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Proper Green: The Great Grill Debate, Charcoal vs. Gas

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Enjoy this summer staple the best way possible — with tasty food and greener fuel.
Dear Proper Green,

It’s summer and I’m in the market for a new grill. What is better for the environment — charcoal or gas?

-Joel, Austin, TX

Dear Joel,

Grilling purists may wince to hear it, but natural gas and propane are better for the environment than charcoal.

Research indicates that charcoal releases nearly 5X more greenhouse gases than propane1. It might surprise you, but most of the extra CO2 and other gases are not produced at your grill; they’re released when charcoal is created. Charcoal is produced by heating up wood or other substances without oxygen. Most of the water and other impurities are removed, leaving lightweight, cleaner burning carbon. Those impurities don’t magically disappear, though — they’re just released into the air when charcoal is made, instead of into your food when you’re grilling.

Of course, burning propane or natural gas isn’t exactly great for the environment, so make sure to conserve when you can. Fire up the grill only when you’re ready to cook, and make sure you turn off the heat between batches of burgers. Or there’s my favorite way to conserve fuel (health warnings aside) — try those steaks medium rare. You won’t need to use the grill as long, and they’ll taste better!

Now, I know what you’re thinking: If we’re talking about tasting better, doesn’t that bring us back to charcoal? Lots of people insist that grilling over charcoal gives the food an extra kick. I can’t claim to be an expert grill-master, so I won’t argue the flavor profiles of charcoal versus gas. What I can do, though, is give you some food for thought: If you’re going to use charcoal, be cognizant of what goes into your charcoal. Remember, it ends up in your food, too! Traditional charcoal briquettes are made with sawdust and wood waste, but also additives such as sodium nitrate and borax. Repurposing wood scraps is great, but adding those other things to the menu might not be that appetizing. Many kinds of lump charcoal and some briquettes, on the other hand, are additive free. Some companies even make charcoal from responsibly-harvested wood; look for a certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) on your next bag. It still has emissions, but you’ll know that the trees that went into it were replaced.

Check out The Thrill of the Grill for ways to green every part of your BBQ. ‘Til then, one last green tidbit: Lay off the lighter fluid. They don’t make that “whoosh”, but a chimney starter works just as well and it doesn’t add petroleum products to the mix!

How do you keep your grilling green? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.
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About Proper Green

Proper Green is Recyclebank's green advice column. From promoting good manners in a green world (because ideas about what constitutes proper behavior and the environment are still evolving) to providing easy ways to make your every day more sustainable, Proper Green aims to help smooth the way with answers to questions that are important to you!

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Proper Green
Proper Green

Proper Green is Recyclebank's green advice column. From promoting good manners in a green world (because ideas about what constitutes proper behavior and... more

  • Laura L. 1 year ago
    If a person very rarely grilled, used all-natural charcoal or like David said wood from landscaping, would it still be a worse thing for the environment? If you factor in the way that natural gas is harvested and produced and all the spills and accidents while transporting it, I don't think natural charcoals are worse.
  • David E. 3 years ago
    If you make your own charcoal using wood that would otherwise decompose naturally anyway (like dead wood from an old apple or hickory tree), it doesn't increase your carbon footprint. It's easy to do and imparts a delicious flavor to your grilled food.
  • Anth D. 3 years ago
    I'm still a charcoal guy, but I totally agree with the chimney lighter. Get one. No more fluid, and way cooler to use.
  • Amy N. 3 years ago
    Great advice on choosing a grill. We were wondering the same thing, so thank you. However, it is interesting that Joel and this column's author are so concerned with being green while still discussing grilling steaks! Livestock production is killing our planet, so please start grilling veggies instead. There's a new documentary on the topic:
  • richard g. 4 years ago
    already have gas grill and will try 'rare' steaks.
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