Fast Food, Faster Climate Change

Is he really such a nice guy?

One of the most memorable scenes in Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” is when he is relaying his physical condition after his first all McDonald’s day. He chronicles his McHeartburn, McNausea and McGas. Then he throws up.

So if all that nastiness is going into our bodies through fast food, what is going into our environment? Unfortunately, it’s more than just McNasty fumes.

This statistic, initially printed on Treehugger, made its way around the blogosphere a few months ago; cooking four normal sized hamburgers in a fast food joint emits the same amount of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) as driving a current model car for 1,000 miles. And according to a Hong Kong study (PDF) in response to complaints from Hong Kong residence about odor from fast food restaurants “Apart from nuisance, cooking fumes may also contribute to the emission of fine particulates and volatile organic substances. A few studies suggested the possibility of increasing the lung cancer risk due to cooking fume emissions.”

The study also chronicles the actual components of the fumes in addition to the substantial quantity of particulate emissions. They include “oil, fats, aliphatic hydrocarbons, poly-aromatic hydrocarbons, aromatic amines, aldehydes (formaldehyde and acetaldehyde) and elemental carbon.” The study suggests that restaurants, particularly those using char-broilers and roasting equipment, be required to fit advanced control equipment with kitchen exhaust systems in order to reduce air pollution.

San Francisco is already requiring that all restaurants be equipped with catalytic converters, just like cars are required to have. Statewide, California has set emissions standards for chain-driven char-broilers. And when New Jersey was considering ways to improve air quality (PDF), the emissions from the state’s 16,000 restaurants (2,226 tons of particulates) was enough to warrant inclusion of reduction methods in the plan. In fact, those emissions are more than all of the heavy diesel vehicles in the state (1,329 tons). (Informed readers will know from watching The Sopranos that New Jersey is all about the diesel trucks, too.) Like in California, the New Jersey study pinpoints fast food chains as the worst culprits among restaurants in terms of air quality.

And what about the greenhouse gas emissions from fast food? The Cheeseburger Footprint Calculator is pretty interesting. They clock the average cheeseburger as coming in at 3.6-6.1 kg of CO2 emissions per cheeseburger, calculating in the methane emissions from cattle production. If we accept that the average American eats 1 – 3 of these charred, burnt flesh bombs, I mean tasty delights, each and every week, that is the equivalent of 6.5 to 19.6 million SUVs on the road in addition to the 16 million gas guzzlers we already have.

Wired Magazine has covered this, as well, with this juicy statistic – “Eight quarter pounders generate the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as driving for three hours while burning a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.” And then there is the clear cutting of forests to get more land to raise cows, to make more ground beef, to make more burgers, to feed more people who wait for a bag of cholesterol, fat, chemicals, hormones and sugar to come through a small window while their SUV idles. To be fair to the meat eaters, buying organic beef reduces the greenhouse gas emission by 40% and the energy consumption by 85%, so there is a way to eat beef without being an energy and carbon hog, just not at McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Jack in the Box, In and Out Burger, Carl’s Jr. or any fast food restaurant with the exception of AstroBurger. Oh how I love Astroburger! Just stay away from the Maui Gardenburger, that’s just gross!

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sarah hughes (anonymous)

i never had fast foods

Written in February 2009

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  • Posted on Feb. 7, 2008. Listed in:

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