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How to sustainably BBQ: LCA example of different BBQs

We use a life cycle assessment (LCA) to compare different types of BBQs. Doing so we investigate the environmental impact of this summer hobby.

In this article we describe an LCA example. Summer is arriving. That means that the sun will shine (hopefully, in the Netherlands you never know) and people will look for the outdoors. One of the summer attributes that is usually taken out of the stable is of course the barbecue. Because the planetary temperature is already rising, and climate change has it's effects, we investigate the environmental impact of the summer hobby BBQ. Which type of BBQ is the most sustainable choice?

Life cycle assessment (LCA)

To compare the different forms of BBQs we use a life cycle assessment (LCA). First, we determine the so-called functional unit. This functional unit determines exactly what we will measure. So, how many barbecues do you need, to barbecue for one whole summer? Our guinea pig barbecues twice a week. We assume a barbecue session of 3 hours and a summer of 12 weeks.

With this LCA study, we answer the question: what is the best BBQ, when considered it's effect on the climate? We compare the use of a disposable barbecue, a 'standard' barbecue and an electric barbecue.

Since a disposable barbecue lasts about 1.5 hours, you need a lot more disposable barbecues. The standard barbecue and the electric barbecue last longer, so you need less of them. For these barbecues, you will of course need charcoal or electricity for each session. The barbecues are made of stainless steel, cast iron and aluminum.

Where is the environmental impact of barbecues?

We divide the environmental impact of barbecuing over the production process of the BBQs and its use. We omit the waste phase in this study for the sake of convenience. Therefore, we do not assume the entire life cycle. 

To produce an electric and a standard barbecue, many more materials and energy are needed than to produce a disposable barbecue. But you can only use the disposable barbecue once, so you have to buy a new one every time. The electric and standard barbecue last much longer.

To use the BBQ - when you are in the garden or park - for the disposable BBQ, means that you have to produce and buy a new one. For the standard barbecue, you always need to buy a new bag of charcoal. Firelighters are also useful but are not considered in this study. The electric barbecue, of course, needs electricity every time the barbecue is turned on.

The graph below shows that using a disposable barbecue all summer will have by far the greatest environmental impact. The total impact is 194 kg CO2. This is roughly equivalent to driving 950 km with a petrol car.

With the electric barbecue, the impact is caused by the electricity it consumes. In this study we assume the standard Dutch energy mix. This mix is ​​quite polluting. This is because the energy is currently generated by oil and gas mainly.

The environmental impact of a standard barbecue is caused by the charcoal needed to prepare your burger.

Barbecuing with solar panels

We have already seen that the environmental impact of an electric barbecue is caused by the electricity consumption. Unfortunately, the Dutch energy mix is not very clean. Much of the electricity in the Netherlands is still generated using oil, coal and natural gas. When you burn these fossil fuels, you generate electricity.

But what if your entire roof is covered with solar panels? Electricity generated by the sun prevents the burning of fossil fuels and thus has a much lower environmental impact.

In the graph you can see that with solar energy, the electric barbecue is the most sustainable option! The environmental impact of barbecuing with an electric barbecue is reduced by more than 80% when you use green energy.

More environmental impact than just carbon

However, barbecuing has more environmental impact than just carbon emissions. Charcoal is burned using the disposable barbecue and the standard barbecue. Charcoal production not only contributes to global warming, but its combustion also causes other direct emissions during barbecuing.

For example, carbon monoxide, nitrogen and particulate matter emissions are also released. Particulate matter is a composition of solid particles that are smaller than 10 micrometers. This particulate matter is a form of air pollution and causes health problems.

Land use also has an environmental impact. And we all know that deforesting the Amazon is not good for nature and the climate. The production of charcoal - made from wood and therefore trees - is associated with land use. Changing forests to farmland also has an environmental impact. Since an electric barbecue does not require coal, it requires much less land. The environmental impact caused by land use is 25 times higher with disposable and standard barbecues.

The image below shows the total carbon impact and the environmental impact of land use per BBQ. The disposable and standard BBQ score high in terms of land use. In terms of carbon, the disposable BBQ scores highest.

But what do you put on the BBQ?

A barbecue is of course not complete without food. What you throw on the barbecue has - besides having an effect on your appetite - also an effect on the environment. To supplement the barbecue study, we use data from a Blonk report*.

You can roughly divide the barbecue menu into animal and plant-based meat products and substitutes. Each with their own environmental impact. Below you can see the impact of meat and their vegetable substitutes, looking at carbon emissions. So the most sustainable option is to barbecue on solar energy with a vegetarian burger!

*Milieueffecten van vlees en vleesvervangers. Eindrapport v1.2 (2017).

Learn more about life cycle assessments.
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