No, I don’t mean the tracks you left across the deck after stepping in that grilling sauce you spilled. I mean what’s the total environmental footprint of your outdoor grilling? And how can you reduce it, or keep it within nature’s capacity to handle it? Some wag suggesting raising the temperature of the Gulf of Mexico to 600 degrees and frying chicken in the oil, but for the rest of us, we’ll grill in our backyards.
As we dust off the grills this summer a lot of questions arise. Should I use charcoal or gas? Paper plates or reusable ones? What can I compost, what can I recycle, and how can I limit what goes to the landfill?
I use a propane gas grill, for the convenience, and contrary to popular belief, propane grilling has a much lower carbon footprint (CO2 emissions) than grilling with charcoal.
Charcoal grilling, on average, produces three times more greenhouse gases than propane grilling, according to a study published in Elsevier’s Environmental Impact Assessment Review. Eric Johnson conducted his research using data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and public data from fuel producers as well as experimental measurements from grilling sessions.
In the report, Johnson wrote that "as a fuel, [propane] is dramatically more efficient than charcoal in its production and considerably more efficient in cooking." Johnson’s report states that if you look systemically and consider production, transportation and burning together, a BBQ cookout over charcoal averages nearly 15 pounds of carbon emissions, about as much as you emit driving your car to a store 22 miles away. But using propane to grill your food cuts that to around five pounds per BBQ, or driving to a store 8 miles away.
The study further found that each charcoal cookout has about twice the carbon footprint of a propane cookout. And this figure goes up every time the grill is used. In addition, the starter fluid used to get a charcoal grill lit and going puts greenhouse gases equivalent to a third of what an entire propane grilling session does.
To boot, the process of making charcoal briquettes puts out more emissions than burning it does. Charcoal is made by heating wood in a kiln, (there’s the ruins of an 1800’s charcoal kiln near my house) and these kilns produce a lot of greenhouse gas. Propane doesn’t need this production, but the study did account for the carbon cost of building and transporting the grills and tanks.
It also takes a lot of time to get a charcoal grill ready. A propane grill heats up quickly (about 5 minutes for mine), reducing waste. And charcoal continues to create greenhouse gases as it slowly burns out after the cookout, while my propane turns off with a switch.
So the indisputable part of the charcoal-vs.-gas conundrum is that the briquettes emit far more carbon dioxide per unit when they're burned. But charcoal's defenders argue that because the substance is made from trees, it can actually be carbon neutral in the end. They contend that the harvested trees, if taken from well-managed timberlands, are presumably replanted. So, while the felled trees are emitting carbon on barbecues nationwide, the new trees are sucking that carbon right back up. Gas, on the other hand, can't be replenished—or at least not for the millions of years it takes for organic matter to break down into fossil fuels. And some briquettes are made primarily from wood waste, such as sawdust, which would simply be thrown away if it weren't turned into cooking fuel. They are a byproduct of the paper-manufacturing process. (Lump charcoal, made from whole pieces of wood, is more problematic from an environmental standpoint, since it may require that trees be chopped down expressly for the purpose of making barbecue fuel.)
Here are some other ways to reduce your BBQ footprint when cooking or eating outside:
- If you do use charcoal, use natural charcoal or environmentally certified wood briquettes. Regular charcoal or soaked briquettes may have additives or coal dust.
- When grilling over charcoal, use a chimney starter to light the coals instead of lighter fluid or briquettes soaked with fluid; they emits smog-forming volatile organic compounds into the air.
- Buy local food whenever possible; which means less fuel has been used to transport them. And Buy organic and hormone-free meat, poultry and wild fish whenever possible.
- Clean up right away. Scour your grill with warm water and baking soda instead of harsh chemical cleaners to remove burned food after it’s cooled.
- Pack your picnics in reusable grocery totes -cuts down on extra paper or plastic bags. Get a picnic basket made from wicker, bamboo or other natural materials.
- Eliminate garbage. Use compostable dinnerware like bamboo plates, or potato and corn based utensils or reusable dishes instead of disposable plastic and paper plates. Forgo plastic bags, not commonly recycled, for reusable containers or bento boxes.
- Recycle everything. If you can't find a recycling bin, bring empty bottles and cans home to recycle. Anything you pack in, pack it back out.
Here are some natural alternatives:
- Cowboy Charcoal, a Low-smoke charcoal without fillers or chemicals, from natural hardwood scraps.
- Wicked Good Charcoal, which are certified as coming from sustainable timber operations by the Forest Stewardship Council
- No Petroleum-free charcoal starter, made from ethanol, will help start your grill.
- Bambu All Occasion Veneerware. Organic bamboo plates, utensils and trays. Available at Whole Foods
- Nat-Ur biodegradable corn-based utensils set.
- Picnic baskets from natural materials.