Charcoal and the environment

A GLT reader asked me about green charcoal recently and to be honest, I hadn’t given the issue much thought as I’ve always used wood or gas for barbecuing.

I started researching the topic a little more and was surprised by what I found.

How charcoal is made

Charcoal is made by heating woody materials to high temperatures in an environment with little or no oxygen (pyrolysis). The heating removes water and gases that are in the wood, leaving behind charcoal.

As the water and volatile gases are removed, the resulting product can be burned with little or no smoke.

So the lack of smoke when burning charcoal doesn’t necessarily make it environmentally friendly as those emissions may have already been created in the charcoal making process.

Depending on the type of process use will also determine how “dirty” the charcoal production is. Traditional methods require a great deal of fuel to generate the charcoal and also create the most emissions. The retort method, where the gases are rerouted through the fire heating the wood and burned as a booster is a much cleaner and more efficient method.

But the story doesn’t stop there.

Types of BBQ charcoal

The two types of charcoal most commonly used for barbecues are lump charcoal or briquettes.


Charcoal briquettes or heat beads can contain the following:

Wood charcoal
Sodium nitrate
Lighter fluid
Other ingredients

While starch isn’t really a concern, the other components are a bit of a worry; not just because food is in direct contact with the emissions, but also general air pollution concerns. Given the mix of possible components, it’s not just soot and carbon dioxide being produced, but also mercury and other nasties.

On the manufacturers sites I checked, the “other ingredients” are somewhat a mystery and therefore also cause for concern

Lump charcoal

Lump charcoal is made from wood only – there are no additives. The major concern here is that in some countries, the charcoal industry isn’t based on sustainable forestry; so it contributes to deforestation. Additionally, imported charcoal also adds to transport related emissions.

“Green” charcoal

As charcoal can be made from just about any woody type substance and wood waste; there are some products available on the market that have been sustainably sourced.

Cherie from Eco Living Philippines has written about charcoal made from coconut shells and I noticed that this is also readily available in the USA.

Some “green” charcoal and charcoal briquette alternatives are made from newspaper and others from the scrap from lumber mills. The easiest way to find these brands is to run a search on the following:

environmentally friendly charcoal

To minimize your charcoal bbq impact, search for charcoal produced in your own area, or at least, your country and as always, don’t just accept that the product is “green” because the vendor says so – check out what’s in the product and how it is sourced.

Making your own charcoal

If you have easy access to wood stock, there’s oodles of information around the web about how to make your own charcoal and charcoal briquettes, but some of the methods are quite complex and often the systems don’t use the gases from the material being pyrolized as part of the fuel to create the charcoal.

I came across these instructions for a two barrel charcoal retort – it looks so simple, I think even I could do it – and I’ll probably give it a whirl next winter.

By the way, charcoal isn’t just used for barbecues and heating – it’s also utilized in watering filtering systems and in its pure form, charcoal is great in your garden too! According to recent research, when charcoal is buried it actually extracts carbon dioxide from the atmosphere due to the plant life it can stimulate. Using charcoal in this way isn’t just carbon neutral, it becomes carbon negative and is known as “biochar” or “terra preta”.