The Ultimate Guide to eco-friendly dairy alternatives in 2020

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Plant-Based Milk: Which Alternative Is The Most Climate-Friendly?

Dairy alternatives are all the rage now. But concerns about their environmental impact have cropped up lately. Although all vegan milks are far more sustainable than cow’s milk, there’s a stark difference between the eco-friendliness of the different nut- and plant-based alternatives available. Which dairy alternative is the most sustainable?

In November, Vegan 2019, the latest version of an annual documentary about veganism was screened at Leicester Square’s Prince Charles Cinema. The hour-long film touched upon many aspects of the plant-based lifestyle, but what stood out to us was the emphasis on cows as a source of meat and producer of milk.

It’s no secret that cows release high levels of methane, a strong greenhouse gas. The dairy industry has one of the highest carbon footprints in any sector, with cow’s milk having an impact three times the size of any other milk alternative.

How much impact does dairy milk have on the environment?

A 200ml glass of cow’s milk produces 0.6kg of carbon dioxide equivalent. To put that into perspective, a daily serving for a year would be the same as driving a regular petrol car for 585 miles. It also requires 1.8 sq m of land for the production of a single glass, in addition to the 125.6l of water used.

So, we compared dairy alternatives to find out how eco-friendly they are. The environmental impact statistics are sourced from a recent University of Oxford study, unless specified otherwise. For uniformity, all measures of glasses are 200ml.

Dairy Alternative 1: Soy Milk

guide to the best dairy free milk alternatives

The original dairy alternative, soy milk has taken a backseat with the rise of newer, trendier vegan milks. However, it remains one of the most water-friendly plant-based milks, with only 5.6l water required to produce a glass of soy milk.

The carbon emissions of soy milk amount to 0.195kg of CO2e per glass, which is marginally higher than oat and almond milk. Soybean cultivation requires 0.14 sq m of land per glass, and has become a major cause of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. However, only about 10 per cent of soybeans are used for milking purposes, with the rest being used for animal feeding and oil production.

We Recommend: Happy Happy Soy Boy

Dairy Alternative 2: Almond Milk

guide to the best dairy free milk alternatives

While it may be the most popular milk alternative now, almond milk has some negative connotations for the environment. A glass of almond milk needs 74l of water for production, which is by far the highest amount of water for a non-dairy milk.

But its greenhouse gas emissions are amongst the lowest, at 0.14kg CO2e per glass. Almonds also require little land for the same amount of milk, at 0.1 sq m.

These positives still don’t balance out the heavy use of water, which is a major issue considering that over 80 per cent of almonds grow in California. The US state has seen many droughts and wildfires over the last few years, and the concentration of almond cultivation leads to increasing carbon footprints the farther you live from California.

We Recommend: Califia Farms Almond Milk

Dairy Alternative 3: Oat Milk

guide to the best dairy free milk alternatives

Appearing in more and more coffee shops, oat milk finds a suitable balance in terms of its environmental impact. Its carbon emissions are low, at 0.18kg CO2e per glass, while the land use is slightly higher than soy or almond milk, with 0.16 sq m of land needed to end up with one glass of oat milk.

Oats don’t require a lot of water for growth, only 9.6l per 200ml glass, and this alternative tends to be favoured by baristas, as its thick texture makes it ideal for steaming and foaming.

We Recommend: Oatly

Dairy Alternative 4: Coconut Milk

guide to the best dairy free milk alternatives

Coconut milk has quite a small environmental footprint, owing to the minimal use of water for growing coconuts. According to estimates, a 200ml glass of coconut milk only requires 0.5l of water, in stark contrast with other plant- and nut-based milks.

Coconut trees have the ability to filter out carbon dioxide, which helps fight greenhouse gases. However, since coconuts are usually grown in tropical areas, the transportation drives up the carbon footprint.

We Recommend: Koko

Dairy Alternative 5: Hemp Milk

guide to the best dairy free milk alternatives

Touted as the most planet-friendly milk alternative, it’s a fairly recent addition to the lineup. Hemp production needs relatively fewer pesticides and herbicides, and crops can filter out CO2, taking in twice the amount it releases. Being a non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) plant, it does not reduce the soil’s nutritional content.

Help cultivation does require more water than oats or soybeans, but on the flip side, there’s very less wastage as most of the plant is usable.

We Recommend: Good Hemp Seed Milk

Dairy Alternative 6: Macadamia Milk

guide to the best dairy free milk alternatives

Macadamia milk is the newest on this list, and the cheekily-named US-based company Milkadamia is leading the charge. Billed as a climate-friendly establishment, the macadamia nuts are grown with regenerative farming methods with minimal fertilisation and irrigation, and are free of GMOs.

The barista version of their milk is also palm-oil free, which reduces the environmental footprint considerably. However, as macadamia nuts are native to Australian rainforests, and the milk is processed in the US, the carbon emissions of Milkadamia rise due to transportation.

We Recommend: Milkadamia Latte Da Barista Blend

Putting it all together – which plant-based milk has the lowest enviromental impact?

The BBC have charted figures from research by Poore & Nemecek (2018) for some of the milks mentioned above:

Environmental comparison of dairy milk versus several non-dairy milks

Whilst almond milk has the lowest emissions, and second lowest land use, the water use is much higher than other non-dairy milks, though still far less than dairy.

Oat milk strikes a good balance between all three environmental factors, and would be our all-round pick for the best non-dairy milk to use.

Next up: Plant-Based Milk Surcharges. Enough Is Enough


Anay Mridul
Anay Mridul
Anay is journalism graduate from City, University of London, he was a barista for three years, and never shuts up about coffee. He's passionate about coffee, plant-based milk, cooking, eating, veganism, writing about all that, profiling people, and the Oxford Comma. Originally from India, he went vegan in 2020, after attempting (and failing) Veganuary. He believes being environmentally conscious is a basic responsibility, and veganism is the best thing you can do to battle climate change. He gets lost at Whole Foods sometimes.