9 Essentials For a Low-Impact Summer BBQ

In a few short weeks, it will be Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer and the outdoor cooking season. Whether it’s a graduation, birthday, retirement party, or Father’s Day, if it occurs over the summer, you’d better believe we’re celebrating al fresco.

Unfortunately, most of us use the backyard BBQ as an excuse to waste lots of money on disposable stuff that barely gets touched before ending up in the landfill. Being outside, enjoying the natural world, has so many positive benefits, why muck it up by leaving behind a huge bag of paper and plastic trash?

With a little planning and a tiny splash of extra effort, you can save lots of money (and trips to the garbage can) just by swapping in some eco-friendly alternatives and avoiding a few lazy habits. Here are 9 things you need to have a low-impact summer barbecue:

1. Washable Dishes and Cutlery

low-impact bbq plates

There is no rule that says an outdoor meal must be served on paper plates and consumed with plastic cutlery. The only reasons we do so are because: a) we’re afraid we might break dishes, and b) we hate washing dishes. This year, suck it up and use real, eco-friendly dinnerware. If your event takes place on grass, the risk of breakage is minimal. Yes, you’ll have to do some dishes, but that really isn’t the end of the world. If disposable is an absolute MUST, use something compostable like bamboo.

2. Cloth Napkins

low-impact bbq cloth napkins

One ton of paper towels consumes 17 trees and 20,000 gallons of water are consumed. Every day, over 3,000 tons of paper towel waste is produced in the U.S. alone. This is absolutely preposterous, especially when you consider how many times you can reuse a cloth napkin. Leave a stack out for your guests, and provide a hamper in which they can be collected for washing. Easy peasy. Don’t want to buy cloth napkins? Use this tutorial to make them out of old shirts.

3. A Low-Carbon Grill

low-impact bbq grill

A big part of the average cookout’s carbon footprint comes from how you fuel your grill. Cheap charcoal is full of chemicals and contributes to air pollution. Natural gas comes from fracking, and we all know how nasty that is. Electric, infrared grills are a cleaner option if you’re looking to buy a new grill. If not, use ’natural charcoal’ which is made from hardwood, contains no additives, and produces less ash when burned than briquettes. If you’re really brave (and patient) try a solar grill. Check out 5 Green Grilling Options for a Smog-Free Summer.

4. Local Veggies and Ethical Meat

low impact bbq local food

The freshest, most nutritious food can be found at your local farmers’ market. Hit it up the morning of the barbecue for all the edible supplies you need, and support a local farmer while you’re at it. For inspiration check out 10 Mouthwatering Heirloom Vegetables and Fruits for Your Table and How to Be a More Ethical Meat Eater.

5. Recycling and Composting Bins

low-impact bbq recycling bin

If you’re serving glass bottled or canned beverages, provide a separate bin for empties. Doing this at the start means no digging through soggy trash later, and makes for an easy transfer to your municipal recycling bin. Ideally, you’ll do the same thing for food scraps, so people can scrap their plates and reduce landfill waste. Check out 80+ Things You Can Compost and 2 Portable Bins That Make Outdoor Recycling Easy.

6. DIY Condiments

low-impact bbq condiments

Ketchup, mustard, and relish are staples at any American barbecue, but who says you’ve got to buy the conventional brands in plastic containers? Reduce waste and save money by making your own and storing in reusable glass jars. Learn more by reading The Top 5 Worst Condiments and 4 Homemade Condiment Recipes.

7. Natural Bug Repellent

low-impact bbq bug repellent

No one likes to feel like a blood buffet for biting insects. This year, skip the toxic sprays by making your own natural repellent or try one of these 3 chemical-free gadgets.

8. Solar-Powered Tunes

Eton Rukus Solar

No outdoor party is complete without a rockin’ playlist, but batteries and cords can be a nuisance. Instead, invest in a solar powered boombox like the Eton Rukus. Use the on-board Bluetooth technology to stream your favorite Pandora station and use the sun’s free energy to keep your phone charged all day!

9. Reusable Bags and Storage Containers

low-impact bbq reusable bags

Getting all these supplies to and from your home can be a little tricky. Resist the urge to buy plastic garbage bags and use fabric ones instead. Larger, washable containers like those made by Rubbermaid or wicker baskets can also be ideal for carrying stacks of plates and cups without damaging them.

How do you green up your cookout? Share ideas in the comments!

Images via Thinkstock and Beth Buczynski


Jim Ven
Jim Venabout a year ago

thanks for the article.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Fi T.
Past Member 3 years ago

Treasure our nature for lasting joy

Gerald L.
Gerald L3 years ago

@ Jamie S; on May 18, 2014
What does "ethical meat" have to do with being low-impact? The production of meat is ridiculously harmful to the environment and so -called "ethical meat" (which could mean a variety of different things, depending on who you talk to) actually could require even more resources than conventional meat since it usually means a lot more land per animal

Jamie, either state after state is in corn & grain directed to Feedlots & CAFO's for pigs & chickens. Grass fed production makes up hay for the winter, so we have a choice. No nitrate fertilizer & herbicides, or toxic manure from feedlots. If you dream of that meat becoming illegal there will be millions of un-grazed acres prone to grassland wildfires.

It's all a trade-off, grass-fed is best, more vitamin E and Folic acid in the meat. CAFO animals neither walk on or eat a blade of grass in their life. Grain fed ruminants suffer Metabolic acidosis (a human condition also); that is why they are given anti-biotics to prevent death.

So ethical meat is low impact. Consider the nitrification of waterways as another very serious issue, and the inflammation problems caused by vegetables grown with nitrates instead of manure's.

Gerald L.
Gerald L3 years ago

@ Katherine May W; on May 12, 2014
No barbecues for me this summer. I know how much they stink up the (quite enclosed, heavily polluted) area I live in and annoy me (I have to close all the windows in the house.. the worst when it's hot outside)

I understand what your saying, Katherine individuals with asthma & respiratory issues have problems when their home is downwind of a bon-fire or bbq. We do the same, we have to close the windows. The window mount AC is troublesome also for letting
in smoke. Then we have the cigarette smokers upwind; Urrrr'

Danuta Watola
Danuta W3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Geoff P.
Geoff P3 years ago

Forget the impact and enjoy summer when you can.

Janis K.
Janis K3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Jamie S.
Jamie S.3 years ago

What does "ethical meat" have to do with being low-impact? The production of meat is ridiculously harmful to the environment and so -called "ethical meat" (which could mean a variety of different things, depending on who you talk to) actually could require even more resources than conventional meat since it usually means a lot more land per animal (final transportation is only 4% on average of the carbon footprint of meat).

As James McWilliams says "If you want to make a statement, ride your bike to the farmer’s market. If you want to reduce greenhouse gases, become a vegetarian."

Marianne R.
Marianne R3 years ago

Thanks for sharing