Before You Fire Up the Grill, an Environmental Scientist Wants You To Consider These 6 Eco-Friendly Tips

Photo: Stocksy/ Nadine Greeff
We’ve all seen those viral videos of grilling gone wrong on social media far too many times. Whether someone packed the grill with way too much charcoal or the grease trap went too long without being cleaned, grilling can clearly turn into a fiery debacle far too quickly. Aside from some burnt-off arm hair, inedible food, and the sheer humiliation (IYKYK: your family will never let you live it down), these common mistakes can also have a very negative impact on the environment.

If you’re ready to channel your inner grill master this summer, we’ve got your back. With the help of an environmental scientist from The Nature Conservancy, we’ve gathered the best eco-friendly tips to keep in mind before you fire up the grill to keep yourself and the environment as safe as possible. With a few easy modifications to the way you set up your barbeque, how you dispose of your coal ash, and what you choose to char, you can quickly be on your way to an eco-friendly grill sesh in no time.

Experts In This Article
  • Joe Fargione, Joe Fargione is Science Director for The Nature Conservancy’s North America Region.

6 eco-friendly grilling tips, according to an environmental scientist

1. Use a liquid propane grill

According to Joe Fargione, PhD, Science Director of The Nature Conservancy of North America, not all outdoor cooking setups are created equal. From pellet smokers to wood-burning fire pits to liquid propane grilling (LPG) to charcoal, there’s an abundance of cooking tools to pick from. However, Dr. Fargione is quick to point out that one, in particular, has been scientifically proven to have a much smaller footprint on the environment.

One UK study found that LPG is about three times better than charcoal when it comes to the carbon emissions of cooking,” Dr. Fargione says. The study showed that in the base case, the charcoal grilling footprint was 998 kg CO2e, which was almost three times more than LPG grilling, whose footprint came in at 349 kg CO2e. Dr. Fargione also noted that the same study found that LPG cooking was deemed more efficient than using charcoal.

2. Keep the lid closed whenever possible—especially when using charcoal

Although some argue that charcoal tastes the best, it unfortunately produces more pollution in comparison to using a propane gas grill. However, if it’s the only option available, Dr. Fargione recommends closing the lid whenever possible. “If you want to heat up the grill, close the lid! Otherwise, you are mostly heating up the air, which is a waste for you and the environment,” he explains. While both coal and propane are fossil fuels (aka nonrenewable energy sources), the latter can burn faster and hotter, thus requiring less fuel—meaning fewer emissions per grilling session.

3. Purchase 100 percent wood (if you do use charcoal)

If you do cook with charcoal, Dr. Fargione says to make sure you're using a product made of 100 percent wood. In order to make charcoal—aka the solid fuel used for heating and cooking—a material must undergo a process called carbonization, where organic matter (such as wood) is converted into carbon by progressive heating. “It should say it right on the packaging what your charcoal is made from. If it doesn’t say 100 percent wood on the package, it isn’t—it includes other things such as coal ash, which may have minerals that could be toxic to both your garden and the environment,” Dr. Fargione says.

4. Be mindful of where you dispose of your grill ashes

“The other benefit of using wood charcoal is that it can usually be spread on your garden or compost," says Dr. Fargione. "Just be careful about the amount. If you’re grilling a lot and throwing all of that ash into a garden or compost, it could throw off the pH balance in your soil. And if you’re using a lot of lighter fluid or a lot of animal fat from really juicy burgers that dripped onto the ashes, you may be better off letting the ashes cool and throwing them out in a trash bin." FYI: You also want to keep meat out of your compost.

5. Buy sustainably-sourced foods to grill

According to Dr. Fargione, one of the best things you can do for the environment is to know where your food comes from and how it was produced (yes, everything from meat and other proteins to vegetables and fruit) and then making purchasing decisions based on that. “Buying food that is raised in ways that you know are better for the environment—such as regeneratively-grown proteins, which can help improve soil health, water, or wildlife habitat—sends a signal that there’s market demand for those foods,” Dr. Fargione says. Grass-fed beef tends to be a more sustainable option than corn-fed, for instance, and be sure to check out the consumer guide from the Seafood Watch to be sure you're buying sustainably-sourced fish.

6. Shop local whenever possible

This is a great way to achieve the above step, too. “Support your local farmers by buying local when possible. Farmer's markets will generally have in-season local produce, and vendors can often tell you more about how it was grown or raised. You may find a new favorite ingredient, too. Buying the amount you need instead of large pre-packaged amounts can also help reduce food waste,” Dr. Fargione says.

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