There’s nothing quite like the summertime scent of a batch of burgers (or veggie kabobs) grilling over a smoking bed of charcoal. For barbecue junkies, it’s heaven scent. However, along with those beefy bouquets and porky perfumes comes the emission of a whole lot of soot particles, carbon monoxide, and assorted greenhouse gases. According to a 2005 Sierra Club article, 225,000 tons of carbon monoxide are released into the atmosphere via backyard charcoal grilling on the Fourth of July alone.

And then there’s the massive issue of deforestation attached to the production of lump charcoal (slow-burned virgin wood sans additives) and briquettes (pillow-shaped chunks of charred sawdust and wood scraps with additives like coal dust). All and all, it’s a dire enough situation to give eco-conscious grillers a guilt-induced, ahem, lump in the throat before scarfing that free-range beer can chicken or soy hot dog.

Is there a surefire way avoid the air pollution and deforestation and green your lump charcoal or briquettes? Sadly, not really. Using a propane grill is a much less dirty and low-maintenance affair (but not perfect by any means) and foodies who swear by old-fashioned charcoal grills are understandably hard to sway.

What to do? Although true “green charcoal” doesn't exist there are eco-friendlier, cleaner-burning brands free of chemicals and additives and/or made from sustainable wood and waste materials. Below, are four "natural" alternatives worth seeking out if you can’t liberate yourself from the fiery grip of charcoal grilling. And no matter what fuel you choose, practice responsible grilling and light 'er up with a chimney starter instead of lighter fluid. 

Nature’s Own Chunk Charwood 

Hotter, faster, and cleaner are the three buzzwords used to describe Nature’s Own Chunk Charwood. It’s made from responsibly selected lumber (no virgin trees) and grain alcohol is used instead of petroleum in the manufacturing process. The folks at Nature’s Own claim that ordinary charcoal briquettes release 250 times more sulfide dioxide emissions than their more flavorful, less polluting product. 

Cowboy Charcoal Co. 

Produced in special European-style, non-polluting retort ovens in Albany, Kentucky, Cowboy Charcoal is coveted (BBQ bigwigs and the food industry swear by it) for its purity and ease-of-use. Cowboy Lump Charcoal is free of chemicals, additives, and coal; it also produces little ash. You can find it decently priced at Lowe's


The Original Charcoal Company

The Original Charcoal Company offers both natural hardwood lump and hardwood briquette charcoal that's free of coal dust, chems, and other additives. The timber used is sustainably harvested on private farms in South America and subject to both FSC certification and GMP audits. It's available in fifteen states, so keep an eye out.

Baja BBQ Firepack

Although it may freak BBQ traditionalists out, the Baja BBQ Firepack from Mike and Maaike for Lazzari/Design Annex is one of the more eco-friendly charcoal options out there. The Firepack is a biodegradable paper pulp container with an integrated chimney that's filled with 2 pounds of natural lump charcoal. Simply place the box under a grill and light instantly, no lighter fluid required (according to the manufacturers, "14,500 tons of VOCs are emitted from the 46,200 tons of lighter fluid used in the US every year.")

Grill image: RosePhotosEtc.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

All up in your grill: Charcoal
If you're gonna grill, eco-preference goes to gas/propane but there are also lower-impact charcoals worth investigating.