How to Go Green: Barbecues

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[by Rebecca Silver]

Barbequing in the United States has become a national pastime, but almost all regions of the world embrace the tradition in one form or another. So whether you're grilling pork ribs Southern-style, breaking out the tofu dogs and veggie burgers, switching it up on a Japanese-style Hibachi, or preparing Indonesian Satay over charcoal, we've put together the info that will help you green your grill time.
Ready to start the fire?

Before you invite the guests, buy the burgers, and spark the coals, take a moment to consider what goes into--and what comes out of--your usual celebration. If your vision of good eatin' includes a greasy guy in a red checkered apron standing in a smoky haze of sweet-smelling soot, while nearby picnic tables are strewn with plastic wrap and disposable paper plates, plasticware, and cups, it's time to wake up and smell the grass-fed all-beef hot dogs.

Instead, picture this: You're in the backyard, surrounded by neighbors and friends who have supplied their potluck concoctions in reusable Tupperware containers. While you prep the grill by rubbing it with an onion instead of dousing it with a chemical spray, your guests sip micro-brewed organic beer from glasses (how civilized!), poured from ice-cold growlers from your local brewery. The picnic table is primed with recycled-plastic durable dishware, reusable bamboo cutlery, and fresh salads made with seasonal ingredients picked up from the local farmers' market. The garbage can is near empty though the recycling bin and compost pile have a little extra girth.

While you're not afraid to tuck into some responsibly raised meat, you know the environmental and dietary merits of cutting back, so the bulk of your preparations revolve around vegetarian recipes. After sampling the Portobello mushrooms and chickpea burgers, broccoli rabe cornbread, and fresh ginger cookies, your guests happily head out, leftovers in tow, and walk (or bike or skateboard) home.

Sound like a good time? Click through for the tips, tricks, and recipes that can help you make it happen.

Top Green Barbecue Tips

  1. Make a Plan
    Whether or not your barbecue is a family affair or a neighborhood blowout, you can mitigate the environmental impact of your fete with some careful party planning. Here's how: Tally up the guest list before going to the grocery store so as not to overbuy or leave leftovers that will go to waste. Send invitations via phone or email, rather than sending paper invites. If your party's going to be big, consider a location that's convenient for your attendees, which will allow them to walk, ride bikes, or take public transit rather than drive. Finally, be specific when asking your guests to bring a potluck dish to share. That way, you won't end up with five varieties of pasta salad that nobody wants to eat. (You could give your pals a little nudge-nudge by emailing them the link to our How to Go Green: Meals guide.)
  2. Buy Green Groceries and Sundries
    Ditching disposables is one of the greenest things you can do. Opt instead for reusable plates, cups, and traditional cutlery, or use reusable plastic options, such as Recycline's Preserve Tableware. If you simply cannot part with the idea of disposables, look for unbleached recycled paper products or bamboo serving ware. You can also buy in bulk, which helps reduce packaging and waste (and cuts down on future trips to the grocery store.) Many foods and sauces refrigerate or freeze well. (Bonus tip! Don't forget to bring your own bags to the store.) Here's another thought: Instead of relying on prepackaged chips and bottled sauces, make your own. You'll cut down on packaging waste and have tastier, healthier food.
  3. Consider the Meat
    When it comes down to it, barbecues are all about the food, and even if you usually plan dishes filled with vegetables and whole grains, these tend to go up in smoke when it comes time to grill. But you can still go greener while you grill. First, consider serving less meat - note that we didn't say no meat. (Though if you do go meat-free, kudos.) This is the biggest way to mitigate the environmental impact of your BBQ. Here's why: It takes 1,916 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, and cattle produce enormous amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that's almost 20 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. Bulking up your offerings with vegetarian dishes is a great idea. For the meat, you do serve, choose organic and grass-fed selections. For more ideas, find sustainable meat retailers in your area by using the Eat Well Guide.
  4. Choose Local and Seasonal Produce
    It's no coincidence that BBQ season coincides with the time many locally grown fruits and vegetables are at their best. Local produce typically means fewer chemicals were used to grow and preserve foods, and since it doesn't have to travel long distances, less energy is consumed in transporting them. Consult a seasonal produce calendar and visit your local farmers market for the freshest selections available.
  5. Guzzle Organic Beer and Beverages
    Although you may be tempted to fill a cooler with ice and 50 cans of your favorite beers, sodas, and juices (for the kids), greener options exist for all. When possible, choose bulk sizes of organic drinks, or make your own. Sun tea and fresh lemonade are easy to make and better than store-bought varieties. Organic and local brews are flowing from most regions of the world these days. In addition to cutting down on your carbon footprint local, seasonal, small-batch brews are delicious. Find out who's in your 'hood at BeerFly. Serving beer from a keg, pony keg, or growler also cuts down on excess packaging.
  6. Choose Your Grill Carefully
    The type of grill you use to cook will affect not only flavor but also your eco-footprint. Here's what you need to know: From a carbon standpoint, gas grills win out because natural gas and propane burn cleaner and leave behind less waste than charcoal grills. Charcoal may give your organically raised burgers that old-time-y taste, but the particulate matter from burning the briquettes contain carbon monoxide and other VOCs. If you do use coal, choose all-natural lump varieties, which eliminate the additives contained in briquettes. (See our Getting Techie section for more.) If your home uses green power, consider buying an electric grill. Look for the models with the lowest number of BTU's for the most efficient model.
  7. Fire Up the Barbie!
    If you've opted for charcoal, lighting up can be a daunting task. But petroleum-based lighter fluid can contain harmful VOCs. Alternatives on how to get your coals burning include charcoal chimneys, electrical charcoal starters, and DIY fire starters. Our friends at How Stuff Works lay it all out.
  8. Get your Grill On
    Time to get cooking! These useful tips can help you prepare tasty and efficient meals:
  • Grilling with the hood of the barbecue down not only helps maintain energy efficiency but also ensures the heat will be distributed more evenly throughout the grill.
  • Organic and grass-fed meat is leaner than traditional meat and requires a little bit of extra love in order to maintain its moisture when grilling. To address this issue: marinate your meat before grilling, and continue to baste it while over the grill; for hamburgers, add in caramelized onions and other moisturizing ingredients; cook the meat at a lower temperature or simply cook the meat for less time.
  • You can substitute extra-firm tofu for most recipes that require meat. Marinate for a few hours prior to grilling, and then cook it slowly over lower heat to get that real barbecue flavor.
  • Put vegetables in a bowl with olive oil and herbs to marinate before grilling. If you are using smaller vegetables that might fall through the grill grate, put them on a cake rack and place that over the grill.

Maintain Your Grill Taking care of your grill properly means it will last for many delicious barbecues to come and that will be a healthier cooking vessel. Instead of petro-based cleaners, use soy and natural alternatives, which can work better than the chemical varieties. DIY Cleaners are another good option. You can clean your grill with a barbecue brush and a paste made with baking soda and water. Or, cut an onion in half and rub it over the rack once it has heated up; then brush a bit of olive oil on it so the food doesn't stick.

Time for Dessert You can reheat baked goods like pies on the barbecue rack after the barbecue is turned off. Close the lid and by the time you are ready for dessert, they will be warm.

Clean Up the Mess! Separate your glass, plastic, and metal recyclable containers, and dispose of them on-site, or bring them home to recycle with the rest of your household waste. Gather compostables (another good reason to keep the meat intake low - it cannot be composted) and bring them home to your compost heap, or a community one, if available. Did you know you can compost charcoal remnants too? When it comes to the leftovers, pack them up in reusable containers.

Green Barbecues: By the Numbers

  • 250 pounds per year: The amount of CO2 you'd save by cutting your beef consumption by one quarter.
  • 3,000 pounds per year: The amount of CO2 saved by becoming a vegetarian.
  • 60 million: The number of Americans who fire up the grill during summer holidays.
  • 225,000 metric tons: The amount of CO2 released by these celebrations.
  • 75 percent: U.S. households who own at least one barbecue.
  • 11 pounds per hour: The amount of CO2 generated by a charcoal grill.
  • 6 pounds per hour: The amount of CO2 emitted by a propane grill.
  • 13 pounds per year: The amount of CO2 saved by letting your leftovers cool to room temperature before putting them in the refrigerator.

Sources:: Ready, Set, Green: Eight Weeks to Modern Eco-Living, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Sierra Club

Green Barbecues: Getting Techie

Meat Despite all the press given to driving hybrid cars and using compact fluorescent light bulbs, as solutions to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions go, eating less meat might be the most meaningful decision--with the most impact--that each of us can do. Worldwide agriculture, especially livestock production, accounts for about a fifth of the greenhouse gas emissions. Cattle and sheep release millions of metric tons of methane gas a year into the environment through, ahem, their own emissions. (That's right: We mean cow farts and sheep burps.) In New Zealand, for example, the 55 million farm animals produce some 90 percent of the country's methane emissions, according to Reuters.

Furthermore, according to a report published in New Scientist magazine, eating 2.2 pounds of beef -- that's one kilogram if you prefer metric measurements -- creates the equivalent emissions to driving for three hours while leaving all the lights on at home -- yikes! How does that translate to burgers and pounds of emissions? As it turns out, the carbon footprint of every cheeseburger is about 6.3 to 6.8 pounds; this calculation includes a myriad of factors from growing the feed for the cattle for the beef and cheese, growing the produce, storing, and transporting the components, as well as cooking them all. The bottom line here: growing and sending meat through both industrial and local supply chains takes tons of resources and results in a huge carbon footprint. Cutting back on meat is a tremendously important step toward creating a greener barbecue.

Local Food
There has been much ado recently about the merits of local food, as the concept of food miles becomes more and more pervasive in our culture. However, as TreeHugger's Green Basics: Eat Local Food points out, the local food concept isn't just about distance, but is about the entire lifecycle of our food, "integrating production, processing, distribution and consumption on a small scale, creating sustainable local economies and a strong connection between farm and table." In fact, the majority of the ecological footprint of our food comes from growing, processing, storage, and packaging. All the more important to consider the multiple benefits of cooking fresh local foods, rather than overly-processed, store-bought options.

From the standpoint of the customer, local food is a win-win-win-situation. From an environmental perspective, local foods conserve materials used in packaging and reduce the carbon footprint of your product via transportation and production. From a community standpoint, local food both supports the local economy - farmers/producers/farmers' markets - and helps to bolster long-standing agricultural and cuisine traditions. And from a personal standpoint, you are able to enjoy the freshest, seasonal products, which have not been overly processed or preserved, and which are often considerably healthier than their alternatives. So take advantage of what your local community has to offer before heading to the big box grocery store in preparation for your Q.

Types of Charcoal
Grilling charcoal may seem the most basic of products (coal is carbon, one of the most abundant elements on earth, right?). Au contraire: conventional grilling charcoal is made from a myriad of ingredients, takes many forms, and has a wide range of environmental impacts depending on which variety you choose. Although defenders of charcoal tout its claim to be 'carbon neutral,' as much of the material used to create it comes from trees that can be replanted, we know this to be an overly simplistic conclusion to a complex set of options and considerations.

  • Charcoal Briquettes are what we generally think of when picturing store-bought grilling charcoal in our minds. Briquettes contain natural charcoal which is mixed with a mélange of additives such as sawdust, starch, borax, petroleum solvents, and sodium nitrate (to help with ignition). In addition to being potentially harmful when burned, briquettes can add an unpleasant taste and odor to our foods. Instant light charcoal is particularly toxic when burned and is to be avoided.
  • Lump Charcoal or 'natural charcoal' contains no additives and is significantly preferable to charcoal briquettes in this respect, both from the standpoint of environmental impact and your food's taste. Lump charcoal is made from hardwood and produces less ash when burned than briquettes. A few companies are even beginning to offer FSC-certified natural lump charcoal. While lump charcoal holds certain benefits to briquettes, keep in mind that much of this charcoal and its raw materials come from destinations hundreds or thousands of miles away from your grill, adding to its carbon footprint.
  • Ceramic Briquettes and Lava Rocks don't burn but can be used to improve heat distribution in your gas or electric grill (depending on the make and model of your grill). These briquettes absorb the heat from the flames and radiate this heat, helping improve the efficiency of your grill.

Solar Cookers For those into the slow food movement, consider slow cooking movement too! Perhaps Solar cooking doesn't have the immediate, high-heat fast-cook time advantage that 'grilling' does, but for those into traditional 'barbecue', which can take hours to cook, solar cooking might be your next culinary adventure. One can prepare a wide variety of dishes in a solar oven, with two added financial advantages (in addition to numerous environmental ones) compared to other methods of outdoor cooking: solar 'fuel' is free and solar cookers are often cheaper than traditional grills and can even be made at home with common household materials. TreeHugger has rounded up a few models of cookers, which survey options currently available on the market.

Where to Get Green Grilling Products and Accessories

Food and Produce:

  • Eat Well Guide - listings for where to get local and organic produce, meat, and groceries
  • Beer Advocate - database for finding local breweries

Dishware, Tableware, and Cleaning:



Further Reading on Green Grilling