Greener Grilling: Gas or Charcoal?

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The carbon footprint of a charcoal grill over its lifetime is three times that of a gas grill, but there are heavy environmental impacts to producing natural gas and propane. Photo: Creative Commons, by Pbrudny

Summertime means long days, trips to the beach and of course, backyard barbecues. But a good, old-fashioned barbecue can pollute the air and contribute to climate change, so Earth911 decided to investigate: What’s the greenest way to grill?

Gas vs. charcoal

When it comes to carbon footprint, propane and natural gas grills beat out charcoal as the most eco-friendly. Scientists in the United Kingdom conducted an Environmental Impact Assessment Review of the two types of grills in 2009 and found that a charcoal grill emitted 2,200 pounds of carbon dioxide over its lifetime – three times the carbon footprint of a natural gas grill, which is responsible for 769 pounds of carbon dioxide.

The study reported that the dramatic difference in carbon emissions was due to gas’s more efficient production and cooking.  The process of converting wood and biomass into charcoal in a kiln is very energy intensive, according to Paul McRandle, Smarter Living editor for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Grilling with charcoal also produces more air pollutants than gas grills do. Gas grilling isn’t completely clean-burning, but charcoal releases higher levels of carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that contribute to the formation of smog – which harms not just the environment, but also human health. Starting the charcoal barbecue can also contribute to poor air quality: Lighter fluid and self-lighting charcoals contain chemicals that emit VOCs.

As for disposal, propane and natural gas come out on top again. Empty propane tanks can be traded in or refilled, and gas barbeques hook up directly to your house’s natural gas supply, so there is no waste to dispose of. While some expert gardeners say they use chemical-free charcoal as mulch in their garden, the best disposal option for most charcoal, which is treated with chemicals, is, unfortunately, the garbage can.

But many people aren’t ready to give up that special, smoky flavor that charcoal grilling imparts. To make your charcoal grilling a little kinder to the planet, trade in your lighter fluid and self-lighting briquettes for a newspaper-burning chimney starter, McRandle advises.

Which type of charcoal is easier on the environment: lump charcoal or charcoal briquettes? Because lump charcoal comes from trees, it can contribute to deforestation if the forests aren’t managed properly. Charcoal briquettes are made from waste wood – an environmental plus – but are treated with chemicals that can harm the environment and your health.

The most environmentally responsible choice is to find lump charcoal made from certified sustainably-harvested wood. Look for charcoal or pellets certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council or the Rainforest Alliance such as the Maine Woods Pellet Company, Curran Pellets and Noram de Mexico’s Sierra Madre.

The same holds true if you’re buying wood chips to add flavor when you’re using a gas grill.  If you can’t find a certified sustainable product, McRandle recommends purchasing hardwoods like hickory and mesquite.

Solar ovens are the most eco-friendly way to cook outdoors. Photo: Creative Commons, by Atlascuisinesolaire

Cooking with the sun

Surprisingly, despite the environmental impact of charcoal – its carbon footprint, air pollutants, chemicals and contribution to deforestation – gas grills can’t be considered the holy grail in the in green barbecue debate. They’re better than charcoal grills, but not perfect: The process of extracting natural gas domestically from shale deposits – called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” – takes a toll on the environment, as does propane production through natural gas processing and crude oil refining.

It’s like the case of grocery shopping bags: Which is more eco-friendly – paper or plastic?  The answer is neither; reusable bags are best for the environment.

The same is true for barbecues.

“Everyone talks about gas vs. charcoal,” McRandle says. “But the ideal method to reduce [grilling’s] carbon footprint and reduce air pollutants is a solar oven.”

A solar oven coverts the sun’s rays into heat energy to bake, boil or steam your next meal. In a solar oven, you can cook anything that you can cook in a conventional electric or gas oven and many meals that you can cook on the stove.

Think cooking with the sun takes all day? If you refocus the oven to follow the sun’s rays every 30 minutes, your cooking time will be similar to cooking with a conventional oven or stove. Or you can use the solar oven for slow cooking, like a crock-pot.

You can purchase a solar oven for around $300, or you can make your own solar oven out of items like cardboard, a thermometer, foil, glass and black spray paint.

Other tips to green your barbecue

Don’t forget that what you’re grilling also has an environmental impact: Beef has a much bigger carbon footprint than poultry and vegetables.

“If you’re grilling beef, why not make kabob skewers and mix in some veggies?” McRandle recommends as a way to make your barbecue healthier for the planet and your body.

And avoid harsh chemicals when cleaning your grill – either charcoal or gas. Use a stiff wire brush and scraper to wipe off excess food from the grate, and then wash everything down with soap, baking soda and water.

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