Beyond a basic awareness that throwing away disposable plates and cans can be wasteful, many are unclear of the hidden ecological impacts of our summer backyard celebrations. As environmentally concerned consumers, it’s time to make “green” part of our grilling tradition, one (veggie) burger at time.
The great green grill debate is on: which is more eco-friendly — using a charcoal, gas or electric grill? While gas grills are touted for their relative greenhouse gas (GHG) neutrality, looking at each product from a lifecycle perspective - including how the fuel is created and distributed - leads to questions about the relative environmental merits and drawbacks of each cooking option.
Gas Grills are fueled from petroleum or natural gas, both non-renewable fossil fuels. Advantages of these grills include quick start times, year-round usability, temperature consistency and minimal cleanup. Gas grills also emit less smoke and particulate matter directly onto the cook site. If you’re going with gas, invest in a high-quality, energy efficient model and make sure the gas tanks are refillable.
Charcoal/Wood Grill are widely embraced for the taste they add to food. According to Tristam West of the Department of Energy’s Natural Laboratory, a charcoal grill releases twice as much carbon as a gas grill. Additionally charcoal grills and lighter fluid are proven contributors to ground-level ozone according to the EPA. Charcoal grills also release particulate matter into the air, which means that prolonged exposure can have a negative impact on human health. However, looking at the entire carbon cycle from a longer-term perspective, using lump charcoal (as opposed to briquettes, which commonly contain additives such as sodium nitrate) and a charcoal chimney (as opposed to lighter fluid) makes a charcoal grill closer to carbon net neutral because lump charcoal is produced from wood and trees take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Electric Grills are a good choice if your home power is from green rather than traditional sources; otherwise these grills have the highest GHG footprint (depending on the origin of electricity in your location). Electric grills plug directly in to an outlet and are similar to gas grills in terms of temperature control, cook time, and flavor.
Newer and Potentially Greener Grills continue to emerge, including pellet grills and hybrid grills, which optimize electricity but accommodate small amounts of charcoal and wood for flavoring purposes. These grills are harder to find, but they're emerging as a new trend.
Consider reducing the environmental impact of your meal by downplaying or eliminating beef and opting for chicken, fish, or vegetarian options, serving more generous portions of vegetarian fare as the entrée rather than as side dishes, and by grilling food that will be used for more than one meal, extra veggies to make a grilled vegetable salad or extra chicken for sandwiches, for example.
Be sure to understand labels when buying natural, organic, and pasture-raised products. Sustainable Table has a useful pocket-sized glossary reference of meat production terms to accompany your guide to sustainable seafood and seasonal produce calendar.
Before firing up the grill, prep your grill the natural way by using heat to sear off grill remnants and brushing the grate with oil to prevent food from sticking.
Take special care when cooking grass-fed beef, as it is leaner and more sensitive to overcooking than grain-fed alternatives. Sear the beef first over more direct heat, and then complete the cooking process by grilling at a lower temperature. (In other words, move the beef farther away from the flame.)
The coals are cooling, the guests have gone home and it’s time to gather the garbage and call it a day. As a knowledgeable green consumer, you likely have minimized the use of disposable plates, napkins, cups, and single serving packages in favor of washable utensils and bulk-sized beverages containers. The reward for this responsible behavior is minimal trash, a fridge filled with wanted leftovers, and the promise of a fantastic grilled vegetable sandwich for lunch tomorrow.