The benefit of breastfeeding for children and their mothers is common knowledge, but is breastfeeding better for the environment? I was recently asked this question in response to Bill Maher’s criticism of public breastfeeding and Facebook’s refusal to post pictures of breastfeeding mothers. In honor of today’s Breast Fest, hosted by the League of Maternal Justice, I will explore the issues of breastfeeding and the environment.
According to EcoMall, "Breastfeeding is probably the most overlooked means of contributing to the health of our planet" and parentingweb states, "Breastmilk is actually the most ecological food available to humans." Wow, those are pretty strong statements. Mother’s milk is completely natural (minus the toxins present from environmental contaminants), is produced without using resources (except for the resources used to produce the food the mother eats), and it creates no pollution. Breast milk comes from the mother’s body and bottles are not required, unless a mother is pumping because of work schedules, etc. There is never any waste with breast milk, as healthy mothers produce the right amount of milk a child needs based on the principle of supply and demand.
In contrast, the production and packaging of infant formulas uses natural resources and takes up landfill space, all of which contribute to climate change. According to Dia Michels, author of Mother Nature Loves Breastmilk, "If every child in America were bottle-fed, almost 86,000 tons of tin would be needed to produce 550 million cans for one year’s worth of formula." Furthermore, these tin cans can leach BPA into the formula. The Environmental Working Group tested infant formula and found, "For 1 in 10 cans of all food tested, and 1 in 3 cans of infant formula, a single serving contained enough BPA to expose a woman or infant to BPA levels more than 200 times the government’s traditional safe level of exposure for industrial chemicals."
Most infant formulas are dairy or soy-based. The dairy business uses tremendous amounts of resources and land, as well as creates pollution. Cow flatulence produces 100 million tons of methane every year, approximately 20% of the earth’s total emissions. Chemical fertilizers used to grow feed pollute soil and ground water. Deforestation occurs to create grazing land for cows. Soy-based formulas aren’t much better. Soybeans require high amounts of fertilizers and water, as well as are responsible for deforestation for cropland in countries like Brazil.
Preparing infant formula uses water and energy. Bottles must be sterilized and formulas must be heated to the proper temperature. Breastmilk comes from the mother’s body safe for consumption already at the perfect temperature with the perfect mix of nutritients for the child. In contrast, there have been about two dozen recalls of infant formula for health and safety issues, including seven recalls that were classified as potentially "life threatening".
It is true that some breastfeeding women use plastic baby bottles; however, typically formula fed babies use far more plastic bottles than their breastfed counterparts. The production of such bottles uses vast quantities of energy and natural resources, as well as contributes to pollution. Plastic baby bottles are made from nonrenewable petroleum resources and are part of the larger plastic industry. According to the Green Guide, "Toxic releases from the plastics industry represent 7% of the 5.7 billion pounds of toxic chemicals released or transferred by all manufacturers each year." Furthermore, plastic feeding bottles, nipples, and pacifiers in our landfills can take 200 to 450 years to break down. Your child’s baby bottle will outlive your child!
There is also the issue of a breastfed versus formula-fed baby’s excrement and the environment. If you have ever changed a diaper, especially a cloth diaper, you know the difference! Breastfed baby’s waste is much easier to wash from a cloth diaper, as well as the odor is less offensive. When considering the energy and water involved in washing cloth diapers, breast is definitely best!
There is overwhelming evidence that breastfeeding benefits children, in fact the American Academy of Pediatrics urges mothers to breastfeed for at least a year and beyond, "for as long as mutually desired." For my children, this was about two and half years. Not only does breastfeeding benefit children and mothers, but the environment wins as well. As Mothering Magazine states, "Breastfeeding is not just a lifestyle choice; it is a health issue for mother and infant, a social issue, and an environmental issue…Because of the far-reaching positive ecological, health, and social impact breastfeeding can make on our planet, it is imperative for anyone interested in protecting our children and our environment to do whatever possible to support, protect, and promote breastfeeding." Celebrate Breast Fest today and view The Great Breast Fest Montage!