Table Scraps

Table Scraps: Idling at the Dutch Bros. Drive-Thru? You're Adding Ozone Pollution

Lauren Cusimano
Sure, a 3 p.m. pick-me-up is needed, but there has to be another way.
Welcome to Table Scraps, an intermittent series on the growing problem of food waste and what some eateries, officials, farms, institutes, and everyday people are doing right. This isn’t a guilt trip, just a way to unpack initiatives attempting to reduce kitchen waste and food loss, as more than 40 percent of all food is wasted in the U.S. We’ll explore backyard composting to city programs, restaurant tips to technology, and anything related to this global issue. Heat up those leftovers and settle in.

Yes, this is a series about food waste. However, this installment will focus on air quality. Yes, food waste and air quality are related, but not in the way you may assume, i.e. methane emissions and how we told you food rot has about 21 times the global-warming potential of carbon dioxide. It’s this: drive-thrus.

To many, even those who may consider themselves environmentally friendly, sitting in a fast food or coffee shop drive-thru is not hurting anything — except maybe your fixed budget. But in fact, this action represents one of three tiers to the annual ozone campaign launched by the Maricopa County Air Quality Department.

It’s the “Commit to One Day, Help Keep Ozone Away” campaign. Ozone pollution prevention tips include everything from carpooling to delaying painting projects, but the second bullet reads, “Avoid waiting in long drive-thru lines. Park your car and go inside.”

Ronald Pope, atmospheric scientist with the Maricopa County Air Quality Department, can explain.

How Idling Is Environmentally Harmful

“Here at Maricopa County, we experience two big problems with air pollution,” Pope says in a phone interview.

One is particulates, like dust and smoke, and the other is ozone. The big gaseous pollutant is especially an issue during the summer.

“When we’re looking at drive-thrus, of course you have cars that are idling and emitting various chemicals into the air,” he says. ”Some of those chemicals are what react together to create the ozone pollutions.”

Pope says those chemicals are nitrogen oxide, or NOx and hydro-carbons, also known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. The VOCs and the NOx react in the sunlight to create ozone pollution. Plus, mountains surround Phoenix, which kind of holds all this in.

“A vehicle, when it’s idling, is less efficient than when it’s running at speed. If you have a vehicle that’s just sitting there idling, it’s putting out these compounds that contribute to air pollution for an unnecessary cause,” he says. “That’s why one of our tips for helping to reduce air pollution is to not sit for a long time in a drive-thru; rather, shut the car off and go inside. That way, you’re not contributing emissions to the air.”

So yes, if you didn’t catch that, you’re actually putting out more pollution at an idle than you would be driving. “It’s kind of counter-intuitive,” Pope says, “But cars are much more efficient at burning the fuel when they are running.”

And yes, owners of electric and hybrid cars that are shut down while sitting in a drive-thru, you’re off the hook.

click to enlarge The drive-thru window is nice, but in some cases, there's more harm than convenience. - ANDREW PIELAGE
The drive-thru window is nice, but in some cases, there's more harm than convenience.
Andrew Pielage

Attention Single Occupant Drivers in Drive-Thrus

Maricopa County Air Quality Department communications supervisor Bob Huhn says, also via phone, idling is not one of the ozone-increasing habits people think of right away (that, and refueling after dark).

We’re also in the tumultuous times of ultra-busy coffee shops causing traffic congestion throughout town. Example. There’s the well-known news of the Dutch Bros. at Central Avenue and Camelback Road closing, or more like moving, by 2020. In other words, this Dutch Nation location was causing so much traffic, disturbing so many surrounding businesses, that the city of Phoenix revoked its permit — forcing the shop to relocate by March 2020 or close.

“Some types of business have more folks visiting them,” Huhn says. “We don’t want to take customers away from those businesses. That’s why we ask folks if they’re going to go to those types of places, to park their cars and go in."

That’s a request that is applicable to many of us work-a-day types.

“The biggest culprit here is the automobile,” Huhn says, “And what we are trying to target for the campaign is the single-occupant drivers.”

Pope says of man-made sources contributing to ozone in Maricopa County, over 80 percent are from cars — idling cars, driving cars, cars all together.

click to enlarge "We can actually see decreases in air pollution throughout the city.” - LAUREN CUSIMANO
"We can actually see decreases in air pollution throughout the city.”
Lauren Cusimano

Got to Admit It's Getting Better

But it’s not all doom and smoggy gloom.

In 2015 the Environmental Protection Agency lowered the federal health standard for ozone, or the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), from 75 parts per billion to 70 parts per billion.

"So it triggers more high pollution advisories,” Huhn says. “It’s not necessarily meaning that the air is getting worse, it’s just that we’re having more high-pollution alerts and more exceedances because of the lower threshold.”

For instance, in Huhn says in 2018 for ozone, Maricopa County had 55 high pollution advisories (HPAs) and 47 exceedances under the new standard, or what would have been 20 under the previous standard.

But Pope is here with the optimism (not like Huhn isn't a sunny guy).

“So when you look at our air here in the long term, if I go back 30, 40 years and I look at our air quality here, we’ve been getting better, especially on average,” Pope says, “If you’re looking at a long-term trend, we’re improving. So we can actually see decreases in air pollution throughout the city.” He says that's a national trend as well.

However, and you knew that was coming, the Maricopa County Air Quality Department can still use some help.

“But even with what [Pope] said, we still have an ozone issue here,” Huhn says, “And that’s why we’re asking everybody to do what they can to help us keep the air clean.”

It’s realized some people must take advantage of drive-thrus. Customers with disabilities, people with dogs or kids in the car, even someone in a hurry who sees there’s no wait at the window.

But if you can, if you’re able, park it.

For more information, tips, and updates, visit the Clean Air Make More website.