How to Become an Eco-Friendly Griller

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Eco-friendliness might not be the first thing on people’s minds as they fire up the grill this season. But the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that backyard barbecues release 225,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air on the Fourth of July alone. On that day, grills consume enough energy in the form of charcoal, lighter fluid, gas and electricity to power 20,000 households a year.

Fortunately, there are ways to reduce the carbon footprint of all those backyard barbecues.

Choose a Grill

One option is to buy an energy efficient grill. Saber Grills, for instance, recently earned the 2012 Vesta Green Award (from Hearth & Home magazine) for its new infrared gas grills. These grills use 30 percent less fuel than do traditional gas grills, and it marks the first time a grilling company has won the Green Award.

Infrared grills are exciting for the grill industry not only because they are eco-friendly but because they heat food evenly and reduce flare-ups and drippings to improve the grilling experience.

Another way to have a “green” barbecue is to use natural gas or electric grills. Still, for those who use charcoal grills (which are less sustainable), the lack of smoky flavor derived from burning charcoal may be a deal breaker. Luckily, there are other ways to reduce energy consumption at the grill.

Ditch the Fluid

Bob Schildgen, author of the “Hey, Mr. Green” column for Sierra Magazine (the official magazine of the American environmental group, Sierra Club) provides one key point for charcoal grillers: “Don’t use lighter fluid.”

Backyard barbecues consume 46,000 tons of lighter fluid every year, he says, and that fluid releases 14,000 tons of volatile organic compounds into the air.

Instead, he recommends charcoal chimney starters, which are metal cylinders with charcoal grates mounted inside them. Professional chefs say that these starters are not only environmentally friendly, but that they also result in tastier meals.

“Charcoal lighting fluid is incredibly polluting,” says Ceci Carmichael, a New York City-based chef, former Food Network host and creator of recipe-and-kitchen gadget website “I used fluid before I realized that I was fouling the air. Besides, I don’t like the [gasoline] flavor that it imparts on the food.”

Find Better Fuel

Those who still want to use charcoal should avoid the charcoal briquettes commonly found on store shelves. Carmichael recommends lump charcoal that is made out of pure wood, avoiding the chemicals that come with traditional briquettes. Chefs can even find lump charcoal that comes from sustainable wood left over from the manufacture of furniture, a truly sustainable grilling alternative.

Another option is to use lump charcoal that only comes from wood that is located nearby, avoiding the environment stress that results from shipping wood from, say, the Pacific Northwest to the East Coast.

For those who are willing to go the extra mile for a “green” barbecue, perhaps it’s time to take the cooking surface somewhere else. Tim Tucker, founder of, says that grillers can cook in a backyard fire pit while using local wood as kindling. 

“Wood is a great fuel,” Tucker says. “In an ideal world, the greenest way to cook outdoors is to use limbs that shed from local trees during the winter,” though it’s not a viable option for some people, he acknowledges.

Extra Steps

Grillers can reduce their carbon footprints by preparing their food properly, too. Carmichael recommends that outdoor chefs trim their meat of as much fat as possible before grilling. It’s the fat that causes flare-ups when grilling, and these flare-ups release large amounts of smoke and carbon into the air.

Then there are maintenance issues. Tucker says that too many grillers don’t take proper care of their grills. Then, when their grills become rusted and damaged, they run to the store to buy a replacement, which adds another element of over-consumption.

Finally, it should be noted that the act of cooking outside during the summer could be considered “green,” no matter what kind of charcoal, grill or lighting fluid chefs use.

John Drengenberg, director of consumer safety with global safety science company UL, says, “When you’re cooking outdoors, your air conditioning isn’t working as hard as it does when your oven or stove is cooking away. Sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture when you’re considering whether something is green.”

Tags: green, BBQ, cooking