By Dorysel Mora
Summer just kicked into full gear, and many Americans are heading outside to feast on delicious barbecued meals with family and friends. We may think that the environmental consequences of a little summer fun can't amount to much. But if we consider that millions of families across the US will be grilling as well, a different picture emerges.
According to the US Department of Energy, the estimated 60 million barbecues held on the Fourth of July alone consume enough energy in the form of charcoal, lighter fluid, gas and electricity to power 20,000 homes for a year; while burning 2,300 acres of forest and releasing 225,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
However, a few changes can help you host a more sustainable barbecue. Here are a few tips for greener grilling:
Consider a more eco-friendly grill: your barbecue carbon footprint will greatly depend of the type of grill you are using. Traditional charcoal models are the worst offenders since they release the most carbon monoxide and ground-level ozone. If you're shopping for a new grill, cleaner propane and electric grills are less harmful, while solar-powered grills are truly green.
If you can't give up the smoky flavor from grilling with charcoal, look for organic or sustainably produced charcoal, which release fewer toxins. The logo of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) ensures that the ecological integrity of the forest is maintained. Local lump charcoal would also help reduce your carbon footprint, since it's been treated with fewer chemicals and involves extra emissions in transportation.
Remember that the bigger the grill, the more energy it will spend. Also, some grill models are made of chrome-coated aluminum and can be toxic if the aluminum oxides, so look for cast iron, stainless steel, ceramic or infrared grills.
Avoid using lighter fluid: fire up your grill with electric charcoal starters, crumpled paper or dry twigs. You will keep harmful Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and carcinogens off the air, your guests' lungs, and your meal- there has been concern that chemicals from lighter fluids may leak onto your food if you don't wait long enough between lighting and loading the grill.
Choose lean meat cuts and make room for veggies: what you're grilling also matters. Fatty meats release carcinogens into the air via smoke when the fat burns- not to mention the huge amount of energy required for producing and transporting the meat in the first place. Choosing locally, sustainably grown lean meats and/or trimming the fat before grilling would reduce these emissions.
For an even smaller carbon footprint and a healthier barbecue, add some locally grown and/or organic ears of corn, asparagus, peppers and other vegetables; they have a minimal environmental impact when grilled and will limit your exposure to the bacteria in possibly undercooked meat. Seafood and vegetarian hamburgers and sausages are also eco-friendly and diet-friendly barbecue alternatives.
Know your head count: this will help you plan the amount of food you buy in order to avoid food waste. Buy your fruit and vegetables loose to reduce package waste. Avoid individually packaged sodas and water bottles. If you have a lot of food left over, invite guests to take some home- in re-usable containers if possible.
Grill with the lid down: not only it's more energy efficient, but also helps distribute heat thoroughly ensuring even cooking. And always grill your meats at the proper temperatures to avoid under-cooking- but try not to burn it, either.
Choose re-usable or bio-degradable plates, napkins and cutlery: the disposable plates, cups, napkins and plastic ware that are used at summer barbecues account for a massive amount of single-use waste. Try to bring your own re-usable dishes, or ask guests to bring their own. If you are unable to use real dinnerware and silverware or don't want to spend the last hour of your barbecue scrubbing dirty dishes, look for disposable dishes made from recycled, bio-degradable or compostable materials.
Consider providing cloth napkins as well. They can even be purchased at a dollar store and can be tossed in the washing machine after using, besides the fact that they'll dress up your table and make it feel a bit more formal.
Use natural grill cleaners: start cleaning your grill while it's still hot, using baking soda and a wire brush. Or buy one of the many natural grill and oven cleaners without phosphates or harsh fumes available in the market for a reasonable price.
Recycle and/or compost your waste: provide your guests with clearly marked and accessible bins for recyclable bottles, containers and paper ware. Gather food scraps and charcoal ashes and bring compost them- they'll make wonderful fertilizer.
Send e-vites instead of paper invitations: if you're planning a special gathering, consider virtual invitations instead of snail mail. You'll save paper and money.
Hopefully these suggestions will help you enjoy a delicious, guilt-free eco-friendly barbecue- and might even make your guest think about their own impact on the environment. Enjoy your summer and happy grilling!
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Kristen Adams, Department of Anesthesiology
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Jeffrey Russ, Class of 2012 Medical Student