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.