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Reducing the Environmental Impact of a McDonald’s Cheeseburger

January 11, 2010

McDonald's cheeseburgerMcDonald’s is planning a three-year study of methane emissions from cattle on 350 farms across Britain.

Why? Because the fast food giant wants to reduce the environmental impact of its beef supply chain.

As The Observer reports, this initiative will be the first of its kind to provide accurate methane emissions data from working farms. It’s being run by the E-CO2 Project, an independent rural consultancy and energy-auditing company, and a sophisticated greenhouse gas (GHG) calculator accredited by the Carbon Trust will measure the data over the three-year period.

Researchers estimate that methane from livestock accounts for 4 percent of the UK’s total carbon emissions. That may not sound like much, but remember: methane is a potent GHG agent, more than 20 times more powerful that CO2.

As it stands now, scientists calculate that production of a single cheeseburger emits the equivalent of nearly 7 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere.  (As a point of reference, consider that a car that gets 20 mpg emits about a 1.0 pound of CO2 for each mile driven. Manufacture of a half-gallon of orange juice emits the equivalent of 3.75 pounds of CO2; a  500mL plastic bottle of Coca-Cola has a carbon footprint of about 9 ounces of CO2.)

Steve Easterbrook, chief executive of McDonald’s UK, told the Observer that the study will help reduce GHG emissions in the company’s beef supply chain and ultimately, should also deliver real financial benefits to the more than 16,000 British and Irish farmers that are part of its supplier network.

Here in the U.S., dairy farmers are looking for ways to use cow manure methane biogas as a way to generate reliable, cost-effective renewable electricity. And, why not? It’s estimated that manure from about 2,500 cows can produce electrical output of 500kW –that’s enough to power roughly 200 homes.

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