Some grilling aficionados won't be satisfied with a gas grill; to them, only a charcoal grill can provide the smoky taste you grill food for in the first place. Few would argue, however, that burning charcoal improves air quality. If this is a concern for you, your taste buds and your conscience may be pulling you in different directions. You'll be glad to know, then, that it is possible to minimize the impact on the environment when you fire up the grill, and some of the ways to do that will also save you money.
One environmental concern is that burning charcoal releases carbon dioxide into the air--much more than the amount released per unit of heat when you use a gas grill. Another problem is that the additives used when charcoal is made into briquettes--including borax, sodium nitrate and coal--emit particulate matter when they're burned. One solution to both these concerns is to use eco-friendly charcoal. Charcoal is made from wood, and an eco-friendly charcoal like Wicked Good Charcoal is produced using wood from sustainable sources, meaning that trees are planted to replace those harvested. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air, so even as charcoal grills release CO², replanted trees work to remove it. A truly eco-friendly charcoal uses no additives either, so the problem of particulate matter is resolved. Greenyour.com has more information on eco-friendly charcoal and where to buy it.
Of course, it also follows that the less charcoal you use, the better. Some types of grills naturally use less charcoal, notably kamado-style grills like The Big Green Egg. It's a pretty expensive grill, but the Egg comes in several sizes, ranging from mini to an extra-large, and the smaller sizes are more affordable. For more information, see our full report on charcoal grills. One portable grill, the Cobb Premier, allows you to cook for up to three hours using only eight charcoal briquettes, according to its manufacturer. Its downsides are that it's only 12 inches in diameter and costs about $130.
There are ways to use less charcoal with almost any grill. Close all air vents and make sure the grill's lid is tightly shut after you're done cooking, for example; the fire will go out because it's deprived of oxygen. You may be able to re-use some of the coals, which will save you a little money. To put out the fire even more quickly, or if the grill doesn't have a lid or air vents you can close, douse it with water. Finally, avoid using lighter fluid, which contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Instead use a chimney starter--they're inexpensive and easy to find (check your local hardware store or home center). Chimney starters are safer and more effective than lighter fluid anyway, and your food will definitely taste better.