Tuesday, July 14, 2015


By Pepper Bowen

Summer is a fun time of year. Longer days and warmer weather mean more opportunity to play. It’s too hot to turn on the stove, so in the States we have a tendency to cook out cause there is something about charcoal that just makes it smell like summer!

But what are those little square charcoal jobbers really made out of and where do they come from?

The trusty encyclopedia Britannica informs us that charcoal is “an impure form of graphitic carbon, obtained as a residue when carbonaceous material is partially burned, or heated with limited access of air”. Kingsford Charcoal has contained wood and mineral char, mineral carbon, limestone, sawdust, and fillers since 2000 and that is pretty much the same thing all commercial grilling charcoal contains.

The process to make charcoal is pretty intense.

Traditionally, a pile of wooden logs is leaned together against a stack of logs, peat, coal, wood, coconut shell, and/or petroleum in a circle and completely covered with soil and straw to prevent air from entering in a sort of kiln. Fuel of some sort is placed on the stack to char the logs and ensure they burn very slowly transforming them into charcoal over about 5 days. Modern methods use a metal container in lieu of a wooden kiln. Nevertheless, compressing into form is fairly standard in that a binder like starch is used to maintain the briquette shape and the briquettes may even include other additives to improve lightly efficiency and produce a white ash.

It’s not all for fun though. Developing countries rely heavily on charcoal for cooking as well as a heat source. In Haiti for instance, Berkeley Lab reports that wood is the predominate fuel for household cooking. However, a 2003 study, shows 91% of total cooking fuel measured in urban households was charcoal. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports 84% of Cambodia’s population depends on wood fuel as the main source of energy; whereas, in the capital city of Phnom Penh 27% of the residents rely primarily on charcoal. This dependence upon charcoal creates a problem, which is two-fold.

First the impact on wood in areas like Haiti and Cambodia, countries with some of the worst deforestation rates the world, is keen. The Pulitzer Center accounts charcoal production in Cambodia alone is responsible for 1.4 million hectares of net forest loss. And US Agency for International Development (USAID) asserts only 2% of Haiti’s forests remain.

Secondly, as the cooking is largely indoors, the charcoal burn pollutes indoor air. According to a USAID’s 2007 study, the average life span in Haiti is shortened by an estimated 6.6 years due to the impacts of indoor air. The World Health Organization’s Public Health and the Environment study from 2009 attributes 6,600 deaths in Cambodia annually to indoor air pollution.

Since cooking outside is difficult in urban areas and the dependence upon charcoal is great, what is the solution? Going green!

In Haiti, Carbon Roots International, a USAID-supported non-profit operating in Quartier Morin, has created green charcoal and bio-char. Farmers are taught to make the charcoal from their own agricultural waste such as dried sugar cane and that charcoal is in turn sold by the farmers. In Cambodia, the entrepreneurs at the Phnom Penh -based Sustainable Green Fuel Enterprise have created a charcoal made from discarded coconut husks in a process where the husks are dried, charred, crushed, then extruded, they have managed to create a cleaner burning fuel source.

No data is currently available on the emissions impact of indoor air but these sustainable ventures are already in a position to curb deforestation. And with that, we can all breathe a little easier.

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