Greener Grilling: Charcoal vs. Propane

The good news is that no matter what type of grill you have, there are some things you can do to reduce your environmental footprint.

When it comes to grilling, the debate “charcoal vs. propane” can get quite heated (get it- heated?). While we may never be able to resolve the flavor debate, we can at least get some clarity about the environmental impacts. While the environmental footprint of grilling is complicated, the quick answer to which grilling fuel is best for the environment is propane. That is, unless you consider a solar powered electric grill (which is a post for another day). Propane actually loses points for being a nonrenewable resource but it wins overall because it has a much better carbon footprint than the charcoal that’s most commonly available. A lot of charcoal is made up of a mixture of sawdust, cornstarch, nitrates, borax, and other additives which become pollutants when the charcoal burns. Not all charcoal is a mixture of sawdust and additives, however. “Chunk” or “lump” charcoal (also referred to as “real” charcoal) is actually just hardwood coal and it burns cleaner than other types of charcoal. Real charcoal also comes from a renewable resource.

Of course, throwing away your charcoal grill and buying a new gas grill wouldn’t exactly be the most environmentally friendly solution. The good news is that no matter what type of grill you have, there are some things you can do to reduce your environmental footprint.

  • Don’t pre-heat your grill for a long time. The longer you preheat your grill the more fuel is burned unnecessarily.
  • Use a chimney starter instead of lighter fluid. Lighter fluid is typically a petroleum product that releases pollutants as it burns and volatile organic compounds while it evaporates. Chimney starters are a great sustainable alternative and they work very well.
  • Choose ‘real’ charcoal (known as chunk or lump) instead of bricks made of sawdust and additives.
  • Re-use your ash. Find ways to reuse your ash. For instance, additive free charcoal ash can be used in the garden as a fertilizer.
  • Cover the entire grill surface with food. Try to utilize as much space on the grill as possible. This will shorten your cooking time and reduce the amount of fuel you need.
  • Think about what you put on the grill. This one is important because what you’re putting on the grill probably has a much larger environmental footprint than the act of grilling it. Consider all the things that go into producing what you choose to put on the grill. For example, beef has a much larger carbon footprint than chicken because it requires more resources and outputs more methane. Regardless of your meat choice, local farms with sustainable practices are a great choice for getting more environmentally friendly meats.
  • If you’re planning a vegetarian meal consider the protein source. Soy, a popular meat alternative, is often farmed using unsustainable practices. Look for alternatives like soy that’s produced organically and locally, legume based burgers, or meaty vegetables.
  • Load up on veggies! This time of year local farms are producing tons of amazing veggies so load up on these delicious, in-season treats for a sustainable grilled meal!
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Amanda Charland

Amanda Charland

Amanda Charland is the Co-op's Director of Outreach and Member Services. Contact her at acharland at coopfoodstore dot com.
Amanda Charland

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