With the ever growing movement encouraging us all to live sustainably, our eating habits have been one of the main aspects of our modern lives that have come under the microscope.
Our carbon footprints are no longer only defined by our reliance on vehicles and long haul travel, but also the impact our food choices have on the world.
Energy efficiency and food provenance are both under particular scrutiny at the moment, resulting in a growing population eager to find locally sourced, sometimes even entirely plant-based, food.
So where does this leave the world of barbecue?
With emissions from both gas and charcoal grills having an obvious impact on climate, is it possible to grill in a sustainable way that’s both eco-friendly and true to what makes grilling so enjoyable in the first place?
In this article I want to show that a move away from charcoal grilling doesn’t mean a move away from barbecue itself, and I’ll put forward a case for the much maligned outdoor electric grill.
Our love for outdoor cooking seems to be universal. A lot of the world’s leading food cultures have some sort of cuisine based in barbecue, whether it be Chinese, Middle Eastern, or Mexican.
I don’t know if it’s to do with something primal, like the connection to the outdoors, or just the fact that its resulting plates of vegetables or meat are so uniquely delicious, but we can’t seem to get enough of it.
However over recent years, the environmental impact of barbecue has been called into question. Its large dependence on either propane gas or charcoal has obvious implications, and the impact of which has been compared to long haul driving.
It should come as no surprise that charcoal grilling is the worst perpetrator when it comes to pollutants. Conventional charcoal emits both ground-level ozone, which is a significant contributor to smoke, and also aromatic volatile organic compounds.
Compared to charcoal, gas grills have a reduced environmental impact. On average they tend to burn about 2.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide per hour, compared to 5 kilograms for charcoal.
Not only that, but only 10% of propane gas is lost during the production process. Charcoal on the other hand, tends to lose about 75%, all of which is lost as fuel emissions before it’s even packed. That means that for every 1 kilogram of charcoal you buy, 3 kilograms have effectively been burned into the atmosphere.
While it is true that propane and natural gas are nonrenewable, their impact on the environment is far less severe. They keep the air cleaner, the climate cooler, and are far more energy efficient.
Can we reduce this impact even further however?
Pellet grills have grown in popularity over recent years, and allow a fantastic compromise between reduced environmental impact and retention of classic barbecue traditions.
These grills work by burning through compressed wood chips, and burn far cleaner and more efficiently than their charcoal counterparts. What’s more is that the wood chips are often sourced from recycled sawdust and wood chunks, so have a relatively limited climate impact during production.
Finally, as a nod to the purists, they also accommodate scented wood chips. These allow BBQ fans to impart added flavour to your food with long-standing favourites like mesquite, hickory or oak.
Far and away the most environmentally friendly option however is the electric grill. With no reliance on nonrenewable fuels like charcoal or wood, the level to which your electric grill is clean simply relies on your electricity source. If your home runs on solar power then the use of an electric grill is perhaps the pinnacle of clean, eco-friendly grilling.
How much you’ll enjoy electric grilling will come down to how much you need the traditional smokiness and charred aromas that we all associate with barbecue. Yes, it is more sustainable, but if you’re keen to maintain some form of tradition in your grilling, then a wood pellet grill is an excellent option as a best of both worlds.
Whichever way we cut it, traditional barbecue has been a significant contributor to the growing climate issues that have come to the fore this century.
But the future is positive. Manufacturers have been pushing cleaner burning models, users are far more energy conscious, and locally-based diets are now mainstream.
Grilling is now finally in the 21st century.
Ben is a former semi-pro cyclist and big eater. Now he is just a big eater. He writes outdoor cooking at The Online Grill.