Deadly Emissions Are Lurking in Your Backyard

Sept. 26, 2012
Grilling a hamburger emits more particulates than a long-haul truck driving down the highway for two hours.

I’ve written plenty of articles about sustainability and energy efficiency and corporate social responsibility; in fact, I even devoted an entire chapter in my book to green supply chains. So you would think I’d know better than to do what I did recently, and yet I’m going to have to plead ignorance, as hollow-sounding as that might be as an excuse. What’s worse, while many of you might chastise me for my transgression, I strongly suspect that many of you share my guilt and, who knows, maybe even have outdone me.

I was chaperoning a group of high school kids on a weekend retreat. I realize that it looks like I’m trying to win back some points from society by introducing a hint of altruism into the narrative, trying to softpeddle the severity of my actions. Maybe so, but nevertheless, I was indeed one of the adult leaders of a retreat for teenagers, and one of my duties was to prepare lunch. I’m glad there were no incriminating photos taken of me that might end up on the Internet, but with a heavy heart, I have to admit: I charbroiled about two dozen hamburgers and maybe a dozen hot dogs over an outdoors, open-flame grill.

Okay, I realize one or two of you might be thinking, “That’s it? So what?” And quite honestly, that’s what I thought while I was doing it… that I was just getting lunch ready for a bunch of hungry kids. But no, what I was actually doing was emitting the same amount of particulates as an 18-wheeler diesel engine truck driving from Key West, Florida, to Juneau, Alaska.

In all seriousness, the amount of emissions from the grill wasn’t very high at all; the example I gave was meant to illustrate just how clean the new diesel truck engines are these days (of course, they ought to be, given how expensive they are, but that’s another matter). According to Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, clean diesel technology has advanced to such a degree that emissions from heavy-duty diesel trucks and buses have been reduced by 99% for nitrogen oxides and particulate emissions.

Schaeffer admits that comparing grilled burgers with diesel engines is “an extremely unusual comparison.” The study was conducted by the University of California-Riverside, and funded by two California-based air pollution control agencies. As Bill Welch, the principle engineer of the UC-Riverside study, observes, “An 18-wheeler diesel engine truck would have to drive 143 miles on the freeway to put out the same mass of particulates as a single charbroiled hamburger patty.”

“Generally, clean diesels are matched up against natural gas, hybrids or electric vehicles for emissions or fuel efficiency tests,” Schaeffer adds. “This is the first time we’ve gone head-to-head against fast food.”

Schaeffer notes that due to advances in emissions control technology, it takes 60 trucks built today to emit the same amount of particulates as one truck built in 1988.

Keep in mind, though, that the Diesel Technology Forum is made up of the major truck manufacturers, so they’re hardly an unbiased lot. Another member company of the forum is BP, not exactly a name synonymous with “clean.” So maybe grilling a few innocent burgers for supper should rightly remain the scourge of vegans after all, rather than truckers.

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