How to Chill and Grill This Fourth of July Without Hurting the Planet

The concerned citizen's guide to grilling-out on Independence Day.

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Jul 4 2017, 4:00pm

Photo via Pexels.

For whatever reason it's extra fashionable right now to complain on Twitter (or wherever) that summer is bad. Sure, depending on where you are it might be muggy and there's bugs and stuff, but in your hearts most of you ungrateful haters know that summer is fine. Still, a lot of what makes summer good is the re-emergence of warm-weather pursuits that -- while fun -- aren't great for the planet, which is warm enough already. Grilling season isn't the worst thing happening to the Earth right now, but it's an activity that's so widely popular, yet still so easily modified to leave a smaller carbon footprint, that we'd all do well to make a few simple changes.

Any discussion about environmentally sustainable grilling usually begins with which is worse: charcoal grill or gas grill. This is a short discussion, because the answer is that charcoal is worse, and gas is just less worse.

Get Grillin'

Charcoal grilling gives off about twice the carbon that gas does, plus the briquettes emit petroleum, as does lighter fluid. If you happen to be in the market for a new grill, know that you can buy electric ones that run on clean energy. But beware of electric grills that don't run on clean energy because those are actually shittier for the planet than either charcoal or gas grills ever could be, so avoid them at all costs.

In the encouraging spirit of solar power replacing coal, your best option here is really a solar-powered grill. You might be concerned that such things only work when the sun is out to power them, but there are models now that work around this, so you can carry on with grilling in the middle of the night or in a thunderstorm, as regular people do.


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Briquette Bonus

If you already have a charcoal-burning grill and you have no desire to not have a charcoal-burning grill, that's fine -- you still have options. For starters (sorry), it's best if your starter is petroleum-free. Chimney fire starters are a good choice here. But what you really want to overhaul are your briquettes, which are basically big ol' lumps of carbon. If you're still using standard-issue ones, you can swap those out for ones that are sustainably made; or, because it is 2017 and there is no remaining product not also available in a version made from coconuts, you can use wood-free, eco-friendly coconut-shell briquettes. If you're conscientious enough about it, there's a good chance you can make your charcoal grill more sustainable than a gas one, which at the end of the day still runs on non-renewable fossil fuels.

Meat Matters

The thing is, regardless of whether you're using charcoal or gas or whatever, the carbon emissions from grilling are nothing compared to what industrial sources are churning out into the atmosphere. So it's best to consider not just the grill itself, but everything else that goes into the whole process. This ultimately means less meat. Stay with me here, though.

The carbon footprint of red meat -- especially beef -- is enormous, mostly because of the volume of methane emissions that go along with raising huge numbers of huge livestock (poultry is more environmentally friendly for this reason). Lamb is actually the least sustainable option, way moreso even than beef, because it's often imported. If and when you do grill meat, buy local if you can.

READ MORE: 1,800 Gallons of Water Goes Into One Pound of Meat

Locally sourced, organic, grass-fed beef is not only better for the planet, it's also generally healthier and tastier. But the people who urge you to buy it all the time have failed to consider the possibility that you may not actually be made out of money. By all means, do this if you have the coin. But the option friendlier to both the planet and your bank account is to just grill some stuff that's not meat.

Veggie Variations

I get your concern here. Meat is delicious. As someone who was a vegetarian for 21 years and who now eats whatever, I can say unequivocally that veggie burgers do not taste as good as burger burgers. And for most people at a BBQ -- pretty much everyone except maybe the host, if they're just really into the process -- the point of grilling is that it produces something delicious. I'm not here to tell you to stop grilling all meat, just to consider substituting a modest percentage of it with more sustainable foods.

If you think vegetables are boring, grilling season is a really good time to make them less boring. Here's a guide to grilling fruits, a list of the best vegetables to grill, complete vegetarian recipes you can make on the grill, and a database for quickly and easily finding what produce in your area is in season. I know for a fact that grilling peaches is a thing, because the internet will not shut up about it. Use the summer to become a person who eats more produce, and be rewarded for helping the planet by maybe enjoying a longer life with lower cholesterol.

Last, always compost what scraps you can. And while reusable tableware is of course best, it might not be feasible if you're hosting a lot of people or not grilling at home, so do the best you can -- you can get a million different kinds of biodegradable tableware. Do not fuck with Styrofoam. It is bad.