6 sustainable grilling tips

A man putting hot dogs on a BBQ. This story is about sustainable grilling tips.
Grilling hot dogs. | BDN file photo

The weather is warming, the mosquitoes are waning and the long summer days are stretching into balmy nights. In other words: round up your blue-ribbon grilling tips, because barbecue season is upon us. 

Grilling is a tried-and-true American way to celebrate holidays, especially during the summer. According to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, an estimated 73 percent of Americans grill on the Fourth of July (Memorial Day and Labor Day pull a distant second and third, with 60 and 58 percent, respectively).

However, it can also be an Earth unfriendly holiday. Burning coals release pollutants into the air, wasted food is tossed and the disposable cutlery will take eons to decompose. There is a better way. You do not have to give up your grilling tradition whole hog. 

Here are 6 grilling tips to make your BBQ a little greener.

Eat less (or local) meat

Meat can have a hefty environmental impact. A lifecycle analysis conducted by the Environmental Working Group that took into account the production and distribution of over a dozen common agricultural products found that the cheese and beef in your cheeseburger is responsible for up to 30 times as many greenhouse gas emissions as other vegetables and grains.

Not all meat is created equal, though. If you must satiate your craving, buy local meat. The environmental cost of shipping will be considerably less. Small-scale farms are also more likely to have produced the meat using more sustainable methods than large factory farms. 

If you want to venture into plant-based grilling, though, consider grilling bean burgers, sweet potato burgers or plant-based protein like tofu and tempeh. Some simple grilling tips: marinate overnight, make sure you spray the grill with non-stick spray first (plant-based protein tends to stick) and consider blanching the tempeh or choosing extra firm tofu.

Or, grill vegetable skewers or whole “steaks” of squash, broccoli, eggplant or bok choy. Plus, no BBQ — plant-based or otherwise — would be complete without grilled corn on the cob. 

A griller using tongs to flip meat on a BBQ.
Grilling. | BDN file photo

Repurpose leftovers

One of the biggest environmental impacts of any holiday is food waste. Given the amount of environmental inputs that go into creating many traditional barbecue favorites — and the cost of purchasing them — you do not want to let that tasty food go to waste. 

Plan your cookout around what can be used in the days following. Leftover hot dogs can be wrapped in puff pastry and made into pigs in a blanket, chopped up and added to a hash or scrambled eggs or tossed into chili. Crumble uneaten hamburger patties into mac and cheese or spaghetti sauce, stuff into peppers, sprinkle over homemade pizza, simmer to create Sloppy Joes or season to create taco meat.

Skip the fireworks

Small-scale fireworks displays, especially on the Fourth of July, are an enormous culprit for air pollution.

A 2015 study conducted on behalf of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association found a significant spike in air pollutants on and after the Fourth of July. The average concentrations of harmful particulates over the 24-hour period starting at 8 p.m. on July 4 and ending at the same time on July 5 were shown to be 42 percent greater than on the days preceding and following the holiday.

This is not only bad for the environment, but also bad for your health. Small-scale, backyard fireworks displays are especially problematic because you are in closer proximity to harmful chemicals chemicals.

This year, skip the fireworks. They scare pets and can trigger your friendly neighborhood veteran’s most traumatic memories, anyway.

Hamburger and hot dog grilling over charcoal briquettes on a BBQ.
Hamburger and hot dog grilling over charcoal briquettes. | BDN file photo

Use a gas grill instead of charcoal or electric

The Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association estimates that 7 in 10 American adults own a grill. The gas, charcoal and electric all have varying degrees of impact on the environment. 

In a 2003 study conducted by the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory found that cooking with a gas grill is best in terms of emissions, releasing just over 5 pounds of carbon dioxide over one hour of grilling. A charcoal grill emits up to 11 pounds, and electric grill for one hour produces an average of 15 pounds of carbon dioxide (though if your only source of electricity is from renewable sources, these numbers could be lower). 

If you have the means, opt for a gas grill this barbecue season. 

Source your charcoal sustainably

Charcoal briquettes are made from wood, an ostensibly renewable material instead of the fossil fuel-based gas grills. However, the charcoal industry contributes to deforestation, which as a whole contributes between 6 and 17 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Charcoal producers around the world have been cited for environmental violations, as well as labor violations and impacts on human health.

If you already have a charcoal grill and do not have the means to invest in a gas grill, make sure the coals you buy are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council

Students disposing single-use paper plates and milk cartons in a cafeteria garbage can.
Diners disposing single-use paper plates. | BDN file photo

Say no to single-use 

Paper plates, plastic cups and disposable cutlery may make clean up easier, but they do a number on your waste stream. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans threw out 1.1 million tons of plastic plates and cups in 2015 alone.

Keep a tray of warm, soapy water in your sink for your guests to drop their plates, glasses and cutlery in after the barbecue to speed clean-up along. Or, if you are so lucky as to have a dishwasher (which is more energy and water efficient than hand washing, anyway), ask guests to add their plates, glasses and silverware as they go.

With these green grilling tips, your barbecue will not only taste good, but it will be feel-good for your guests as everyone does their part to be good stewards of the planet.

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