Ask Eartha: Break out the grill for Labor Day: Charcoal or propane?
September 2, 2016
As we get ready to celebrate Labor Day, my family and I got in a heated debate over which is better for the environment, charcoal or propane grills?
— Dave, Frisco
Dave, would you like the long or the short answer? The short answer is that charcoal grills are worse for the environment than propane grills. If you are interested in the long answer, keep reading.
In 2009, a British paper published in Elsevier's "Environmental Impact Assessment Review" showed conclusively that the carbon footprint for a charcoal grill was three times larger than that of a propane grill over its lifetime. Much of this is due to the way charcoal is made and the smoke produced by the grill itself.
The word charcoal is from the Old English word "charren" which means "to turn." When you add the word coal, the meaning is clear — to turn to coal. It's created by a multistep process that starts with wood being burned in a furnace then cooled slightly, so it is not brittle but still manageable. At this stage, it is formed into briquettes. Then it's put in a dryer, and, a few hours later, the semi-soft material is hardened and ready to be bagged and shipped.
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The popularity of charcoal cooking can be traced back to the 1920s, when Henry Ford used the wood scraps from his Model T car to make briquettes. As car production increased, so did his wood scraps which were mass produced and marketed as "Ford Charcoal," later to become Kingsford.
One of the largest Kingsford production factories is in Belle, Missouri. Its furnaces burn 550 to 600 tons of wood a day and up to 200,000 tons of wood a year to make charcoal. There are five Kingsford factories in the U.S., and each burns about the same amount, equaling about 1 million tons of wood scrap a year. For comparison sake, one cord of hardwood weighs about 2 tons. Most of the burning wood is converted to gas and emitted into the atmosphere as pollution.
Propane is, by contrast, a naturally-occurring gas and is a by-product of natural gas processing and petroleum refining. As a liquid, it is 270 times more compact than it is as a gas, which allows it to be transported and stored easily. Approximately 15 billion gallons of propane are consumed every year in the U.S. — mostly by the chemical and manufacturing industries, but residential homes and commercial businesses also use a lot for heating, dryers and in barbecue grills.
Like coal, propane also owes a lot to the car industry. In 1910, a Pittsburgh motor car owner asked a chemist why the gallon of gasoline he had purchased was half gone by the time he drove home. He thought he was being cheated because the gasoline was evaporating at a rapid and expensive rate. During the investigation, they found that a large part of the liquid gasoline was actually propane, butane and other hydrocarbons. The chemist built a still from coils, an old hot water heater and other lab equipment and separated the hydrocarbons from the gasoline. Chemists have made vast improvements in processing gasoline, and today the manufacturing of propane gas is an $8 billion industry in the U.S.
This Labor Day, if you really want to grill in the most environmentally-friendly way, consider the SolSource Solar Grill by One Earth Designs. It heats up five times faster than charcoal (literally in minutes) and only requires direct sun, so keep your fingers crossed it's a sunny day. This solar grill comes on a stand, so you don't have to bend over, and it can tilt any direction to capture the sunlight. The solar reflectors (mirrors) stay cool while you cook, making it safe for the whole family to be near.
One final note, there is some evidence that shows that the char on meat from a charcoal grill can have negative health side-effects. When the fat drips down onto the coals, the resulting smoke contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and the charred exterior of the meat is full of heterocyclic amines (HCA). Both have been linked to higher rates of colorectal cancers and have been added to the Department of Health's official list of carcinogens. Cut back your risk by not charring your meat, cutting off charred parts or use tin foil under the meat to catch the juices. Enjoy the holiday weekend and think about going green with grills.