An image of two fast food consumers eating takeout from sustainable takeaway containers in an article about the size of the carbon footprint of the takeout food industry

How big is the carbon footprint of the takeout food industry?

A carbon footprint refers to the total amount of greenhouse gasses (GHG) or carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions caused by an individual, group, organisation, or community. 

Certain products, such as coffee, for example, involve a complex supply chain. Green beans pass through multiple processes that span several continents, which can make tracking and calculating the total carbon footprint challenging. 

In 2021, reports indicate food production accounted for more than 37% of total carbon emissions worldwide. That being said, the size of the carbon footprint of the takeout food industry is an important factor in determining how sustainable our practices are. Read on to learn more about the carbon footprint of takeout food, and how your business can reduce its emissions.

The scale of the takeout food industry

When measuring the total GHG emissions from takeout food, it is important to divide it within the supply chain and production. In doing so, a better understanding of the overall scale of takeout food’s carbon footprint can be established. The takeout food industry can be divided into three distinct phases: 

1. Agricultural production

Research shows crop production, fisheries, livestock, and land usage already account for 82% of the total carbon footprint from food. Around 18% stems from the supply chain. Therefore, without establishing sustainable practices for the farming industry, it would be impossible to reduce the carbon footprint of takeout food. Additionally, it is important to consider all other areas within agricultural production, such as fossil fuels and water use. 

2. Processing

It is important to take food processing into account in order to paint a full picture of the carbon footprint of the takeaway food industry. Processing generally involves preparing, sterilising, and canning products before they are shipped. This often takes place in factories that use large amounts of energy and emit high levels of emissions into the atmosphere. In total, food processing contributes 22% of the total emissions from the supply chain. 

3. Packaging, transportation, and retail

The final stage of the supply chain is the retail of products, in which the remaining 78% is accounted for. This involves preparing and delivering goods to customers, either through restaurants or delivery services. Notably, shipping and transport are estimated to make up a third of the total carbon footprint of the entire process. Additionally, unsustainable packaging materials, such as plastics, can worsen these effects if not disposed of properly.  

An image of paper takeout containers, paper fast food boxes, paper takeaway packaging kraft paper takeaway packaging in an article about the size of the carbon footprint of the takeout food industry

Estimating the carbon footprint of a business

Knowing the total GHG emission of the food industry globally entails one thing: understanding the specific footprint of one business. Luckily, there are several ways to estimate a company’s carbon footprint.

Data collection and conversion

The first step is to collect data on the kind of energy and materials the business uses, from electricity and gas to packaging. This needs to be converted into terms of CO2 emissions in order for it to be estimated accurately.

For example, a restaurant can use its utility bills or online calculators to measure the annual CO2 emissions from electricity and gas use. By doing so, they can better understand how much their energy consumption contributes to the overall GHG emissions of the whole planet.

Speaking with suppliers to calculate emissions

These are the people who can most likely determine what kind of resources are necessary to make a product, from the ingredients to the packaging. By speaking with them, you can accurately determine how much CO2 is emitted during production and delivery.

This also gives an indication of which areas of the business may be most responsible for GHG emissions and, therefore, in need of more efficient processes or materials. Understanding what suppliers are using to make a product and their emissions can help companies take steps toward reducing the GHG impact of their business.

Reduce single-use items

Probably the best way of measuring the overall carbon footprint of an organisation is to reduce its usage of single-use items. Plastic packaging, containers, and straws are a major contributor to emissions in the food industry and they can easily be replaced with more sustainable alternatives. 

By switching to compostable packaging options or finding ways of using fewer materials altogether, businesses can drastically reduce their environmental impact and demonstrate their commitment to sustainability initiatives. 

With all these steps for measuring carbon emissions, it is only wise to say that the next is to plan how companies can reduce the carbon footprint caused by takeout food.

An image of mushroom takeaway packaging, mushroom packaging, fast food bowls, takeaway containers, in an article about the size of the carbon footprint of the takeout food industry

Reducing the carbon footprint of the takeout food industry

Knowing how much GHG the takeout food industry is responsible for is as important as finding ways to reduce it. After measuring their carbon emissions, the first thing businesses should do is to source as much local produce as possible. This eliminates the need to transport food over long distances, thus cutting down on carbon dioxide emissions. They can also offer seasonal menus so customers have the option to order local and in-season food items. 

Businesses should also consider packaging materials when it comes to takeout orders. Opt for compostable or reusable options such as paper bags and cardboard boxes instead of plastic containers and foil wraps. They can even invest in reusable lunchboxes, which help save money, emit less GHG, reduce waste, and provide a healthier alternative for customers. 

Another way is to reduce energy consumption: an optimal choice for restaurants. Moving away from traditional gas and electric stoves can help reduce energy consumption in the kitchen which, in turn, also means less GHG emissions.  Businesses can invest in more efficient appliances that use renewable sources of power, such as solar or wind turbines.

Letting customers participate

Food businesses could encourage customers to pick up their orders directly from the store rather than having them delivered, offering incentives such as discounts if they do so. Offering digital menu boards that feature daily specials will improve the customer experience while reducing the need for printed menus. This can save energy costs associated with printing those items. 

Customers can also be encouraged to bring their own containers rather than using disposable ones every time they order a meal. This would help reduce the need for single-use plastic packaging and promote more reusable options instead. 

Final thoughts

As the takeout food industry grows in popularity, so does its carbon footprint. While measuring their emissions is the first step, businesses should opt to reduce their GHG output and offer more sustainable options for customers. From sourcing local ingredients to investing in renewable energy sources and encouraging customers to bring their own reusable containers, these efforts will all help mitigate the effects of climate change, leaving a positive impact on our planet.