What’s the greenest way to grill? Earth911 decided to investigate.
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.