Sustainable Ethical Barbeques 2021

Big Green Egg shaped barbecue in a field

This article was originally written after our estate had its third Streetfeast; a great event spearheaded by two civic-minded neighbours.  Streetfeast is a nationwide initiative to encourage neighbours to share food and time with one another once a year, normally in June. At our first Streetfeast all the tableware was disposable, which was all put into the same un-segregated bin after use. I always think it’s interesting that people who probably go to great lengths to recycle at home don’t continue these efforts at events like this.

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Our family are able to avoid all of the disposables by bringing our own reusable plates, cutlery and cups; something I’ve noticed other families start to do. I encourage the kids to only take small portions at a time to help avoid food waste and to choose unpackaged food to reduce recyclable and non-recyclable waste. Any waste we do generate is brought home for us to segregate for disposal.

I was very pleased to see that there were no balloons used in recent years and that the bunting was being reused from last year. The organising body for Street Feast used to send balloons out to groups as part of their pack but after a few members of the Zero Waste Facebook group asked them not to they decided to leave them out. They also published a Guide to having a Greener Street Feast on their website, which they credited the original version of this article as their inspiration. How cool is that.

So whether you’re having a communal party or an intimate gathering, with a bit of forward planning it’s possible to green any summer barbecue.

Sustainable BBQs. It goes without saying that disposable bbq sets are a no-no if you’re trying to be sustainable so if you’re going to invest in a reusable bbq set-up, what is more sustainable?  The debate about whether to cook with gas or charcoal is as old as Methuselah. Charcoal enthusiastic can’t imagine cooking with anything else and gas barbeques see their choice as far superior, but which is more sustainable?

In a 2009 study conducted by Eric Johnson, an environmental consultant based in Switzerland, concluded that the grilling footprint of charcoal is almost three times as large as that for LPG, with charcoal producing 6.7 kg of CO2 each grilling session, while in comparison LPG produces only 2.3 kg. The results boil down to the fact that LPG is more efficient than charcoal in its production, and also more efficient as a fuel for cooking. The research estimates that an average grilling session using charcoal is equivalent to driving a standard passenger car 35 km. For LPG, this falls to 13 km. I’m not sure if this conclusion would be altered by the discover this year that methane emissions from gas fields are 60% more than previously expected.

Whatever type of barbecue you buy aim to get one with a lifetime guarantee like the Big Green Egg Charcoal Barbecue, (see image above) as this is more likely to be better built and long-lasting.

Pieces of lump charcoal

If you already have a charcoal barbecue and don’t intend to switch then bear in mind that most charcoal briquettes (pillow shaped) available in stores are a combination of lighter fluid, sawdust and wood by-products, a binder such as starch, and other random additives and some contain borax, mineral carbon and limestone (to turn the ashes white). In addition to heat and smoke these briquettes release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that may cause cancer and other diseases. Lump charcoal is a chemical-free alternative to charcoal briquettes and is available to buy in Ireland. Most of it has been imported from far off places like South Africa, adding to it’s carbon footprint.  A much more sustainable option is to buy locally grown and made lump charcoal from companies such as;

  • Irish Artisan Charcoal Company who offer charcoal sourced and made in Ireland. All of their timber is locally sourced from sustainably managed woodlands, close to their setup, in County Limerick.
  • Biochar Ireland‘ s Lough Derg Charcoal is made from locally sourced timber within the environs of Lough Derg. The company also state
  • The Oxford Charcoal Company in the UK make lump charcoal from 100% British trees from certified sustainable woodlands.
  • Marienburg in Latvia make organic charcoal from alder or oak that I have seen on sale in my local Supervalu store.

If you can’t afford locally sourced lump charcoal try to ensure that whatever you use is sourced is at least from a sustainably managed forest, i.e. FSC certified.

Gifts.  There’s nothing worse than working hard to avoid plastic only to have it descend on you in the form of gifts. We typically ask guests to either bring some homemade food in reusable containers or a bottle of wine in lieu of flowers or shop bought food. Alternatively you could turn your event into a fundraiser and invite people to donate to a cause close to your heart in lieu of a present. A win, win all round.

Ban Balloons. These bad boys are terribly polluting, lasting for decades after use and the credibility of the biodegradable ones are suspect in my opinion. Call me sceptical but if something isn’t independently certified or I don’t know the maker / seller directly I just don’t trust what I’m told. Also helium is in finite supply and is running out and personally I’d much rather keep it for medicinal use than waste it on a bit of party frippery.

Tin Can Laterns

Decorations. I looooove party decorations, so much so I’d call it a bit of an obsession. It’s completely unsustainable to buy new decorations for each and every party so I reuse my paper ones instead. This means not buying themed decorations and opting for well-made generic ones that suit a variety of events and can be reused year after year. You can find fabulous fabric bunting on sale on Etsy. I’ve pinned my favourite decorating idea of outdoor parties on Pinterest, click on the link to see them. I love these DIY tin can laterns by Elise Engh Studios.

If you do want to theme your event how about renting props instead of buying them. It’s not cheap but it’ll set your event apart from the others. One such prop hire companies is Prop Me Up who organise their props by theme. I particularly love their Alice in Wonderful themed props.

Ban Straws. This is a no-brainer. Don’t let the blighters make an appearance if you can avoid it but if you feel you need them for some guests, offer reusable metal or glass ones or paper ones instead. As always with zero waste buy the biggest box you’re going to need to reduce packaging.

bamboo plates

Ditch Disposable Tableware. Aim to use real crockery and cutlery instead of disposables if you can. If you don’t have enough at home consider borrowing from friends and family or hiring it from companies like Select Hire or Cater Hire.

If real crockery isn’t a runner consider borrowing reusable plastic tableware from friends and family. Or if you’re at the start of your ‘party career’ maybe it’d be worth investing in some reusable plastic tableware. You might even be able to buy them with friends or family, cutting down on expense and waste even further.

If you can’t avoid disposable then consider compostable cups and un-coated paper plates and when buying try to buy the largest packet available to limit packaging. For something a little bit more up-market you can get compostable paper plateware from Klee Paper in Dublin 8 or Planet Susie. Or for a more exotic feel there’s palm leaf and sugarcane tableware from Down to Earth or Zeus Packaging.  Just be sure to explain to your guests that cups and plates should go into the brown bin and not the recycling bin.

Limit Napkins. Some zero wasters use cloth napkins instead of paper ones and it might be worth investing in some organic cotton, linen or hemp ones if you intend on having quite a few parties. If paper napkins are more your scene then just avoid leaving a large stack out. Research has found that large quantities of anything encourage waste so by limiting what’s on view you’ll limit what’s used.

Popcorn in brown paper cones

Non-plastic Nibbles. I love crisps but hate that they only come in non-recyclable foil-lined plastic bags. Although not quite as lip-smacking as MSG coated potato crisps or tortillas, home-popped popcorn is a great low-waste alternative, particularly if you buy it packaged free from market stalls like Bring your Own, Bare Necessities or Minimal Grocery. I love this serving suggestion from French Country Cottage. You can have it straight with just salt, or sugar, or both, or dress it up with Parmesan cheese, truffle oil or chilli flakes. Personally I like to pour homemade caramel over it to make sweet popcorn.

Another options is to get loose nuts and dried fruit from these market stalls or Nutty Delights in Georges St Arcade, D2 or in some Holland and Barrett stores. My friend makes the most delicious salted almonds for parties, they’re to die for. I’ve been enthusiastically informed that homemade kale crisps are divine so maybe these are worth a go too!

Avoiding Food Packaging. It’s easy enough to buy unpackaged fruit, veg and bread if you’re willing to spend the time seeking it out, but meat can take a bit trickier. I’ve been buying meat in my own container for over a year now and I’ve never been refused. Some staff members are savvy enough to know how to TARE the scales (set it to zero) with your container on it, but if they don’t I let them weigh my item on a sheet of butcher paper or in a plastic bag and then take it into my own container without the packaging. I know this isn’t ideal as I’m generating waste by buying it but it’s a case of the least bad option.

Protect Food without Cling Film. If you’re laying out food self-service style it’s a good idea to protect it from little critters. A few years ago I invested in some reusable food cover umbrellas and they work brilliantly. If you don’t have such a thing there’s no need to reach for the cling film, just pop a plate over the bowl of salad or an upturned bowl or tea towel over the plate of bread rolls and you’re good to go.

Avoid Food & Packaging Waste. Personally I’m not a huge fan of bbqs because it’s often just a huge meat-feast with little in the way of fruit and veg. Considering that the production of meat, particularly red meat, is a huge contributor to climate change don’t forget to balance out the fare with fruit and veg and some vegetarian / vegan meat alternatives, such as the Linda McCarthy range, which just come in cardboard boxes. Or if you fancy making your own vegan burgers Jamie Oliver has a great recipe that is relatively quick and doesn’t require any expensive, hard-to-get ingredients.

We’ve given up burger buns in our house. Instead we buy individual round rolls in Lidl or Tesco in our own bag. Not only do these have a more natural taste and texture they’re more filling than the air-like burger buns we’re used to.

It’s so easy to over-buy or over-provide so to avoid this buy reserve food that you know can be frozen if it’s not needed. Also to avoid having too much perishable food left over get some compostable disposable containers so guests can take an excess home. I like the paper lunch bags from Irish company Walsh Packaging, which you can get in most supermarkets in Ireland and the companies mentioned above that offer compostable tableware typically do compostable cardboard takeaway containers.

Provide separate bins. At parties I frequently see everything put into the same bin meaning everything ends up in landfill. To avoid this provide as many bins as you have waste streams and label them accordingly. For example in our house we have compostable waste (food, napkins, compostable tableware), dry recyclables (paper and some plastic) and glass, and then the landfill bin for everything else. I’m a waste nerd and so relish the opportunity to educate (annoy) guests about waste, explaining what goes into which bin and why.

Row of Belvoir Cordials

Plastic-free Drinks. 

Beer – It is now possible to get growlers (beer containers) filled by tap in Ireland and I’ve listed the places I know of on my Map of Eco Businesses in Ireland. If that’s not an option for you then aim to buy beer in cans, they are lighter to transport and easier to recycle than glass bottles meaning lower carbon emissions. Alternatively you could contact a local brewery and organise a returnable keg a beer for the party.

If you opt for cans try to buy loose in order to avoid the plastic wrapping or plastic rings that accompany packs. We’ve sourced loose cans in Lidl, which my husband thinks is the best flavour for the price.

If you buy 500ml cans or bottles instead of 330ml ones you will invariably create less packaging overall, but only do so if you don’t think this is going to lead to excess consumption which is wasteful in itself.

If you’d prefer to treat your body as a temple, Munster Brewery have an organic beer on the market called the 12 Towers. It’s also good to support locally and independently made beer where you can. I had the pleasure of tasting beer by South Dublin craft brewers Priory Brewing at an event recently and I can assure you it was delicious.

Wine – I keep reading that wine corks are compostable and yet we find 5/ 6/ 7 year old corks in our compost heap annually! Perhaps they do break down in commercial composters. Of course natural corks are a much better alternative to plastic corks but it’s impossible to tell which bottle has which until you open it. Plus the foil cover on corked bottles is not recyclable in Ireland anymore, so I prefer to buy my wine with a screw top. That way i can avoid all non-recyclable packaging.

As with beer there are a few places the offer wine refills now so check out my Map of Eco Businesses in Ireland to see if there is any in your area. If not and you have to buy bottles of wine consider bottles with screw-tops as this doesn’t run the risk of accidentally buying plastic corks or being left with foil, which although recyclable is no longer accepted in green bins in Ireland.

I am gutted at the closure of the Organic Supermarket chain in Ireland. They were retailers of two very desirable, and well priced, organic wines. Thankfully Supervalu still sell a lovely organic red Tempranillo by Clearly Organic for €8.50 and Molloy’s sell a reasonably priced organic prosecco by Fascino for €12.95, which I’ve tasted and heartily approve of!

Recently I’ve gone looking for alternative organic wines and have been scoffed at, quite rudely I might add, by two independent wine shop owners. According to them ‘Natural’ wine is where it’s at and organic wine is irrelevant. Why? Well when certification schemes for ‘organic’ or ‘biodynamic‘ are only concerned with how the grapes are grown, they don’t concern themselves with how they’re processed into wine. ‘Natural‘ wines on the other hand are made with minimal intervention. On a practical level this typically translates into the grapes being hand picked and destemmed, the juice/must not being subjected to any machine pumping (including pumping over), no mechanical separation of must from pomace (it is only hand-pressed), and finally, nothing being introduced to the tanks (or amphoras, or concrete eggs) or barrel other than the wine must. That means there are no rectifications in the form of added acid or sugar to control alcohol content, no enzymes, and it is fermented with only indigenous, or naturally occurring yeast that appears on the grape’s skin for what is referred to as ‘spontaneous fermentation’. ‘Natural’ wines generally do not have added sulfites, though there are naturally occurring sulfites in wine production, which can help stability.

The problem for me is that the term ‘natural wine’ is not legally defined and not certified so any Tom, Dick or Harry could label their wine as ‘natural’ and hop on the bandwagon. So I’ve decided I’m will give ‘natural’ wines a go but only those that are labelled organic or biodynamic, because I knowing that a producer has gone to the trouble of being certified for these labels gives me greater confidence that they’re being genuine when they use the term ‘natural’. But I won’t be revisiting said arrogance independent wine shops to buy them.

I strongly believe that sustainability lies in buying local so thrilled to find raspberry, blackberry, strawberry wine made in Wicklow.

A hop across the pond and you have a biodynamic and organic vineyard in Wales called Ancre Hills. The 12 hectares of vines at Ancre Hill Estates are inspected by DEMETER every year to ensure all cultural practices in the vineyard go above and beyond organic standards in line with the full ibodynamic accreditation achieved by the vineyard in 2014. Their building on site has walls constructed from straw bales and a living, green roof, both providing temperature and humidity regulation. Waste water is treated by a series of ecological pools and plantings which also provide many of the plants used in the tisane treatments in the vineyard.

Spirits –

Whisk(e)y. I am equally delighted to report that we can now buy biodynamic whiskey from an Irish distillery in Waterford. My hubbie and Father in Law did a tour of the distillery and raved about it! Nc’nean in Scotland make certified organic whisky from organic Scottish barley and natural spring water, in stills powered by biomass boilers run on timber fromtheir own land. Their whisky is bottled in recycled post-consumer glass bottles with a natural cork stopper and wood top, sealed with a compostable tamper seal, uncoated paper labels (with a small amount of plastic) and a gift tube made from 90% recycled materials. The company minimise waste and pollution wherever possible, diverting by-products to feed cows and fertilise land, and using natural cleaning products on site. They use rainwater to cool their stills, which they recycle back into a pond on site.

Gin. In Northern Ireland, on the shores of Lough Erne The Boatyard Distillery make gin and vodka and from organic ingredients, while across the pond you can also get certified organic gin from Fatty’s Organic Spirits in bottles printed with organic inks, and sealed with cork and wax by had. On the Isle of White the gin distillery of the same name has successful been certified as being carbon neutral and their packaging is plastic-free. Cooper Distillery, in York offer carbon negative gin, flavoured with local ingredients and packed in recycled card boxes, made locally and FSC certified paper. They use a 100% green energy supplier and have planted a native trees on their site. They’re also members of 1% for the Planet, meaning they donate a minimum of 1% of Dry and Herb Gin sales to the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust, offsetting the carbon emissions generated by production.

Vodka. Sapling Spirits in the UK has one made from British grown wheat, and if you’re not vegan you might be interested in Black Cow vodka, made entirely from grass-grazed cows milk on an organic farm in West Dorset. They even do a strawberry infused one!

Brandy. Irish company Highbank Orchards, mentioned above make certified organic apple brandy, and the aforementioned Killahora Orchards produce apple port and apple ice wine on their 200 year old estate. Over in Normandy Avallen Spirits, a 1% for the Planet company, is focused on making apple brandy in a manner that supports local bee populations.

Grain Spirit. Falling outside all of the categories above is the spirits from boutique Highland Boundary, who infuse their alcohol with locally foraged botanicals. Their electricity comes from solar panels on their farm roof. Their offices are heated using biomass and the cooling water of their still is by way of a natural spring that is recycled through a wildlife pond once it has cooled. They state that they are  committed to using only biodegradable (wood, cardboard and paper) and recyclable glass packaging for their products.

Soda – As far as I can tell fizzy drinks can only be bought in plastic bottles and if you need to have Coke Cola or 7-Up then it’s going to be impossible to avoid the plastic they come in. If your guests aren’t hung up on a brand perhaps you could make your own orange cordial, fruit-infused water or lime & mint cordial, or fruity lemonades or simply mix tap water cordial bought in glass bottles. There are a few high-end cordial brands on the market now and readily available in most Supervalu stores, such as Longford based Richmount Cordials and Waterford based Naturally Cordial or the UK brand Belvoir offer a few organic options.

If fizzy drinks are an essential then another option might be to borrow a soda syphon or soda maker for the event. The air comes in recyclable and sometimes refillable canisters. From my research it seems that soda syphon don’t generate the same level of fizz as soda maker so bear this in mind when choosing.

Cocktails – There’s nothing that says party like a cocktail and I love trying new ones. To make life easier use Cocktail Syrups that you only need to add to gin or vodka to make a festive drink.  A simpler, but so on trend, idea is to flavour some gin with botanicals like rosemary and orange rind or cucumber and lime slices.

Enjoy your sustainable summer soiree.


Published by livinglightlyinireland

I am a reformed interior architect that now campaign for and write about sustainable living in Ireland.

4 thoughts on “Sustainable Ethical Barbeques 2021

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