THE CARBON FOOTPRINT OF A SANDWICH: Straw Laws, Meat Taxes, and when ‘Science’ Infringes on Freedom

sandwich Shutterstock/Davydenko Yuliia

Chuck DeVore Chuck DeVore is a vice president at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He served in the California State Assembly from 2004 to 2010, was an aerospace executive, worked as a Reagan White House appointee in the Pentagon, and is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Retired Reserve.
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A story out of the United Kingdom details a University of Manchester research project to determine the carbon footprint of the humble sandwich. The upshot: a prepackaged and refrigerated breakfast sandwich with egg, bacon or sausage, produces as much carbon dioxide as a 12-mile car trip. No word on what kind of car the scientists assumed in this calculation — likely not a Tesla charged with coal-fired electricity.

At the other end of the scale was a ham and cheese sandwich made in one’s own kitchen. Presumably the fact that such a homemade meal didn’t require an employee who had to commute to work to make the sandwich, along with the packaging, shipping and refrigeration for hours afterward, played a large role in that sandwich’s superior carbon footprint rating.

Presuming that the Manchester scientists are correct in their data, so what? As a former California lawmaker, I know the practical effect of such a study is to inform policymakers to “Do something!” That something most likely being a tax on prepared foods with higher carbon footprints.

Skeptical? As reported by Bloomberg Law and commented on by Americans for Tax Reform, environmentalists and animal rights activists believe themselves to be close to convincing lawmakers to impose a “meat tax” along the same line as “sin taxes” for cigarettes, alcohol, and sugary soda.

And, to add insult to your personal freedom injury, a young liberal lawmaker of out California whose father and two uncles also served in the legislature, has proposed making it an actual crime for a waiter to provide a straw for a drink if said straw was unrequested. The proposed penalty? Up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

The punitive straw law, on top of California’s $15 minimum wage law, may spur the rollout of robot waiters that could be programmed not to give out straws.

“We need to create awareness around the issue of one-time use plastic straws,” said Assemblyman Ian Calderon, who was elected in 2012, shortly after graduating from college and who represents a state desperately trying to reduce its prison and jail population—just what California needs, people in jail for dealing straws. The Assemblyman’s concern is backed up by research literally completed by a 9-year-old.

Had Arlo Guthrie written his “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” in 2018 in California, his lyrics might have included:

“He said, ‘What were you arrested for, kid?’”

“And I said, ‘Giving someone a straw that wasn’t requested.’ And they all moved away from me on the bench…”

Modern civilization has produced conveniences at such a rapid rate that society has collective amnesia over the recent past.

A hundred years ago, the Frigidaire Company started to mass-produce refrigerators, before that people refrigerated their food with an ice box, if they had one. Most food had to be prepared fresh, consuming far more time than is the case today. Foodborne illness was rampant, causing sickness and death on a far greater scale than today. Time-consuming trips to the market were made frequently.

Rather than spend hours preparing food, many people in developed nations willingly pay more money for food that has been prepared under controlled, industrial conditions. Such food is usually safer and, while its “carbon footprint” may be larger than a home cooked meal, it meets a demand or it wouldn’t be made.

I went to college in Egypt for half a year in the mid-1980s. Cairo’s butcher shops displayed sides of meat from large animals on hooks outside of the shop. Flies covered the meat, only to be shooed away by the effluent from the overflowing sewers splashed onto the meat by the passing traffic. Due to a lack of refrigeration, what wasn’t sold by the second day in the hot Egyptian sun was supposed to be thrown out — theoretically anyway. Every two to three weeks or so, I’d come down with amoebic dysentery. I don’t have to be a University of Manchester scientist to know that I was living a very low carbon footprint life. Lack of electricity and refrigeration will do that for you.

What researchers and lawmakers fail to appreciate is that money can be substituted for time. A free and prosperous people value time. They prefer cars over mass transit because cars save them time. They like the option to buy prepared food—it may cost more, but it saves time. They may even like the convenience of one-use plastic bags.

When I lived in Egypt, most people walked or took the bus. There were no one-use plastic bags either. But the Nile was polluted. The air was so dirty that the U.S. Embassy said it was equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day (this was on top of the pack a day most Cairenes seemed to smoke). The point being that Western-style prosperity and technology produces a far cleaner and healthier environment than in places where oppressive government and corruption rule.

Chuck DeVore is vice president of National Initiatives with the Texas Public Policy Foundation and was a California state assemblyman from 2004 to 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

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