Consider the Burger

by Adriana Fernandez for SUST 240

How many of us have said the words, “Can I have a cheeseburger everything on it and an order of fries?” And then thought to yourself, “These fast food companies are getting rich at my expense!” I would have to say that I’ve probably said that more times that I am willing to admit. I live in the city of Chicago where it seems like there’s a fast food establishment on every other corner.

Frenandez blog image 1Until now, I have never thought of the carbon footprint of making a burger. In other words, the total amount of greenhouse gases produced to directly and indirectly support human activities, usually expressed in equivalent tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), that go into producing the amount of beef used in a typical hamburger. It’s hard to believe, but almost everything we do in life leaves a carbon footprint.

According to Fast Food Nation, “Americans eat about 13 billion hamburgers a year. If you put all those burgers in a straight line, they would circle the earth more than 32 times.” So let’s think about what it takes to make a burger — not just what it takes to cook it but the entire process. In other words, the grass that feeds the cattle for the beef and cheese, growing the produce used as condiments, storing and transporting the components, as well as cooking the burger. According to Energy Use in the Food Sector (PDF), a 2000 report from Stockholm University and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, between 1 kilogram and 3.5 kilograms of energy-based carbon dioxide emissions are produced per cheeseburger. Moreover, those numbers are just for the carbon needed to deliver the burgers to the establishment and make them.

We would still need to add the carbon footprint of raising the cattle and feeding it, and the carbon footprint for producing/transporting all the ingredients in your burger. For example, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, ketchup, mustard, pickles. From year to year, greenhouse gas emissions for production and consumption fluctuate, but have been increasing steadily overall, especially in more recent times. According to Annika Carlsson-Kanyama of the Environmental Strategies Research Group in Sweden, the production and consumption of cheeseburgers by Americans is estimated and compared to be 6.5 million to 19.6 million SUVs.

So the next time you order a juicy well prepared burger and most likely spent about $5-10 for your meal, know that there is a lot more cost (and waste) involved in terms of where that burger came from and how it was produced.

Each week during the Fall 2014 / Spring 2015 semesters, students in Prof. Mike Bryson’s SUST 240 Waste classes at Roosevelt University contribute blog posts on urban and suburban sustainability issues to the Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future website.

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About Suburban Sustainability

Founder and editor of the Schaumburg's Sustainability Future social media project (est. Earth Day, 2011)
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