(originally published on Rethink Convenience at medium.com)

Last weekend we had our first barbecues of the year. I brushed the cobwebs off our grill and cooked two meals in our garden, up by the wildflowers. I’d like to say that coronavirus held us back, but the truth is for only two of us cooking outside seems like a lot of effort. It’s my fault. I bought my dream charcoal barbecue 10 years ago, but lighting up the coals seems like a lot of effort unless we commit to eating a tonne of meat.

I find this a real shame. Barbecues are an integral part of my family’s lives. We don’t make anything particularly lavish or try anything new or complicated, but I guarantee that if there’s a family gathering in the middle third of the year, fire and meat and alcohol will be involved. To us, barbecues mean family gatherings.

I have an idealised view of barbecuing. At its most basic it’s primal: cooking meat on an open fire. We rob some of this simplicity with chimney starters and marinades, two-zone cooking and instant-read thermometers, but as a concept, it remains attractive to me. Alfresco dining, the promises of cold beer, laughter and music. The ever-present association with family reunions and meetings with friends.

All this to say: I want to barbecue more often, and I want it to be more sustainable. On the face of it, barbecuing seems fundamentally unsustainable. But is it?

Fuel

We have a Weber kettle grill and it’s a giant. It’s a charcoal barbecue, chosen for a romantic view that gas wasn’t authentic enough. I sacrificed the ability to light the fire and cook more-or-less instantly. A decade on, I’d buy gas in an instant. We rarely light this barbecue, and never for single items.

Volumes have been written comparing the virtues of gas and coal barbecues but what about viewing the two types of fuel from a sustainability perspective?

With either option, the one basic truth remains: we’re burning something to cook food on an open flame. And it’s a fundamental element. We have to burn something.

On the one hand, gas is literally a fossil fuel, which seems crazy when we consider how much time and attention we put to power our homes with green energy. On the other hand, wood is a renewable resource, and we’re still releasing stored carbon when we burn it. The main difference is that carbon in charcoal is that which trees have already removed from the atmosphere; the carbon in gas is locked away deep underground. So, when we burn gas, we’re increasing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere overall.

We could argue that compared to heating homes, barbecues are a drop in the ocean (or a speck of ash on the bottom of our barbecue, if we prefer), but we’re still contributing to the problem. Doesn’t it make me a massive hypocrite if I don’t look for a sustainable option?

Whether we choose charcoal or gas, maybe the question then is not which fuel we use, but how we can make it more sustainable or how we can consume as little of the resource as possible.

Alternatively, electric barbecues are available. Having never used one, they don’t seem like they would give the same experience. I can’t see electric fulfilling that romantic need I mentioned above. From a sustainability point of view, the thing with electricity is it will only be as green as our electricity supply; great if we can guarantee our power is coming from renewable energy. 

Making changes

With that in mind, here are two things I will change regarding fuel consumption:

Tip 1 — Lower the impact of the fuel we burn. For our charcoal grill, that means choosing the most sustainable fuel we can find: charcoal from coconut shells. These use no virgin wood to create the charcoal, only what would otherwise be a waste product. From our two barbecues so far, we couldn’t really tell the difference.

Tip 2 — Cook efficiently: more food for less fuel. If we light fires to cook food, we need to make every bit of fuel count. For gas barbecues, it’s simple: turn it off when not in use. Coal requires a bit more thought. To use only as much charcoal as we need will take a bit of trial and error. I’ll cook as much of the meal as I can with this heat because it endures. This means three courses made on the barbecue. Barbecued starters and desserts can be amazing, and it’s a tragedy that I don’t make more of them.

Food

We’re traditionalists with aspirations of adventurers. My aspiration: an ever-changing menu of meats with different seasonings, rubs and spices, and exciting sides and condiments. The reality: plain or pre-marinated meat, cooked simply, with salad and maybe potatoes on the side. Often we’ll go wild and grill some halloumi to start.

The main thing that stops me is time. Not dedicating enough time to planning interesting menus, not getting out early enough to source interesting ingredients.

The ambition here is to reduce the impact of the food we eat. By far the biggest cause of climate emissions is dictated by our choice of food, particularly red meats and dairy.

The most obvious thing to do is go meat-free. 20 years ago the thought of this would have been unfathomable — thoughts of the odd anaemic vegetarian sausage tucked away on the far side of the grill — but there are so many great vegetarian and vegan barbecue recipes available now we could go a long time without resorting to imitation meat.

And if that doesn’t appeal, can we go meat-free in part? Can we substitute some of our routine meat choices for vegetables? (obviously, ensuring our food is seasonal and grown locally)

For the meat we keep, we should look at what we buy. We all know that beef has a large greenhouse gas footprint compared with other meats (particularly if our beef is imported), but burgers and steaks are ubiquitous because they’re so simple. Maybe we can switch that out for something with a smaller footprint? More chicken, pork and fish, and less beef and lamb.

Making changes

Two things I will change regarding food consumption:

Tip 3—Go meat-free. I will cook at least one meat-free barbecue before the season is out, and I’ll look for more veggie recipes to complement and replace our meaty choices at other barbecues. Our most recent barbecues have been meat-heavy, so I probably need to balance this.

Tip 4 — Choose meat with lower footprints. Choose fish and poultry over red meat for lower carbon and methane emissions, and shop locally in preference to imported meat. If I’m to make changes I need to spend time in the research and preparation of alternatives and stay away from the BBQ section of the supermarket.

Gear

We only barbecue at home, so that means we’re mostly using our home equipment or repurposing our camping equipment for use in the garden. That means reusable plates and cups and cutlery, and condiments from the house.

We have a gas stove for when we camp. We’re keen to get a portable barbecue, particularly now we have a campervan and can carry more than we used to. We are still new to campervanning and there’s a lot for us to look into.

As above, the objective here is to reduce the impact of the equipment we use.

First and foremost: absolutely no disposable barbecues. Disposable barbecues are a particular evil. I’ll be honest, most of my ire comes from how carelessly they are often disposed of: discarded next to overfull beach bins or even, on occasion, buried in the sand. Disposable barbecues encourage people to be careless towards the environment and they create so much waste for so little benefit.

If we’re keen to regularly cook on the beach, then we owe it to the environment to invest in a reusable barbecue. Yes, that means we’re going to have to carry it back to the car at the end of the day, but I’m sure we can get through that ordeal.

Grilling away sustainably is also about choosing where we do it. Don’t light any summer fire in forest or heath. It only takes one moment of distraction to devastate an area.

Carry this ethos of reducing single-use into other paraphernalia. No paper plates or plastic cups. No plastic cutlery. No sachets of condiments. Buy sustainable alternatives. Buy items that will last for many, many barbecues.

Take home the waste we do create. It’s lighter than when we carried it out, and we’re now fuelled by good food and buoyed by good company. If bins are full, take it home. No one should have to clear up after us. The natural environment shouldn’t be impacted by our decisions.

Quite often when we barbecue on the beach, we’re meeting friends. If we’re trying to barbecue more sustainably, it has the potential to lead to difficult conversations. If other people will not be receptive to what we’re doing, then is this the kind of event we should be hosting? If we’re attending someone else’s barbecue, lead by example, but be cool about it.

Making changes

And finally, three things I will change regarding fuel consumption:

Tip 5 — No disposable barbecues. I will invest in a portable barbecue for camping or day tripping. Our immediate concern is how to keep it off the floor so it’s safe for the dog and not damaging the grass.

Tip 6 — Avoid single-use items. We don’t use much any more that is single-use, but as I mentioned above we don’t barbecue away often. Before we do, I need to assess if there is anything we haven’t thought of, and plan for it.

Tip 7 — Leave no trace. The thing I want to think of here is not the packaging, but what to do with leftover, or inedible, food items. Rinds, bones, that one item that falls between the grill. Having a solution prepared in case of smells or leaks makes us more likely to take the waste home if there are no bins, or if they’re already filled.

Summary

So my challenge to everyone reading this is to change just one thing about your next barbecue, and then make it stick. It doesn’t have to be revolutionary, but it can demonstrate how painless change can be.

My favourite tips from the list above (and probably the easiest to implement) are:

  • Cook efficiently: more food for less fuel
  • Go meat-free
  • No disposable barbecues

If you are inspired to make a change, let me know how you get on.


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