Which are greener, food trucks or sit-down restaurants?

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Food trucks are everywhere these days, and for good reasons; They are a platform for young entrepreneurs to start a business without the costs of a bricks and mortar. They follow the crowds and offer more options. But are they good for the environment, and for the city?

In Ask Pablo: Are Food Trucks Greener Than Restaurants?, Pablo crunched the numbers (which were hard to find and to compare) and went mobile.

Putting numbers to this answer would vary widely, depending on the restaurants and food trucks in question, but the qualitative analysis above clearly favors the food truck.

Sarah Johnson at the Atlantic, in Are Food Trucks Worse for the Environment Than Storefronts? comes up with a different conclusion. It wasn't easy; energy consumption can vary widely, depending on the type of food being prepared. She picked a relatively straightforward example, and compared a mobile cupcake truck to a fixed storefront cupcake store. She took the estimated CO2 output from each establishment and divided it by the number of cupcakes sold.

Curbside: [mobile] 15.68 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per hour open divided by 15 cupcakes sold per hour open = 1.05 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per cupcake

Red Velvet: [fixed] 101.27 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per hour open divided by 156.25 cupcakes sold per hour open = 0.65 pounds of carbon equivalent emissions per cupcake

The mobile cupcake operation is generating significantly more CO2 per cupcake.

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But there are so many variables. A food truck can go to where the crowds are, instead of waiting for the clients to find them. So they might sell a lot more stuff per hour, lowering the carbon footprint of each unit sold. They don't have a restaurant to heat and cool, just a tiny kitchen on wheels. Then there are the externalities, such as how people get there. Sara Johnson writes:

Roger Hedrick, senior engineer for the Architectural Energy Corporation and author of the restaurant benchmarking report, sums up the debate nicely. He says that the "big kicker" boils down to: is it more efficient for the food to go to where the people are or have the people go to where the food is?

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Then there is perhaps a social cost as well as environmental. On the other side of the street from Toronto's Trinity-Bellwoods park, blocked by this wall of food trucks during the fall art fair, are a number of little restaurants that use china plates and provide washrooms for their customers. It might be a big day for them, with so many people in the park, a day that will make up for all the slow ones when they are open but serving just a few locals. Or it might be a slow one, because nobody can see them, and half the parking on Queen Street has been taken over by food trucks. This is where it all gets complicated.

Tags: Carbon Emissions | Carbon Footprint | Food Miles

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