4 Tips for an Eco-Friendly, Cruelty-Free Labor Day BBQ


Like many Americans, you may be looking forward to a backyard barbecue on Labor Day weekend. Sixty-two percent of Americans take part in a cook-out to celebrate this national holiday and the symbolic end of summer, making Labor Day the third most popular day for barbecuing (after July 4 and Memorial Day).

Unfortunately, all that grilling can spell disaster for the environment and sustains the cruelty that animals experience every day in factory farms. But it doesn't have to be that way. Here are four easy tips for a fun, end-of-summer cookout that's eco-friendly and cruelty-free.

1. Make it veggie.

While Americans consume more beef on Memorial Day than any other day of the year, Labor Day and the Fourth of July are tied for second place. All that meat-eating is connected to major environmental destruction: Raising animals for food causes more greenhouse gas emissions than all the cars, planes and other forms of transportation combined. Animal agriculture is responsible for around 15 percent of anthropogenic emissions, with beef and milk at the top of the list, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.

"Clearly, there is no such thing as sustainable meat," writes Joe Loria of Mercy for Animals. "Meanwhile, plant-based alternatives to meat, dairy and eggs take a mere fraction of the resources to produce as their animal-based counterparts."

Many vegetables get a powerful flavor when grilled: flames help to caramelize them and a little smoke brings out tasty characteristics that are missed when they're cooked in other ways. Asparagus, peppers, eggplant and corn are just a few veggies that are perfect for the grill. Try grilled eggplant with peanut dressinggrilled red onions that get tender and sweet, grilled bok choy for something off the beaten path, grilled mushrooms on skewersgrilled asparagus and grilled lime scallions that are perfect for a healthy and delicious end-of-summer treat.

Fruits like watermelon, peaches and apples are also great grilled. Rodale's Organic Life has rounded up the "8 Fruits You Should Definitely Be Grilling This Summer."

For a more hearty party dish, your guests will love grilled tofu and squash with chimichurri sauce and couscous. And don't forget the classic: simple, smoky, grilled corn on the cob. For more cruelty-free grilling ideas, check out One Green Planet's "10 Epic Veggie Burgers to Throw on the Grill Now" and "50 Jaw-Dropping Vegan-Friendly BBQ and Grilling Recipes."

If you simply must have real meat on the grill, stay away from factory-farmed meats and stick to organic, locally grown meats from small farmers who use more humane methods of raising and slaughtering their animals.

2. Choose cleaner transportation.

More than 16 million passengers to expected to fly for the Labor Day holiday, a 5 percent increase from last year, according to Airlines for America, a trade group that represents most of the largest airlines. All that air travel is terrible for the environment.

"For many people," writes New York Times reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal, "air travel is their most serious environmental sin." She calculates that a single round-trip flight from New York to San Francisco or Europe has the equivalent climate impact as 2 or 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person. "The average American generates about 19 tons of carbon dioxide a year; the average European, 10. So if you take five long flights a year, they may well account for three-quarters of the emissions you create."

But while air travel is sometimes a necessity, there are ways to reduce your impact when you get on a plane. First, choose coach, which is less carbon-intensive than first- or business class. Second, choose an efficient airline—check Atmosfair’s airline ranking to find the best. And third, purchase carbon offsets, which most domestic airlines and many international carriers now offer to customers who want to reduce their travel footprint.

Some holiday travelers will be making shorter trips to the weekend's festivities and may opt for getting behind the wheel. The average passenger vehicle pumps out 423 grams of carbon dioxide per mile, which adds up to an average of more than 5 metric tons a year. To reduce your impact, take public transporation or carpool to the BBQ with friends. Or if the party is nearby, hop on a bike or walk. The exercise will not only help offset our carbon emissions, it will offset your calorie intake.

3. Don't use plastic.

Plastic bottles, plates, forks and spoons, and straws—these conveniences of modern life have become a massive environmental scourge, choking the world's waterways and killing wildlife. Every single day, 500 million plastic straws are used by Americans alone (and can end up injuring marine life, like this poor sea turtle found with a straw stuck up his nostril).

Plastics are harmful to the environment throughout their lifecycle, from the extraction of fossil fuels used to make them, to the emissions produced in their manufacturing, to the hazardous waste they create when they're discarded. Ninety percent of marine litter consists of up to 20 million tons of plastic, which enters the world's oceans every year.

Some plastics also contain phthalates, a type of chemical that makes plastic soft and pliable, but also can be harmful to human health. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors that are connected to a host of health problems, from lower testosterone levels, decreased sperm counts and poor sperm quality in males, to reduced fertility in females, preterm birth and low birth weight babies.

For your Labor Day BBQ, skip the plastic and choose reusable silverware, glasses and plates. You can have fun selecting a beautifully mismatched set of picnic-ware from a local secondhand store or Goodwill—most carry used silverware and dishes. 

4. Use a gas grill—not charcoal or electric.

Americans love to grill. According to a survey conducted by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, 76 percent of American households own a grill and 42 percent own more than one grill. Sixty-one percent have a liquefied petroleum gas grill; 48 percent have a charcoal grill; 9 percent a natural gas grill; and 7 percent an electric grill.

All of these grills have varying degrees of impact on the environment. In a 2003 study, Tristram West of the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory found that cooking with an electric grill for one hour produces around 15 pounds of carbon dioxide. A charcoal grill emits up to 11 pounds of CO2 and an LPG grill is the lowest, emitting about 5.6 pounds.

"While more grills are fueled with liquefied petroleum gas, the majority of carbon dioxide emissions are from grills using charcoal briquettes, because the amount of carbon per BTU of gas is about one-third that of charcoal," West said.

Charcoal grills are a "pretty inefficient way to cook things," said Swiss chemist Eric Johnson, director of Zurich-based scientific research firm Atlantic Consulting, in an interview with NPR. "You shake the bag out. You put it all over the grill. You burn up this whole grill and maybe you're cooking a couple of burgers. Whereas gas-fired grills are similar to the stove you use in your kitchen. It's much more attuned to how much you're actually going to cook, how much energy you really need to use."

Johnson, who published his own study in 2009 comparing charcoal and gas grilling, said when you cook with gas, around 90 percent of the heating value is used in the grill, while less than a quarter of coal's heating value is used.

If you want to upgrade your outdoor cookery to reduce your environmental footprint, Ecofriend.com has rounded up 10 of the best eco-friendly grills.

Be eco-friendly and cruelty-free every day of the year

In 2009, the nonprofit Slow Food USA declared Labor Day a National Day of Action to get healthier food in schools—an action that helped provide the momentum that ultimately led to the passage of the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act.

While that was an excellent and successful campaign, we don't need a special day to consider how our actions impact the environment. Each of us can measure our own personal footprint to highlight how we can control and strive to reduce our carbon output.

To take yourself out of the systemic cruelty of factory farms, reduce your meat intake (try Meatless Mondays) and choose, organic meat, cheese and eggs from local small farmers who are certified humane. Even better, simply keep meat and animal-based food products off your plate altogether. To avoid supporting companies that test their products on animals, consult Leaping Bunny's list of approved brands that are cruelty-free.

Reducing our harmful impact on animals and the environment won't happen overnight. But by being more aware of our actions and taking small steps to change, every day can be a personal day of action to be more eco-friendly and cruelty-free.

Do you have any tips to be more sustainable, eco-friendly and cruelty-free? Share them in the comments.

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