How does breastfeeding benefit Mother Earth?
We hear a lot about the benefits of breastfeeding to mom and baby - healthy gut bacteria for baby, reduced risk of breast cancer for mom- but what about how breastfeeding benefits Mother Earth?


The beauty of breastfeeding is in its simplicity. Breastfeeding requires no packaging, no shipping, and no buying or selling. There is no waste (unless you count leaky breasts). In our modern world, humans produce waste that takes thousands of years to be absorbed back into the environment, but breast milk is a zero-waste product. Other than the little extra water mothers need to drink during lactation, it has a zero-water footprint. In fact, breastmilk has been called the most environmentally friendly food available.

Other environmental benefits of breastfeeding may be less obvious. Most women enjoy a break from menstruating while breastfeeding; on average a woman's period is delayed for 14 months. During her lifetime, a woman will throw away 250 to 300 pounds of tampons, applicators, and pads. While the impact of 13 to 14 missed cycles might seem small for one person, the aggregate effect of a menstrual cycle delay, involving millions of women across the country, could make a significant dent in the amount of waste we produce from used feminine products.

Related: 10 Things I Stopped Buying Since Going Eco-Friendly

Breastfed babies are less likely to develop acute illnesses, such as ear infections, but breastmilk also preps their immune system for life. Children who were breastfed are at less risk of developing major diseases, such as Leukemia and type 2 diabetes. Children who were breastfed will likely consume less medicine in their lifetime, keeping those dangerous chemical compounds out of our landfills and our drinking water.

Breastfeeding isn't completely free, though. Exclusive breastfeeding requires most mothers to consume about 500 extra calories per day, as well as enough fluid. That means moms may need two or three nutrient-rich snacks per day, in addition to three well-balanced meals.

Locally-sourced food may help offset the environmental costs associated with these extra calories, as well as following a healthy diet. In fact, one study showed that following a nationally recommended diet, one focused on consuming more fruits and vegetables, helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Breastfeeding advocates argue that breastmilk is a valuable, renewable resource in its own right, and some health officials have argued that undermining breastfeeding is equivalent to the destruction of a natural resource, akin to logging the rainforest or overfishing the seas. While this might seem like an extreme response, officials who undercut efforts to promote breastfeeding worldwide are certainly acting in favor of a man-made product over a natural one, and man-made products almost always have higher environmental costs.

From the powder to the container to the bottle, the production of infant formula requires a massive amount of energy and chokes our landfills. In the U.S., the supply chain uses more than 32 million kilowatts of energy every year to process, package, and transport formula. Researchers estimate that 550 million cans, 86,000 tons of metal, and 364,000 tons of paper are dumped into landfills every year from formula packaging waste. Petroleum, an un-renewable resource, is needed to make bottles, nipples, and packaging. While the plastic formula containers are recyclable, many still end up in a landfill.

Most formulas are processed using cow's milk, the production of which requires lots of land and water. Researchers estimate that a whopping 1,241 gallons of water is needed to make approximately two pounds of infant formula (converted from metric). Furthermore, the cattle industry is the second largest contributor to methane emissions. Methane is a greenhouse gas and is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Meanwhile, pesticides and fertilizers used on corn fields for cow feed, as well as plain-old manure, run-off into rivers and lakes. This run-off pollutes drinking water sources and can make water too toxic to consume.

For example, algae blooms in Lake Erie, now occurring on an almost annual basis, have affected the drinking water supply for lake-side communities in Ohio. In 2014, the 500,000 people who live in or around the city of Toledo had to stop using their drinking water after algae contamination. The sad irony of that crisis is that all mothers, both breastfeeding and bottle-feeding, had to rely on packaged water to drink or to feed their babies.

Related: Most of World's Babies Miss Out on First Breastfeed

Breastfeeding impacts all of us, directly and indirectly. Breastmilk is a powerful natural resource that requires much less than formula in terms of inputs and in terms of costs on the environment. Mothers who breastfeed, fully or partially, can make a difference in the health of our planet. Hopefully, policymakers and employers can keep up with us.