Vegan for the Environment? The Environmental Impact of Food Delivery Apps May Be Making Things Worse

Published on December 30, 2019

Say it ain’t so, it turns out that eating out or ordering food via food delivery apps often creates a massive carbon footprint. Where many are touting the benefits of a vegan diet to offset a carbon footprint, it turns out that eating out can often mean that you’re undoing all of that work even with a clean diet. If you order takeout a lot but you eat a vegan diet, does that mean that your carbon footprint is just as bad as if you cooked meat at home?

The answer is, as you may imagine, not simple enough to be able to say yes or no. It’s not that you need to give up your Uber Eats addiction cold turkey in the name of the planet, but choosing to live sustainably may require some adjustments to your current lifestyle.

Is Meat Consumption As Bad For The Environment As Studies Show?

One scroll through vegan Twitter will leave you with one major takeaway in just seconds: eating meat is bad for the environment. But why? Surely the piles of trash that meat containers from the grocery store cause are not the only reason that eating meat is considered one of the biggest ways to contribute to a carbon footprint.

While farming, specifically meat farming, accounts for thousands of jobs in the United States and represents a significant portion of our economy, the science of eating meat leaves behind a carbon footprint bigger than any non-meat eater ever could, with lamb, beef, and cheese sitting at the top of that list.

Meat lovers, judging by that information, leave the highest carbon footprint while vegans leave the least. Even simply cutting beef out of your diet can cut your carbon footprint by as much as 1.5 tons of CO2 emissions per year. In fact, cutting beef out of your diet can reduce your carbon footprint more than giving up driving a car.

Beef and beef products are the biggest contributors to the carbon footprints of meat eaters because cows produce methane gas in addition to consuming large amounts of agricultural goods. In order to feed cows that are turned into meat, land must be turned into agricultural farms, crops must be grown and harvested, and then moved around the country to be fed to livestock.

Running slaughterhouses and factories that turn animals into meat products also takes a lot of energy. Once meat is chopped, it gets packaged into individual, single use plastic and styrofoam containers and shipped to stores around the country. By the time a steak or package of ground beef makes it home to your fridge (which uses more energy to keep things cold), it’s carbon footprint has emitted as much as 6 pounds of CO2 gas into the environment.

So What About Eating Out, But Eating Vegan?

So let’s say you go vegan for environmental purposes, that’s great. But let’s also say that you find yourself ordering in and going out to restaurants twice as often as before because it’s convenient to do so, rather than find new recipes to cook at home. With so many vegan restaurant options around the United States today, it’s tempting to simply call in an Uber Eats dinner that will meet you at your home after work.

Not only has your meal created a carbon footprint through agriculture, but it also has the added carbon footprint of being made in a restaurant and making it to your door. Add in the packaging and carbon footprint that the Uber Eats driver (lets say they drove, rather than took a bike) created by picking up your order and bringing it to your door, and your Impossible Burger could very well have created the same carbon footprint as a steak sandwich made at home, if not more. Here is a study about how restaurant food often creates a higher carbon footprint by default, once everything from ingredient sourcing to waste management has been calculated.

It does not, however, account for how food delivery services contribute to an even greater footprint. To calculate that carbon footprint you would have to figure out what the footprint of your individual meal is, which is likely higher than a home-cooked meal since it was made to order, requiring just as much kitchen energy as a multi-serving meal.

From there, add in the energy it takes to power food delivery apps like Uber Eats or Postmates. Each app requires energy to store data (more on that here), operate, handle transactions, and host servers, in addition to the carbon footprint of the employees that have to use energy to get to work in order to create the apps and keep them running in the first place. That alone is enough to send me into an existential tailspin. Where does it end? With the cobalt mining for the battery that powers my iPhone? yikes. You’d still be using your phone regardless of whether or not you ordered an Impossible Burger on food delivery apps, but it is something to think about.

All in all, it’s really hard to track your carbon footprint if you have to use multiple resources like food delivery apps in order to get the food into your mouth. Want to cut back on your carbon footprint? The answer is easy. Eat at home more, or eat at restaurants that are transparent about their sourcing.

I have a favorite coffee shop that imports its beans directly from Australia, but is that espresso (while it may be jet fuel for my day) really worth the added carbon emissions into the earth? Local will do. I hope Greta Thunberg would be proud of me.

Offsetting Your Restaurant Footprint

That being said, not all restaurant experiences are created equal, but with health standards to abide by, is your restaurant meal possibly contributing to a greater carbon footprint than cooking at home? The answer is less black and white than you would think because the answer depends on each and every restaurant individually.

Cutting back on your carbon footprint may involve cooking at home more, but you can also make small changes by looking into how your favorite restaurants source their ingredients. Farm to table restaurants may mean you pay a bit more, but it also means that agricultural ingredients are sourced locally rather than shipped in from far away places. The shorter the supply chain, the lesser the impact.

Julia Sachs is a former Managing Editor at Grit Daily. She covers technology, social media and disinformation. She is based in Utah and before the pandemic she liked to travel.

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