While many green enthusiasts celebrated the rise in Imperial’s coffee cup levy from 15p to 25p this September, there has been a new surcharge that has gone relatively unannounced.

Behold the new, sneaky little 30p surcharge on plant-based milks which has been introduced across Imperial food outlets. Now, choosing plant-based milk over the dairy equivalent in your hot drinks will become a costlier affair.

But what does this mean for the environment?

With green ads constantly reminding us to reduce meat consumption in order to save the Earth, the environmental benefits of swapping out dairy products for plant-based alternatives have been sorely understated.

According to a study by the University of Oxford, the greenhouse gas emissions from producing a glass of dairy milk is threefold that of other non-dairy milks. This can be attributed to the loss of carbon sinks when forests are cleared to make way for pastures, along with the gargantuan volume of methane produced from livestock rearing (an average of 70 to 120 kg per cow per year to be exact – yikes).

Higher greenhouse gas emission rates in turn accelerate the pace of global warming, which subject our planet to more dangerous effects of climate change. Moreover, dairy production is more land and water intensive compared to the production of other plant-based milks, making it a triple threat to the environment and its scarce resources.

By making dairy options cheaper than plant-based ones, it is safe to say that customers will be less keen to reduce their dairy intake, leading to further fuelling of the ongoing climate crisis.

Non-dairy milk options are also often healthier

As much of the fat in regular milk is saturated, the NHS has warned that excess consumption could potentially lead to weight gain and raised cholesterol levels, putting one at increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Milk also may contain antibiotics (used by farmers to prevent cows from getting sick), which may have an adverse effect on gut health, by damaging good bacteria, and disrupting the balance of gut microbiome.

On the other hand, plant-based milks contain largely unsaturated fats, is high in fibre, is antibiotic-free, and offer a plethora of added health benefits when fortified with calcium and vitamins.

The environmental impact of plant-based milk varies

Though proving to be far better alternatives than the standard dairy options, different plant-based milks have varying degrees of effectiveness in protecting the Earth.

For instance, soybeans and almonds grow in conditions unlike those in the UK, chalking up hefty environmental demerit points due to fuel consumption from their transportation.

At the same time, the production of almond milk is the most water-intensive out of all other plant-based milks, with a single glass requiring 74 litres (more than the typical shower!). Not far behind, rice milk is the second thirstiest on the list, with a total of 54 litres of water used to make one glass.

However, it must be noted that these plant-based alternatives are still far superior to dairy milk when comparing different factors of environmental friendliness.

Fighting to abolish the surcharge

Thankfully, a student has boldly stepped up to try and reverse this absurd policy. Environmental and Ethics Officer ‘19/20, Francesca Siracusa, has spearheaded a campaign to collect student and staff perspectives on the surcharge, hoping to discuss the situation with the relevant authorities as soon as possible.

Having enjoyed soy and alternative milks for free during her four years at Imperial, Francesca was surprised and frustrated to hear of the additional 30p charge.

Market research findings all point to a skyrocketing demand for plant-based milk in recent years as consumers are developing a better awareness of their environmental and health benefits. Thus, Francesca believes that the 30p surcharge could negatively affect the sales of campus food outlets as people who do not or cannot consume dairy may reduce or completely stop purchasing hot drinks from them.

Moreover, she believes that this form of tax disincentivises people from making an effort to reduce their dairy consumption and carbon footprint, especially since 30p is a disproportionately high charge for the small volume of plant-based milk in one hot drink.

Your invaluable role in this campaign

To ensure that views of the Imperial body are heard, Francesca has created a quick survey to gather perspectives to present during her meeting with the Imperial catering leadership team. As of today (23rd October), there have already been 288 responses – but Francesca is optimistic that there could (and should) be far more!

By taking less than a minute of your time to fill in her short survey (accessed via the QR code below), you too can be a proponent for a more plant-based Imperial.

Even if you happen to agree with the surcharge, it would be great to type in your responses so that Francesca understands where you are coming from and can represent you accurately.

In summary

With the thermostat quickly dropping as winter approaches, the new charges imposed could not have come at a worse time as students and staff turn to hot drinks to warm up. This 30p fee, though numerically small, is a big statement that shed lights on the university’s true attitude towards sustainability.

As the school body, our collective voice has the power to champion the fight for a healthier planet. Let us act before it is too late.

To find out more about Francesca’s campaign or if you have any questions/concerns/feedback, contact Francesca at enviro@ic.ac.uk.