How to throw a more climate-friendly BBQ

Fourth of July means a BBQ for a big chunk of the country. It’s an environmental hazard but what are you gonna do? Turns out there are steps you can take to lessen the damage, and still have fun.

Fourth of July means a BBQ for a big chunk of the country. It’s an environmental hazard but what are you gonna do? Turns out there are steps you can take to lessen the damage, and still have fun.

July 4th is the day that everyone, and we mean 87 percent of Americans, plans to rev up their grills--my family included. As a kid, I loved the easy nature of our barbecues. We sat on lawn chairs with our parents and our parents’ friends and our parents’ friends’ kids, who were our friends. We did cartwheels in the grass and greeted relatives whose names we quickly forgot. Food tastes so much better when grilled and conversations are always more relaxed. A grill turns preparing food into a social event.

But I also remember the clouds of smoke billowing from the grill that never quite went away. The way trash cans were piled high with plates and cups. How often untouched food got tossed with all the plastic. Global warming! So much waste! All that meat!

Still, how bad could BBQing really be? Most of us cook inside. We really only fire up grills in unison around big holidays—specifically the upcoming one. So does our love for BBQing harm the planet? 

It turns out that, yes, yes it does.

The scary math of BBQs

One charcoal grilling session releases as much carbon dioxide as a car motoring 26 miles. And that’s just one grill. Roughly 92.5 million Americans own a grill. Assume that 87 percent of them are fired up for an hour over the Fourth, bringing that down to 80.5 million grills. Sixty one percent of grill owners have charcoal ones, 42 percent gas, and 10 percent electric, according to a 2013 study by the Heart, Patio & Barbecue Association. Let’s try and calculate the total carbon dioxide emissions, the way this article in Mother Jones did.

We’ll multiply the numbers of each grill by the amount of carbon dioxide that grill releases in an hour, and then add everything up: 

(49.1 million charcoal grills * 11 pounds of CO2) + (33.8 million gas grills * 5.6 pounds CO2) + (8.1 million electric grills * 15 pounds CO2) = 850.9 million pounds of CO2

This is only slightly smaller than the 882 million pound figure Mother Jones found when it assumed that every single grill would be blazing over the Fourth. It found that’s roughly as many emissions as burning 2,145 railcars of coal, or running one coal-fired power plant for a month.

So yes, barbecuing is not good for the environment.

What can we do about it? Here are a few suggestions for lowering your carbon footprint and enjoying a good old-fashioned BBQ at the same time.

Charcoal or gas? Using gas instead of charcoal can lower your carbon footprint by a bit. One reason is that the moment you turn one on you’re ready to start cooking. Charcoal grills, on the other hand, need time to heat up, which means spewing more harmful pollutants and carbon dioxide into the air. But even when each burns for an hour, gas grills release 5.3 pounds of carbon dioxide compared to charcoal grills 11 pounds, according to study by Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Another reason to dislike charcoal: Those briquettes we buy for convenience have additives like lighter fluid and corn starch. When they burn, they release those nasty particulates into the air. 

Charcoal grills may leave a larger carbon footprint, but gas still emits more than five pounds of carbon dioxide every hour. The grill with the smallest environmental impact by far is powered not by fossil fuels but by a green energy source, like wind or solar. The good news: these do exist!

What to do about all that food waste? Let’s talk about garbage. Roughly 30 to 40% of the food we eat ends up in landfills. That’s 133 billion pounds of food that could have helped feed people who need it, and about $161 billion of wasted resources and labor. When our food gets tossed in landfills, it also releases large amounts of highly potent methane, and other greenhouse gases. Food waste alone contributes 7 percent of the world’s global emissions. We definitely can--and need to--do better. Here’s a start on curbing food waste.

  • Use a planning tool. How many people are coming? How much food do you think they’ll eat? Planning ahead can relieve a little stress and a lot of food waste. Here’s a tool to help you figure out how much food to prepare. 

  • Compost leftovers. Throw your uneaten fries and tomato salad into a composter and turn it into fertilizer! Be aware meat doesn’t break down as quickly as veggies but it can still be composted. Many cities have composting centers. If your city doesn’t offer one, you might want to look into a private composting option.

Reuse and recycle. Serve food on reusable plates, as in, not plastic or paper. If you’re expecting too many guests for that to be bearable, opt for paper plates and cups, which can be composted. Set out and label recycling bins to capture glass bottles and cans.

Cut down on meat. When I imagine a BBQ, I confess I think burger. It was a quintessential part of my grilling experience growing up. But all meat patties put a ridiculous strain on the environment. Just one pound of beef costs us almost 2,000 gallons of water, 12 pounds of grain, 35 pounds of topsoil, and the same amount of energy found in a pound of gasoline. It’s also a big reason animal agriculture is responsible for an estimated 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, or more.

You can still have a burger, but consider refreshing your idea of what makes a good one.

Who needs tired beef patties? Sink your teeth into this juicy  beefsteak tomato burger . Wow.

Who needs tired beef patties? Sink your teeth into this juicy beefsteak tomato burger. Wow.

  • The Blended Burger isn’t meat-free, but it does limit beef by mixing it in with mushrooms.

  • The Beefsteak Tomato Burger is vegan and overflowing with veggies! 

  • The Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger.  Everyone’s talking about them, with good reason! They’re plant-based and delicious. Impossible Burgers will be in grocery stores later this year. You can already find new and improved Beyond Burgers in large chains like Giant, Safeway, and Food Lion. 

Emily Zhang is a Stone Pier Press News Fellow and a junior at Stanford University.