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A Canadian first-ever project underway at Polytechnique Montréal is measuring the greenhouse gas emissions of cafeteria meals.CAROLINE PERRON

Imagine it’s lunchtime and choices on the menu include a lentil-based vegetarian shepherd’s pie and a locally farmed beef dip sandwich. Diners deciding which savoury meal they choose may be influenced by their cuisine preference. Price might be a factor. But what about the carbon footprint of the dish to be consumed? Would that make a difference?

A Canadian first-ever project underway at Polytechnique Montréal is measuring the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of cafeteria meals to help create awareness around the “environmental impact of the food we eat,” says Patrick Cigana, senior advisor, Office of Sustainability. “Food is a non-negligible part of our carbon footprint.”

Launched this past fall, the project is a collaboration of the International Reference Center for Life Cycle Assessment and Sustainable Transition (CIRAIG) and the Association des Services Alimentaires de Polytechnique (ASaP), the non-profit food services organization on campus. A number of hot meals were selected to undergo a life-cycle assessment, which examined production, processing, packaging, transportation, preparation, cooking and waste.

Each meal’s ecological footprint was determined by measuring the CO2-equivalent kilograms that were emitted in preparation, explains Mr. Cigana. Students of the Association étudiante de Polytechnique (AEP) suggested adopting a grading scale, rather than relying on numbers to reflect the scores of the meals.

Predictably, “the meals that scored the worst are those that contain red meat, essentially beef, veal and lamb,” he says, but there were some surprising results as well.

A meat-based shepherd’s pie earned a B while a vegetarian-based focaccia dish was graded a D+. The explanation lies in the cheese, says Mr. Cigana, a dairy product that requires cattle, who emit methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas.

Next steps will be to expand the project from one to five days a week and review whether awareness of the grades of meals impact students’ choices. “Did it really change behaviours in a measurable way? If it did, success! If it didn’t, we may have to rethink the messaging,” he says. “But let’s get some data and let the science talk first.”

The cafeteria project is part of a broader objective to ensure that “sustainability is integrated in as many aspects as possible at Polytechnique Montréal,” which has signed a commitment towards carbon neutrality by 2050, says Mr. Cigana.

It’s part of the institution’s outreach mission “to influence not only what happens on campus but beyond our walls.”

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