Don’t Ban the Drive-thru: Just Don’t Use It

In the endless winter of 2019, it’s not uncommon to see the line of idling cars at fast-food joints snaking all the way around the building, tailpipes spewing clouds of exhaust.

The drive-thru is one way our car culture seduces us into choosing convenience in its most extreme form over our own best interest – in saving gas, interacting with our fellow humans, even saving a little time.

And yet, the polls say that Americans are beginning to realize that the extreme weather we’ve been experiencing is the result of climate change, and that climate change is the result of human activity. According to a recent poll, 64 percent of Americans believe the government should be doing more to address it.

Unfortunately, Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement and appointed a former coal industry lobbyist to head the EPA. From the moment he took office, Trump worked to roll back Obama-era anti-pollution regulations.

The government is not going to save us from the accelerating pace of climate change. Not just yet, anyway.

But far from being hopeless, this situation presents an opportunity. The poet, farmer, and essayist Wendall Berry once wrote that our “earth is probably suffering more from many small abuses than from a few large ones.”

The act of sitting in an idling vehicle at the drive-thru, something that a majority of fast food customers do on a regular basis, is one such “small” abuse. Many people seem to believe that because a vehicle is not moving, it is not causing pollution. Or maybe they think it’s causing less pollution. But this is simply not the case.

According to the Earth Island Journal, the average drive-thru wait time, from order to pick-up, is three minutes per car. “This translates to nearly 20 grams of pollutants emitted per car, on average, per visit – about the same as driving for a mile and a half,” wrote Spencer Fleury.

And at peak times, your wait is obviously going to be longer than three minutes. Say you wait ten minutes. That’s more than 60 grams of pollutants being spewed into the atmosphere when it might actually take less time to just park and walk inside.

When you multiply that times the number of drive-thrus, it’s pretty staggering. In 2017, there were 14,027 McDonald’s in the US alone. A 2016 study in the Journal of Civil and Environmental Engineering reported that drive-thru customers make up “more than” 60% of McDonald’s revenues. And that’s just McDonald’s. Wendy’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell have similar percentages of drive-thru versus drop-in customers.

But beyond the straight-forward math, there’s another reason for giving up on the drive-thru. By not using it, you’re demonstrating that you understand the relationship between your actions and the crisis our planet currently faces. If enough of us took this step, real change, in the form of an improved relationship between people and the Earth we inhabit, would not be far behind.

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