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Why you should buy sustainable charcoal

BY Rachael Rowe

8th Aug 2023 Environment

Why you should buy sustainable charcoal

With barbecue season well underway, have you ever given a thought as to where the charcoal you use comes from and why you should buy sustainable charcoal?

With warmer weather and the holidays, thoughts turn to alfresco dining and firing up the barbecue. While disposable barbecues are considered a fire hazard and environmentally unfriendly, have you ever given a thought as to where your charcoal supply actually comes from?

Why charcoal regulation should be a priority

Over 90 per cent of charcoal used in the UK is imported from overseas. In 2020, 98,400 tonnes of charcoal was imported to the UK.

"Over 90 per cent of charcoal used in the UK is imported and a quarter of that comes from countries where deforestation is high risk"

A quarter of that came from countries where deforestation is high risk. According to data from the Earthworm Foundation, countries include Nigeria, Paraguay and Indonesia.

The environmental impact of charcoal imports

Deforestation with a truck transporting lumber in South AmericaDeforestation means importing charcoal can be bad for the enivronment. Credit: reisegraf

In Indonesia, for example, mangrove wood protects communities from flooding, however a lack of regulation means it gets exported for charcoal. In Paraguay, wood from the Chaco Forests, home to indigenous people and wildlife, is used for European charcoal supplies.

Further imports of charcoal come from Namibia and South Africa and result in significant bush clearance to the detriment of the environment. In addition to the carbon footprint from transporting supplies across the world, the environmental impact on the ground is significant.

Certification and lack of regulation

The FSA (Forest Stewardship Council) is the world’s largest certification scheme for wood products and aims to certify sustainability and absence of forced labour. However, even with FSA certification, some products have slipped through into the British market. The Earthworm Foundation analysed bags of charcoal in the UK and discovered that although all the bags were certified by the FCS, 80 per cent contained wood from overseas.

Following COP26, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) pledged to review timber import regulations. However, today, charcoal remains the only wood product that is unregulated by the UK government. Charcoal is among the top five most damaging products to earth after soy and palm oil.

How British charcoal is sustainable

charcoal burning on barbecue
By using sustainable charcoal on your barbecue you will help the environment. Credit: Rittichai

Jim Bettle is the owner of the Dorset Charcoal Company and the National Coppice Federation (NcFed) National Charcoal Representative. He set his business up in 1997. “I had lots of jobs in my twenties. One involved a golf course construction where I witnessed a lot of timber wastage as there was no market for lower quality wood. Then I met a thatcher who told me about coppicing. 27 years later I am still passionate about the environmental side.”

"Coppicing improves both the density of the woodland and the quality of timber"

Using the coppicing method works in partnership with basic woodland management. Jim explains: “All woodlands need light to thrive. We work with farmers, landowners and estate managers on thinning out and managing their woodlands. Some of the woodlands we work with haven’t been touched for 40 or 50 years. When we go in we selectively thin out and remove poorer quality wood. What that does, is provide income for the landowner and a charcoal source, but it also improves the quality of the woodland and environment. Ecosystems rely on light to thrive so woodland needs regular cutting.

“I have been working on a wooded area in Dorset that hadn’t been touched for over 40 years. This year when I went back the following spring, the woodland floor was a riot of colour with flowers. Coppicing improves the density of the woodland and the quality of timber. We are the spur as we can create ways to get woodlands improved.”

Cooking charcoal on site

Jim also cooks charcoal on site, reducing the carbon footprint further.

“Where possible, we can bring our kilns on site to cook the wood, making it into charcoal. It reduces our product miles and cuts out energy. All the moisture and water is driven out of the wood which is cooked rather than burnt. We cook it by restricting the oxygen to I, sealing it with soil. The process takes 48 hours.”

British charcoal is 90 per cent carbon because the woods are lighter. Wood from overseas tends to be denser and heavier and is 40 to 60 per cent charcoal. That means that your food cooks a lot easier using British charcoal.

Where to buy sustainable British charcoal

Charcoal bagSustainable brown bags are used by most British charcoal producers. Credit: Tatiana Atamaniuk

Jim outlined how to find British charcoal. “Well a good way is that most British charcoal producers use sustainable brown bags with black print. If you have a glitzy coloured bag it is likely to have been imported. The bag of charcoal will say where it has been made. If there is no mention on the bag of where the charcoal is produced it is more than likely to come from unsustainable forestry. You can also find a supplier on the National Coppicing Federation website.”

"By using a British product made with 90 per cent carbon, your food will cook better"

By making a simple change in where you source your barbecue charcoal from, you will be contributing to the protection of areas at risk of deforestation, reduce the carbon footprint from long distance transportation, and help woodlands become healthier in Britain through effective coppicing. Finally, by using a British product made with 90 per cent carbon, your food will cook better.

Banner photo: AlexRaths

Read More: 5 Tips for a healthier summer barbecue

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