Can a drive-thru ever be green?

Recently, Dunkin’ Donuts opened a new store in my urban, walkable little neighborhood in St. Pete. That in itself isn’t newsworthy – new chain outlets open every day – but since the company was making sure everyone knew it was “built green,” it caught my attention.

“Green” can mean any number of things, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last decade or so, it’s to be really skeptical of corporate claims of greenitude. So I went to the Dunkin’ Donuts website in an effort to learn a bit more about what, exactly, made this store so damn special. I didn’t find it, but I did find this statement:

We recognize that everything we do has an impact on the environment. From the materials we use, to the way we construct and operate our stores, we are committed to adopting better, more sustainable approaches whenever possible.

All right then. I can get behind the sentiment, even if it lacks specifics.

Even from the outside (I didn’t go in, because I need to limit my direct exposure to donuts) I could see that they did appear to be at least trying to live up to that commitment.

Harvesting rainwater is a big part of the green lifestyle (at least in places where it’s legal – western US water rights laws can be hostile to it). This water tank collects rainwater from the roof of the building, presumably for uses other than drinking.

And there’s a charging station in the parking lot, for all the Chevy Volts that aren’t selling. (Though to be fair, that’s how it has to work: the infrastructure to support electric cars has to be there first, before people will actually buy electric cars in any number.) So far, so good, and I haven’t even gone inside.

But …

Can any building really be considered “green” if it brings something like this?

Cars pollute. Idling cars pollute and waste gas. Lines of them doing it all day long is not “green,” no matter how you define it.

Certainly drive-thrus are the antithesis of greenitude; even if the building is constructed with the most environmentally-friendly methods known to humankind, Dunkin’ Donuts has still created an air pollution hot spot at a point in my neighborhood where there wasn’t one before.

This isn’t meant as an attack on Dunkin’ Donuts, specifically. What they’re doing is good, and green building practices are a necessary first step. But if customers engage in environmentally destructive behavior when they actually use your building? Well, what’s the point? Where is the gain?

True, Dunkin’ Donuts could have gone with a walk-in-only design, but it may have been a challenge, given the dimensions and placement of the lot. And while I believe private companies do have a moral obligation to encourage better, more sustainable behavior from their customers whenever possible, I also recognize that you can’t rush that process. People don’t react well to change. Change too fast – or, rather, demand that your customers change too quickly – and you run the risk of scaring them off.

Doing business in a “green” way is hard, which is something I know from experience (true, it was on nowhere near the scale of even a single Dunkin’ Donuts store, but still). Dunkin’ Donuts deserves credit for at least trying to be green … but not too much. After all, we don’t want them to stop here, do we?

6 thoughts on “Can a drive-thru ever be green?

  1. You bring up a very good point regarding the drive-thru pollution. I wonder what options are available to offset the new pollution hit spot that they have created in your neighborhood. Were any new plants/trees planted on the property?

  2. There’s been extensive landscaping done, but I don’t know how many new plantings there have been, if any. Though now that I think about it, the spot was a vacant lot before, so I think it’s likely that most of the new trees (and there were some; you can see them in the pictures) are newly-planted.

    But that’s also an excellent point. I didn’t even consider that.

  3. Last December, south of Seattle, Starbucks built a drive-thru out of recycled cargo containers. It was praised for its “green-ness”. But I, too, wondered about the green-ness of a drive-thru espresso stand.

  4. Depending on the efficiency of the drive-through, the idling cars might not be as terrible as you think. Starting a car requires enough gas to equate to maybe 1-3 minutes of idling, maybe up to 5 minutes for a diesel engine. If the drive-thru moves quickly, it might be a wash (though I’ll admit, the only consistently efficient drive-thru I’ve ever seen was a McDonald’s on a navy base in Georgia).

      1. “… there YOU go again…” [capitalization mine] I like how easily you know it’s me just by a first name, writing style, and the fact that I actually comment on your stuff. Even your youtube video.

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