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Green Grilling
December 20, 2008 1:05 PM   Subscribe

Which has a bigger (ie. worse) environmental impact: grilling with propane or grilling with charcoal? Taking into account not only the actual process of burning the material itself, but also cost of producing & shipping the fuel, etc.
posted by Saxon Kane to Science & Nature (15 answers total)
 
There is no absolute answer to be given here, as different kinds of environmental impact can not be directly compared. Charcoal is a renewable resource, but has a lower energy density than propane, and produces more soot.
posted by fvw at 1:23 PM on December 20, 2008


What in terms of producing charcoal vs. producing propane, any major difference there?
posted by Saxon Kane at 1:32 PM on December 20, 2008


Relax, neither has any impact.

Grilling is not a common enough activity for either to have any real impact the environment.
posted by Zambrano at 1:38 PM on December 20, 2008


It depends on how the charcoal is produced. If it was made from clear-cut amazonian rain forests and then shipped 5,000 miles to your grill the environmental impact would be higher than if it was made 500 miles from you from waste wood salvaged from oak pallets.

I understand what you are getting at but I doubt the answer is known or even knowable with a meaningful degree of accuracy.

In my opinion countries that transition to from having most people cook over charcoal to having most people cooking with gas or electricity see some environmental benefits. In those situations though the charcoal was probably being harvested in an unsustainable manner and they may just be externalizing the environmental impact of natural gas production to another region.
posted by ChrisHartley at 2:10 PM on December 20, 2008


In conclusion, the correct answer is to build a wood gas stove from a tin can and burn small bits of scavenged wood. If by "grilling" you mean "boiling 8 ounces of water."

The stove does does work quite well
posted by ChrisHartley at 2:14 PM on December 20, 2008


This isn't really an answer to your question, but I've had good luck grilling over actual wood. Burn it down until you have coals, and then grill. Since I live in the woods and my grill is a fire pit, this was the best solution for me, but if you live in town it might not be as easy. I just felt compelled to point out that grilling over actual wood is completely feasible.

To me, the environmental damage equation would ideally include the damage I created as I made the money needed to buy the propane or coal. So if I drive to an office and use electricity for an hour to make enough money to buy the summer's grilling supplies, that would ideally be included in the equation, as would driving to the store to buy the propane or coal. Picking up bits of wood within 20 feet of my firepit is a lot more "green" in that regard, though the smoke from the wood could cause worse environmental damage than the damage caused by corporate charcoal or propane.
posted by PatoPata at 2:51 PM on December 20, 2008


This is a good question for the Green Lantern over at Slate.com

He always's does these kinds of comparisons: "Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday."
posted by lannanh at 3:27 PM on December 20, 2008


I think worrying about this is going to make you miss some other more important issue, like not unplugging your tv at night or leaving your microwave powered up etc, which in the long run is going to use much more energy produced from fossil fuels than grilling every so often.

Seriously though, if you're this worried about it, you should probably donate some time to an organization that is working to reduce carbon emissions or some other legislation.
posted by Large Marge at 3:36 PM on December 20, 2008


Umbra covered this. Although it seems she only took the emissions from the grilling itself into account.
posted by piedmont at 4:02 PM on December 20, 2008


Depends on where and when. Summer in the city, charcoal grilling lowers air quality to a significant degree, because so many are doing it so close together.
posted by rikschell at 6:14 PM on December 20, 2008


Depends on where and when. Summer in the city, charcoal grilling lowers air quality to a significant degree, because so many are doing it so close together.

Agreed- I think charcoal grilling would have to be more damaging because it's so dirty. The starter fluid, the smoke, the production of charcoal.
posted by gjc at 7:35 PM on December 20, 2008


In case anyone reading this doesn't know this already: charcoal doesn't require starter fluid. You just need one of those metal chimney things and some newspaper. For details, Google "chimney charcoal starter."
posted by PatoPata at 10:11 PM on December 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


are you grilling meat? meat production has a MUCH BIGGER impact than non-meat... i know that's not your question, this is a lateral answer, and if you care deeply about your footprint as you seem to, might be something to consider.
posted by beccyjoe at 11:26 PM on December 20, 2008


Gas grills are far more efficient than a Weber charcoal grill. So in spite of there being a bajillion variables (how was the fuel made and how energy intensive was the process? What distance did it travel to reach you? &c.), the fact that you get a lot more heat with a lot less waste is probably the most important consideration. Even if both the fuels produced the same amount of energy, gas grills have temperature control, turn off immediately when you're done, and are of a higher standard of construction. Considering that charcoal is only about 25 megajoules of heat per kilo compared to 91 for propane, propane is certainly the better choice.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:23 PM on December 21, 2008


As for shipping cost: it depends. You'd have to know your particular sources. However, propane is compressed to travel, which is something that can't be done with charcoal.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:26 PM on December 21, 2008


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