efficient if we simply ate the plants ourselves.

Because of this, strictly carbon-speaking, the ‘most efficient’ way to farm cows is intensively as they expend energy walking around, keeping warm, and generally being dairy cows. However, as organisations such as WSPA have well documented, intensive dairy farming is deeply unethical and environmentally dangerous. Cows farmed intensively are frequently fed soya feed, the production of which has led to rainforest degradation. Transport, processing and bottling also contribute to milk’s considerable carbon toll.

What else could we add to the story of an Easter egg? Leave us your comments below!

What would you like to see us tackle next week?

What are the impacts of the things we buy? Where is the energy used? What are the impacts on other people and the environment?

Where’s the Impact? is an innovative teaching resource exploring the ecological footprint of products. There are literally thousands of processes involved in the production of any given product – to raise awareness about the impacts of production, pupils use a set of cards to tell the story of a product from beginning to end.

A special offer on the game is available until the 31st of March. £21 for 1-4 copies, £19 for over 5, £17 for over 10 and £15 for over 20. Buy Where’s the Impact from the CAT Eco Store 01654 705 959 or email education@cat.org.uk.