Gas vs Charcoal Barbecue: What’s the Best BBQ for the Environment?

gas vs charcoal bbq for the environment

We all love a BBQ when the sun’s out on that rare summer day in the UK.

And who can blame us? It’s great to be able to cook outside whilst socialising with friends and family, with bit of music on in the background and a drink or two close by.

If you’re someone who considers how eco-friendly your actions are, you might be curious to know what type of barbecue grill is best for the environment.

I found myself in just this situation recently when I was considering what BBQ to buy.

Broadly speaking, there are two main options: charcoal powered or gas powered BBQ.

Both have pros and cons when it comes to eco-friendly barbecuing and their environmental footprint. Let’s take a look to at which is the greenest BBQ to help inform you for any decisions you may be pondering.

Are Gas BBQs eco-friendly?

Almost all modern gas barbecues run off propane gas.

Some gas BBQs still use butane, which is becoming less common. You may read about LPG (Liquified Petroleum Gas), which can be propane, butane or a mixture of the two depending on where you are in the world!

Either way, gas used for barbecues all comes from the same place: natural gas refining.

This means that propane and other gas BBQs use non-renewable fossil fuels to power them. When considering the environment, this isn’t good.

Benefits to using a Gas BBQ

Despite their fossil fuel basis, there are a number of benefits to using gas when compared to charcoal barbecues.

Gas BBQs grills tend to give off far less smoke and air polluting particulates than charcoal, which causes local air quality issues.

A gas barbecue will fire up almost immediately and can be shut off straight away. Compare this to charcoal which takes a while to get up to cooking temperature and then cool down again.

Burning gas such as propane is much more energy efficient than charcoal. The overall burning time is much less with gas, saving on the carbon emissions.

gas bbq with meat on
Gas is a more efficient BBQ cooking fuel

There’s also an element of sustainability with the gas bottle, which can be refilled over and over again. The gas canisters and bottles, that make that familiar clinking sound, are often made from carbon steel, steel alloys or sometimes stainless steel.

Although in an ideal world this would be refilled with a sustainable fuel source, it does save on a lot of unnecessary, single-use packaging.

Are Charcoal BBQs bad for the environment?

People love using charcoal on the BBQ as a more authentic heat source, giving the food that unique barbecue flavour.  

But the question of whether charcoal is good or bad for the environment is a little more complicated. This is because there are different types of charcoal, sourced from different areas of the world. This means it can’t all be categorised the same.

Charcoal for barbecues is made from a wood source that is heated to very high temperatures in a low oxygen environment. This is also similar to how they make activated charcoal used in the health products and water filters.

Unfortunately, a lot of the wood for BBQ charcoal comes from unsustainable, forest depleting sources, such as tropical and sub-tropical rainforests in Africa, South East Asia and South America. Here large areas are deforested for charcoal production. Friends of the Earth ran a campaign to stop using charcoal coming over from SE Asia because of its environmental damaging production.

In 2017, Britain imported 90,000 tonnes of charcoal from tropical sources because of its cheap price. Charcoal coming from abroad accounts for the vast, vast majority of charcoal available to buy in the UK.

Much of this charcoal is also manufactured into briquettes. Charcoal briquettes make it even worse for the environment as they are formed from a mixture of wood by-products, lighter fluid, sawdust, binders and other additives.

Burning briquettes produces a lot of smoke, VOCs and particle pollutants.

smoke coming off a charcoal bbq
Smoke and air pollution can be an issue for charcoal BBQs

However, charcoal doesn’t have to come from unsustainable, unregulated sources.

Lump charcoal can be made from 100% renewable sources with no additives. It can be sustainable produced from a well-managed coppiced wood that doesn’t involve cutting down any trees. This would almost be carbon neutral, but the problem here is the difficulty in sourcing this type of charcoal.

You can also get charcoal that’s come from FSC approved woods. Be slightly careful here, and make sure it’s 100% FSC rather than FSC mix. I explain all about Forest Stewardship Council here.

That being said, burning charcoal will release more particle pollutants and 2-3 times the amount of carbon dioxide as burning gas will.

There is also the issue with disposing charcoal. As charcoal briquettes are a mixture of different materials, these can’t be recycled. Pure, additive free charcoal may be able to be used again, such as in the garden.

Are disposable BBQs bad for the environment?

As much as you can possibly help it, avoid the single use, aluminium lined disposable barbecues.

Not only are these covered in single-use plastic, but they use charcoal (probably poor quality charcoal) and can’t be recycled afterwards. A lot of waste, pollution and very bad for the environment.

It is possible these days to get eco-friendly disposable BBQs that are made from wood and can be composted afterwards. Check out ecogrill-uk.com.

Which BBQ is better for the environment?

As you can see, there are swings and roundabouts when it comes to gas and charcoal BBQs and the environment.

Charcoal produces more pollution but can be sourced from renewable stocks, whereas gas emits less carbon but comes from fossil fuels.

If you consider direct carbon dioxide emission, then gas is the clear winner.

A study in 2009 showed that a charcoal barbecuing had almost three times the carbon footprint as that for gas (LPG) grilling. The reason for this stark difference is that gas is much more efficient than charcoal in both production and when used to fuel cooking.

With gas barbecues you also don’t need any additional lighter fluids or firelighters, which are made from refined petroleum-based kerosene and paraffin.

Charcoal briquettes and charcoal sourced from unsustainable, tropical rainforests are not environmentally friendly.

If you can get your hands on locally produced charcoal made from a sustainable managed coppiced wood, then this would almost certainly be the greenest way to barbeque. However, for most this just isn’t realistic.

Best BBQ grill is the greenest

It is difficult to put the different barbecue types in a definitive order from most green to least green because of the many different factors that are possible for each. But I’ll give it a go.

On balance here’s my list of the most eco-friendly BBQs.

  1. Locally sourced, sustainably produced 100% charcoal
  2. Gas BBQ
  3. FSC approved lump charcoal from abroad
  4. Charcoal briquettes
  5. Disposable BBQ
large gas bbq with food on
Locally sourced food will help for a more eco-friendly BBQ

Top 6 tips for an eco-friendly BBQ

Barbecues are a chance to come together and have a good time.

A carbon neutral or climate positive barbecue isn’t really possible, but there are small changes and trade-offs to put in place to make your BBQ as eco-friendly as possible.

Here are a few quick tips to help you plan for a greener BBQ for the eco-conscious out there.

  • Unless you have a sustainable charcoal source on your doorstep, go for a gas BBQ
  • Buy locally produced, organic food – this might mean not going for the Argentinian steak or avocados from Central America, instead going for some British grown asparagus. You can find research here from the University of Manchester on BBQ food choices and emissions
  • Don’t use single plastic items, such as disposable dishes, plastic knives and forks and plastic cups
  • Recycle or compost your waste – bottles, cans and food scraps can all be recycled. If you have any leftover foo that’s still good (cooked or uncooked), put it in the fridge and save it – that’s tomorrow’s meal sorted!
  • If you have got a charcoal BBQ, buy pure FSC approved charcoal lumps (much better than charcoal briquettes). You can even buy sustainable produced coconut husk and bamboo briquettes, which would be an even better choice
  • Don’t use lighter fluid – buy sustainable firelights made from FSC wood

Putting things into perspective, the carbon footprint of barbecuing is fairly low compared to the likes of long-distance driving or flying. Research has suggested that a typical summer BBQ for four people will produce around the same amount of greenhouse gases as an 80-mile car journey.

I hope this post has informed you on which BBQ is best for the environment. There will be a bit of give and take as nothing is perfect. Even just making a few considerations, which you will have done if you’ve read this far, will help you to make better choices over time to limit your carbon footprint.

Enjoy your summer barbecue and I hope the sun stays shining!


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