Figuring out whether or not soy milk is bad for the environment is somewhat a matter of opinion. It really depends on what you consider your threshold for whether or not something is “good” for the environment. As a drink, for example, you’re better off hydrating yourself with water than soy milk. However when comparing soy milk to dairy milk, it’s not even close. Every plant based milk alternative is better for the planet than dairy milk.
Environmental Impact of Dairy
If you haven’t already heard, cows are not good for the planet. Cows are ruminants which means they create methane – a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times as harmful to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. If everyone in America switched from eating beef to chicken, that would be the equivalent of taking 26 million cars off the road. Dairy isn’t quite as bad for the environment as beef, but it’s not great – especially when comparing dairy milk to non-dairy alternatives.
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Environmental Impact of Soy
Like most crops, soy isn’t perfect for the environment. Massive deforestation in the Amazon has occurred to make way for soy farms. But that’s not the whole story. Ironically, most of the soybeans in the world are grown to feed livestock (including dairy cows), not to make soy milk.
First of all, let’s take a look at the carbon footprint (in grams CO2e) of a 200 ml glass of each of the following milks: dairy, soy, almond, and oat.
As you can see, dairy milk is far worse for the planet than milk alternatives from a greenhouse gas emissions standpoint. Dairy milk’s carbon footprint is about 3 times higher than soy milk.
Another consideration to make when determining the environmental impact of soy milk is the water footprint. Below is a chart comparing dairy, soy, almond, and oat milk in terms of the liters of water it takes to produce one liter of milk.
As you can see, almond milk dwarves most other milks when comparing water footprint. After all, it takes more than a gallon of water to produce a single almond, which adds up to 1,611 gallons per liter of almond milk. Even with almond milk overtaking all the competition on water usage, the water footprint of dairy milk is still very high. Dairy milk has a water footprint 3.5 times higher than soy milk.
This blog is about sustainability and saving money though, so no discussion would be complete without talking about the best option for your wallet. No matter which way you look at it, dairy milk is unquestionably cheaper than soy milk. It’s also cheaper than every store bought alternative milk. But, I have a secret weapon: homemade oat milk.
Despite being incredibly easy to make from oats (which are incredibly cheap), store bought oat milk can cost you over $8.00 for a gallon. So my solution is, make it yourself! Here’s the price comparison for a gallon of each milk:
Every Alternative Milk is Better for the Environment
As stated before, every alternative to dairy milk is better for the environment. So, don’t be afraid to make the switch just because the alternative you prefer isn’t perfect. No product in the world is perfect for the planet.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of clickbait articles online which like to point out all the environmental issues with plant based milks. I’m sure it’s fun for people who don’t actually care about the environment to poke fun at people who do because they choose alternative ways of living and eating.
Articles like this one titled “Lay Off the Almond Milk, You Ignorant Hipsters” love to point out everything plant based milks aren’t perfect about (GMO plants, water usage, even carbon footprint), while conveniently ignoring those exact same factors for cow’s milk.
Soy milk is definitely better for the environment than dairy milk. By switching from dairy milk to soy milk for a decade, assuming you drink a gallon every 2 weeks, you would save 199 kg CO2e – the equivalent of burning 219 pounds of coal. If you want to do slightly better for the environment and save some money, consider making your own oat milk at home.
Related: How to Make Oat Milk at Home