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For many barbecue-lovers, grilling just wouldn't be grilling without the charcoal. Unfortunately, those glowing embers are the least green of your grilling options. Unless, of course, you opt for eco-friendly charcoal, including lump charcoal harvested from sustainably managed forests or pillow-shaped briquettes made without coal dust or unhealthy additives. Buying green charcoal means less deforestation, fewer greenhouse gas and soot emissions, and healthier barbecue eatin'.

How to buy eco-friendly, natural charcoal

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)One way to know charcoal is eco-friendly is to look for brands with the Forest Stewardship Council or Rainforest Alliance SmartWood certification logo. Visit the Forest Certification Resource Center to search for manufacturers of wood products, including charcoal, that are certified by FSC, SmartWood, and other organizations.

However, be aware that many green brands are either not certified or are in the process of receiving certification. For reviews of natural lump charcoal brands visit Naked Whiz’s Lump Charcoal Database Reviews


Find it! Eco-friendly charcoal

Eco-friendly charcoal is sometimes difficult to find, but is becoming easier to find, especially in specialty stores nationwide. If you can't find any at your local bricks-and-mortar store, you can order some online!

Eco-friendly charcoal helps you go green because…

  • No trees in endangered woodlands are cut to produce it.
  • Fewer greenhouse gases and soot are emitted when it burns.
  • No unhealthy additives are released into the air or deposited on food during grilling.

More than 80 percent of US households own a barbecue grill, and about half cook out all year. Peak use occurs during the summer months when 47 percent fire up an average of one to two times a week.[1] With millions of grills smoking at once, the eco-impacts are significant, with the two biggest environmental challenges pertaining to air pollution and deforestation.

Charcoal and air pollution

On the Fourth of July alone, 2,300 acres of forest are consumed and 225,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere.[2][3] Charcoal and wood grills burn dirtier than either gas or electric grills, emitting carbon monoxide, soot and greenhouse gases. Pillow-shaped briquettes are typically made from charred sawdust and wood scraps from lumber mills (a good use of 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 volatile organic compound (VOC)-forming lighter fluid (for quick-light brands).

Lump charcoal, on the other hand, 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-laden smoke.

Charcoal and deforestation

Despite the fact that charcoal is less eco-friendly than gas or electric, many people prefer the charbroiled flavor it imparts. Forgoing the fluid and using lump charcoal and briquettes that are certified as sustainably-harvested can make charcoal grilling greener.

There are several organizations certifying lumber, but according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), only one is preferred by green experts worldwide—the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). FSC is an international nonprofit organization that was formed in 1993. It accredits certifiers, who in turn use auditors to inspect timber operations (only those that voluntarily request FSC certification) to guarantee that trees are sustainably harvested using forestry practices that maintain the diversity of native species, prevent over-cutting, protect watersheds, and ensure long-term forest management.

FSC's program is endorsed by most national and international environmental NGOs; unions; social groups; indigenous peoples; timber industries; private, communal, and state forest owners; and scientists from over 60 countries, including such organizations as the World Wildlife Fund, the Wilderness Society, the NRDC, the Rainforest Alliance, and the World Resources Institute.

FSC has six strict principles for monitoring every stage of production, distribution, and sale of wood products, and works with wholesalers, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers. These principles cover environmental, social, and economic criteria, such as harvest rates and clearing sizes; natural forest conditions; rare, threatened, and endangered species; adequate conservation zones; chemical use (minimized); protection of streams and lakes; and the health of workers, communities, and indigenous peoples. Only those operations that meet the criteria are allowed to display the FSC label.

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 when 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.

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