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Ruscena Wiederholt headshot

Shaking It Up: Shake Shack Embraces Carbon Neutral Milk

A Shake Shack location — carbon neutral milk

(Image: Jim Nix/Flickr) 

Once a mixture of eggs, cream and whiskey in the 1800s, the kid-friendly milkshake of today has come a long way. Yet, despite its innocuous composition, that strawberry swirl isn’t all sunshine and roses. 

Dairy is known for its environmental impact, especially its fairly sizable carbon footprint. The industry contributes around 2 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., nearly one-fifth of agriculture’s total emissions. While the dairy industry has made strides — reducing its carbon footprint by 45 percent from 1964 to 2014 — there’s still room for improvement. 

Businesses like Shake Shack are stepping up to make milk more eco-friendly. Recently, the restaurant chain piloted milk from Neutral Foods, the first carbon neutral food company in the U.S., in its signature shakes. Its carbon neutral dairy line also helps farmers, meaning that strawberry frosted donut shake just got a little sweeter for the planet. 

Milk’s environmental footprint 

At first glance, dairy might not seem so bad for the environment, but just like meat, it starts with cows and other livestock. Cows, which produce the majority of our milk, need a lot of water and energy to create it. The dairy industry uses over three percent of water and nearly three percent of land in the U.S., requiring many more resources than plant-based alternatives. Nonetheless, the industry has greatly reduced its environmental footprint from the 1940s — using 90 percent less land, 65 percent less water and 77 percent less feed by the early 2000s.

Besides resource use, dairy farming also emits greenhouse gases

“Basically on dairy farms, the emissions come from three major sources,” said Jake Schmitz, a carbon reduction manager at Neutral. “That would be from the manure storage, from the enteric cow burps, and then from growing crops to feed the cows.”

Enteric refers to the intestines. Animals like cattle, sheep and goats release methane, a potent greenhouse gas, during digestion. Methane is 28 times better at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide and livestock are the single largest agricultural source of these emissions.

Dairy farms can also pollute the air, along with groundwater and freshwater. In some cases, this can lead to algal blooms that harm aquatic life. 

Carbon neutral milkshakes 

Despite these drawbacks, Shake Shack is reaching for the silver lining in that ice cream cone. The company first partnered with Neutral in 2022, launching its carbon-neutral whole milk in a few locations. Now, they’re expanding to 90 restaurants in the Northeastern U.S.

“Knowing we sell shakes, and a lot of them, at Shake Shack, we thought it would make sense to address our fluid dairy supply, which is a really high-impact ingredient,” said Corey Blumenthal, a sustainability specialist at Shake Shack. “Everybody knows dairy and meat are very carbon intense … We were really looking hard for a partner who would be able to continue to help us serve the shakes that we know and love but with more sustainability, and that's where I came across Neutral.” 

Neutral is certified by SCS Global Services, which confirms the carbon footprint of their operations, emission reductions and carbon offsets each year. So far, the partnership has helped lower Shake Shack’s emissions. 

“By purchasing Neutral milk versus conventional milk, we've avoided around 375 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent [emissions],” Blumenthal said. “Which, using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Greenhouse Gas Equivalency Calculator, is actually equivalent to the carbon dioxide emissions from burning 413 pounds of coal — so a huge impact on the greenhouse gases that are emitted and associated with the ingredients that we're sourcing.”

Ideally, that’s just the start. Shake Shack’s goal is to further expand its partnership with Neutral, Blumenthal said. 

“It's very fascinating when I go to farms and I say, ‘Hey your milk is going to be in Shack Shake’s milkshakes,’” Schmitz said. “It gives them a little bit of pride about that and they get excited about it … It really does help them to start brainstorming to see what they can do next: ‘How can I be a little bit better than I was yesterday?’”

Shake Shack also has other sustainability initiatives to lower their carbon footprint. For instance, they’ve recycled around 2 million pounds of cooking oil and donated 3,000 pounds of surplus ingredients to avoid food waste. They’re also introducing more sustainable packaging, including carbon-neutral straws, and installing solar panels at certain locations.

An array of Shake Shack's milkshakes, which now use carbon neutral milk.
Shake Shack milkshakes. (Image courtesy of Neutral Foods.)

Neutral's approach

For its part, Neutral is tackling the world of cows, curds and cream with a passion for sustainability. It uses a two-fold approach when partnering with farmers: directly reducing emissions from dairy farms and then offsetting any remaining ones. 

“When we go on to a farm, I evaluate how the farm’s infrastructure is set up, how management is happening, and then I just evaluate from there to look for interventions that would have the biggest impact for the farmer, and also deliver some co-benefits for the farmer,” Schmitz said.

The company helps slash a farm’s emissions through several methods and offers financial assistance.

“One product that I love a lot, and call it my gateway intervention, is this essential oil product called Agolin,” Schmitz said. “It's basically a blend of three essential oils.” 

Small amounts of the mixture are fed to the cows to help reduce methane emissions from their burps. 

“Inside the rumen [a stomach compartment], that environment creates the perfect environment for a little bacteria called methanogens, and those methanogens produce methane,” Schmitz said. “So what this essential oil does, is it kills some of those methanogens. Not all of them, but some of them. And those methanogens are basically just stealing feed from the cow.”

The product reduces methane emissions by around 8 percent and helps the cows by increasing milk production, body condition and reproductive rates. 

On the other end of things, manure and how it’s managed makes a difference. 

Farmers often store manure in lagoons for water quality reasons, Schmitz said. But this causes other environmental issues. 

“Manure is a big problem because anytime you get solids and liquids in the same environment, like in a lagoon, then you have those methanogens again,” Schmitz said. “They thrive in that environment, and they just create tons of methane.” 

If manure is composted in dry conditions with oxygen, it releases less methane and more carbon dioxide. While both gases contribute to global warming, methane is much more potent.

“What I'm trying to do is get that manure back out of the lagoons and into either a dry stack situation, a daily spread onto productive agricultural land, or through a solid-liquid separator with the projects that we're developing right now with some farmers in New York,” Schmitz said. 

As its name suggests, the solid-liquid separators divide the liquid and solid parts of the manure. Besides the greenhouse gas reduction, farmers can also spread those solids as fertilizer on fields several miles away, Schmitz said. As you can imagine, moving large amounts of liquid muck is tricky. 

Neutral has a few other projects in the dairy pipeline, such as adopting electric-powered vehicles on farms, reducing fertilizer use, and using feed and cover crops to uptake carbon and limit fertilizer and water use.

In the last step of working with farmers, the company offsets any lingering emissions by investing in green energy projects on dairy farms. These farms capture biogas and methane released from manure and combust them to create electricity. The operations are verified by the Climate Action Reserve, American Carbon Registry and Verra to ensure the reductions are audited and permanent. 

The future of frappes

Despite the surging popularity of plant-based alternatives, milk sales in the U.S. are still high, reaching over $59 billion in 2022. And the global dairy market is predicted to continue growing. Sourcing sustainable ingredients is a great way for businesses to go green, while also being an easy choice for consumers. 

“Consumers are able to continue to get what they would have gotten before, but know that Shake Shack has done the work on the back end to make it a more sustainable product for them,” Blumenthal said. 

If that product comes in the form of a chocolate salted caramel shake, all the better.

Ruscena Wiederholt headshot

Ruscena Wiederholt is a science writer based in South Florida with a background in biology and ecology. She regularly writes pieces on climate change, sustainability and the environment. When not glued to her laptop, she likes traveling, dancing and doing anything outdoors.

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