Greenwash makes its way to green Guelph …

A few months ago I blogged about drive through’s here in Guelph. It was one of the most looked at blogs on my site for some time. Our mayor has also started to discuss this. It’s an interesting topic for debate.

As I said in my previuos blog, I use them only if I feel I have to. I have the kids in my car, I can see that I’m the only one in line etc…

Environmentalists are usually very quick to denounce these drive throughs and to quickly judge those that use them.

I will admit that I have curbed the use of them myself over the last year.

Anyways, check out these findings to help launch us into another debate about those drive through’s!

Every day, millions of Canadians enjoy the convenience and safety of drive-through restaurant service.  Parents with infants, people with mobility challenges, seniors…for these groups the drive-through is a vital service.  It’s also a safe option for anyone traveling at night or in bad weather.

Some people are concerned about the environmental impact of drive-throughs and want to see them banned or restricted.  But the facts tell a very different – and perhaps surprising – story:  Drive throughs are an environmentally responsible option for restaurant customers.

Five Facts About Drive-throughs

  1. A restaurant with a drive-through creates fewer smog pollutants and greenhouse gases than a comparable restaurant with a parking lot and no drive through.  (Source:  RWDI Air Inc.)
  2. When cars idle for 10 seconds to 10 minutes they create the same or fewer emissions compared to shutting down the engine and restarting it.  (Source:  GW Taylor Consulting for Natural Resources Canada)
  3. Emissions created at drive-throughs are very small in relation to other common emissions sources.  During a peak hour, smog pollutant emissions from vehicles using a busy drive-through are about the same as a single chain saw operating for one hour.  (Source:  RWDI Air Inc.)
  4. Drive-throughs generate little in the way of new traffic.  Most people use drive-throughs as a stop-off on trips they’re already taking.
  5. With today’s modern engines, drivers are better off idling their engines at the drive-through than turning the engine off and on again.  (Source:  Automotive expert Doug Bethune)

Restaurant operators work closely with municipalities across the country to design and run drive-throughs that respect and meet the needs of each community.  They continually strive to reduce service times and improve drive-through locations.

Related Information

There are several scientific studies and expert commentary on the issues of idling and  drive-throughs.  The findings may surprise you:

1. Is it better to shut off my engine and restart it, or idle the car for a few minutes? This study for Natural Resources Canada finds that idling for anywhere from 10 seconds to 10 minutes creates the same or slightly lower emissions than stopping and restarting your car engine:

Research Report — Review of the Incidence, Energy Use and Costs of Passenger Vehicle Idling, Final Report (March 2003).  Prepared for Office of Energy Efficiency, Natural Resources Canada.  Prepared by GW Taylor Consulting, Woodlawn, ON
Download PDF

2. Are anti-idling laws really better for the environment? This expert warns of the unintended consequences:

CBC Radio Interview – Shelagh Rogers speaks with automotive expert Doug Bethune about idling cars.
Read transcript (PDF)

3. What is the environmental impact of drive-through bans? This 1997 report from Sierra Research found that drive-through bans for air quality purposes are counterproductive and may actually result in higher emissions.

Research Summary — An Analysis of the Effect on Emissions of Allowing Drive-Thru Service Lanes (Nov. 1997). Conducted by Sierra Research, Sacramento, CA, for the California Business Properties Association.

Response to the drive through’s – What do you think?

Scott said,

June 26, 2008 @ 8:32 pm

You really should disclose the fact that your source for this information is the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association. In fact, you appear to have copied verbatim an entire page from CRFA’s web site:

I hardly think CRFA is an honest broker in this debate. I think you do your readers a disservice by not disclosing the source and by not pointing out that CRFA has an obvious self-interest in this issue.

June 19, 2008 · Filed under Green Guelph

Hi. I came across your posting below; may I try to shed a bit more light on the issue of drive throughs and emissions?

Re the five facts, I think there’s more to the story. Here are a few thoughts:
1. There is a difference between smog forming and greenhouse gas emissions. Most people don’t know that, or that cars produce both. Modern cars produce very low levels of smog forming emissions thanks to their catalytic converters. However, greenhouse gas production is directly proportional to fuel burned. If you burn 1 litre of fuel, you produce 2.4 KG carbon dioxide, period. So an engine that is running is always producing greenhouse gas emissions, and one that is shut off is not. To the point raised in #1: I’m guessing that the study is misquoted, and that only the smog forming emissions are equal whether you park and shut off an engine or use a drive through (again, mainly because smog forming emissions are such a controllable part of the emissions of a new car). It’s worth noting that the RWDI Air study was commissioned by Tim Horton’s, and isn’t public. I don’t know about you, but I’m always uneasy about that type of research scenario.

2. This is clearly a reference to smog forming emissions, not greenhouse gas emissions, but it doesn’t indicate that.

3. I think the logic of the first sentence is shaky: since so much fuel is used in regular traffic, it’s okay to burn a bit more in drive throughs? Would that mean because a ship spilled a million gallons of oil in the ocean, it’s okay for me to dump a hundred gallons in? As to the second statement, a chain saw is hardly a fair comparison to a modern car. Chain saws have 2 stroke engines that have oil mixed into their gas, which then burns with the gas producing a lot of smog forming emissions. They are, unfortunately, stinky polluters by design. Cars, with their catalytic converters, have virtually no smog forming emissions. The good thing, is that this statement does specify it’s referring to smog forming emissions. The bad thing is that it doesn’t consider greenhouse gas emissions.

4. I expect this is true, except maybe on weekends. But an engine that is running in a drive through always produces more greenhouse gases than an engine that is shut off in the parking lot.

5. I expect it’s true that if one makes the choice to go through a drive through, it’s probably not good for the engine to be shut off and started every time the line advances. That could add up to a lot of starts really quickly, and I’m thinking intuitively that’s probably not a good policy. But I’d suggest that, rather than choosing between idling through the drive through or starting and stopping the engine through the drive through, the more important choice is to not take the drive through in the first place.

It’s also interesting to note that most of the text in this blog post is copied verbatim from the website of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association – the group that represents all those drive through restaurants. Again, I think a rational person needs to wonder about the credibility of information that comes from a source with a clear vested interest. Try Googling “An Analysis of the Effect on Emissions of Allowing Drive-Thru Service Lanes” (in quotation marks), the title of one of the studies cited, and see how many hits you get.

I hope these thoughts are helpful in getting to the bottom of the drive through issue. Unfortunately, because drive throughs are such a formidable revenue stream for restaurants, they are fiercely defended.

Best regards,



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