Nowadays, Americans eat out or grab some take-out food more and more often, oftentimes several meals each week. Have you ever considered what is the carbon footprint of fast food? Just think about you or your friends’ eating patterns of late, and you will probably quickly realize that “Houston, we have a problem”.
Meal time convenience has its obvious benefits, however, each convenience is incrementally enlarging your carbon footprint (and waistline) in the name of convenience and cost. So what is the carbon footprint of fast food?
First of all these fast food chains source their ingredients from large agricultural operations, which are typically located in food production centers such as California, the central Midwest, and Florida. Sourcing for industrial-sized factory farms is the only type of food production operation that can reliably provide the cost-effective ingredients, critical to the affordable prices of your fast food meal.
Fast food chains have a tightly controlled source of suppliers and closely manage the warehouse processing of their ingredients. These chain restaurants receive supplies from large processing center, which either ship directly to the store or to a network of distribution centers which are typically in the metro hinterlands and required an 18 wheel refrigerated tractor-trailer quickly running from the processing center, to a large freezer warehouse, maybe even to another nearly distribution center and finally to the local restaurant’s kitchen freezer.
There’s a lot of CO2 embedded in that burger or chicken sandwich – even that more earth friendly marginally fresh salad.
Let’s just focus on the burger option for a moment.
First of all, beef is highly CO2 intensive. In a gram-to-gram comparison, much more CO2 is involved in a gram of beef then any other mainstream meat. Cattle are extremely impactful to the environment, consume mind-boggling amounts of water, burp the highly environmental harmful methane, and are both labor and energy intensive in its processing, storage, and distribution. Compared to the other meat and protein options, beef is an environmental disaster.
Put this all together, and it is better to avoid fast food as much as possible, in the name of your carbon footprint. We can’t reasonably completely avoid it, but each increment of avoidance takes a life-long nibble out of your carbon footprint.
Besides the well-known giants, there are many more regional or local fast food chains,which may be shipping foods from shorter distances. However, the concept of fast food – that is, lesser quality food, usually means that fast food corporations must buy from bulk suppliers in the first place (not your local, organic farm exactly), so the carbon footprint is higher than a local restaurant’s or cooking food yourself.
If this transportation factor is not enough to get you to keep your distance, the concept of taking food out implies that there will be plastic and styrofoam packaging, and maybe disposable utensils and a takeout bag too. That’s injecting even more petroleum into this already oily equation.
Lastly, either cooking locally sourced non-industrialized products or supermarket-purchased food instead of settling for the fast food will benefit your health too. You will also appreciate and savor this food more because you have to invest in the preparation.
In the end, it’s a better for the environment and your health.
Two great reads about food production with shocking insights for those curioius in dive deeper into what really is the carbon footprint of fast food? Download one of these or watch this video: