Picture it...veggie burgers char-broiling on the grill, laughing with family and friends, smoke drifting in the backyard sun. It's a cherished summer-time ritual. Except for one eco-hitch: all that smoke and sizzle not only poisons the air but can also harm your health.
More than 80 percent of US households own a barbecue grill, and a majority cook out all year. Peak use occurs during the summer months when 47 percent fire up an average of one or two times a week. With millions of grills smoking at once, the eco-impacts are significant. On the Fourth of July alone, an estimated 60 million cookouts use enough energy via charcoal, gas, electricity and lighter fluid to keep 20,000 homes powered for a year. They also consume the equivalent of 2,300 acres of forest and release 225,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
While no grilling method is free from environmental fallout, charcoal and wood burn "dirtier" than other methods, unleashing hydrocarbons as well as health-harming soot particles directly into the air. Lump charcoal is made by slow-burning wood (branches, limbs, trunks, etc.) in a low-oxygen environment to eliminate moisture and volatile gases (such as methane and tars, which are released into the atmosphere). The resulting charred wood is much lighter than whole wood and burns longer and more steadily. It also produces less ash than processed charcoal briquettes. Many purists prefer lump charcoal because it adds a smoky flavor to food and doesn't contain any artificial binders and additives like briquettes. However, the charring process produces significant amounts of particulate matter in the smoke. A large portion of these emissions can be contained by fitting the exhaust vents with afterburners, but this often isn't done because of the cost. In addition, lump charcoal contributes to deforestation in many parts of the world and contributes greenhouse gases during production.
Charcoal briquettes are typically made from charred sawdust and wood scraps from lumber mills (a good way to use wood waste), combined with binding agents to help them hold their shape. However, many commercially available brands also contain potentially harmful ingredients, including coal dust (a heat source), sodium nitrate (to aid ignition) and VOC-forming lighter fluid (for quick-light brands).
What's more, the 46,000 tons of lighter fluid used to fire up coals each year release about 14,500 tons of ground-level ozone-causing volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Forgoing the fluid and using lump charcoal and briquettes with the Forest Stewardship Council or Rainforest Alliance SmartWood certification logo can eliminate many of these problems.
Gas and electric grilling aren't without their eco-downsides. Natural gas is a fossil fuel, and electricity is often generated via coal-fired plants and other greenhouse gas-releasing methods. However, both (particularly gas) make for cleaner, more energy efficient grilling.
Cooking indoors on a stove or oven can be cleaner than barbecuing, but only as an alternative to charcoal grilling. There are no additional green benefits to using an indoor gas or electric stove over a gas or electric grill.
Related health issues
When meat is grilled or broiled, two types of cancer-causing compounds form: heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). HCAs form on the surface of meat that's cooked at super-high temperatures. PAHs result when fat from meat drips onto hot charcoals then deposits back on as smoke rises or flames flare up.
The American Institute for Cancer Research suggests grilling vegetables and fruits instead of meat to cut down on HCAs and PAHs. Other health hints include buying lean meat and trimming fat, marinating meat (which cuts down on HCAs), or pre-cooking it in a microwave and grilling only briefly.
- volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Organic solvents that easily evaporate into the air.VOCs are emitted by thousands of products, including paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, and may cause immediate and long-term health problems. VOCs are also considered a possible carcinogen, and can create ground-level ozone, the main component of smog.
- American Institute for Cancer Research - The Grilling Question
- emagazine.com - EARTHTALK: Week of 03/25/2007
- Forest Stewardship Council
- Grist - Grill Bit: Tips for earth-sensitive - and tasty - barbecuing
- Solar Cookers International - Solar Cooking Archive
- How Products Are Made - Charcoal Briquette
- The Naked Whiz - Lump Charcoal Database
- Rainforest Alliance Smartwood program
- Thrifty Fun - Green Grilling
- Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association - Grilling Facts and Figures
- Sierra Magazine - Hearth & Home: P's and Q's of BBQ - A guide to guilt-free grilling
- US Department of Energy Oak Ridge National Laboratory - Fourth of July no picnic for the nation's environment (press release)
- Pima County, AZ, Department of Environmental Quality - Healthier Ways to Barbecue (press release)