If you're planning on hosting a BBQ or other outdoor gathering, consider the impact it will have on the planet. While it may seem a small matter to light the grill on the 4th of July, the impact of the entire country doing so adds up to enough energy to power 20,000 households for an entire year, while releasing 225,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Luckily, there are a number of ways to reduce this impact, from how you cook to what you eat to what you use to serve it.
Though it's probably not in the budget to update your grill, keep in mind that charcoal releases a great deal more dangerous chemicals into the air as it burns in comparison to other grills. Gas, electric, and propane grills (and solar, for the really ambitious!) release significantly less, with gas grills releasing less than half the carbon dioxide of charcoal. Not only do other types of grills create fewer emissions, but they also work more efficiently than either charcoal or wood. If you decide to hold on to the charcoal grill, opt for lump coal over briquettes, as it is purer, and look for coals or chips that have been sustainably harvested and certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. If you do want to upgrade, but will miss that charcoal or wood flavor, look for hybrid grills, offering the efficiency and convenience of a gas or electric grill with a small amount of charcoal or wood added in for aroma and flavor.
In addition to the noxious emissions that come from burning charcoal, lighter fuel and self-lighting briquettes contain dangerous VOCs (volatile organic compounds). These compounds, when released, can cause kidney, liver, and nervous system damage, and contribute to ground-level ozone pollution. Consider using a chimney starter, starter wand, or small amount of burning paper to start the grill instead.
Though few things are associated with grilling more than hamburgers and hot dogs, there are more and more options out there that are less energy-intensive to create or potentially damaging to the planet. Soy dogs are a vegetarian favorite, as they contain healthy amounts of soy, no MSG, and take a lot fewer resources to manufacture than conventional meats. Other options include Gardenburgers, Morningstar Farms products, and BOCA burgers. If you do opt for meat, try to get locally raised and/or organic products that come in as little packaging as possible. And, of course, mix in plenty of vegetables (fresh, organic, and local, if possible!) either way. If using charcoal when grilling meats, use the leanest meat available and trim fat before cooking, as excess fat dripping onto the coals can cause dangerous chemicals to seep into the meat.
Beverage-wise, opt for locally-brewed and/or organic beers and wines (or make your own!). If going the beer route, choose a keg over a bevy of glass bottles or aluminum cans. There are a number of local options in the Cleveland area, including Great Lakes Brewery, CornerStone Brewing Company (Berea), Rocky River Brewing Company, and the Brew Kettle (Strongsville). There are a number of wineries in Ohio, as well, including two in nearby Avon Lake. For a list of Ohio wines and wineries (and online ordering if you decide to try them), see http://www.ohiowinecountry.com.
Though it's often easiest to use paper plates and plastic silverware at parties, keep in mind that this creates a LOT of trash. Consider reusable options, like cloth napkins and bamboo plates, or even disposable plates that will hold up to a rinsing and re-use, as these will cut down on your trash burden and save resources (yours and the planet's). If you DO use disposable plates, cups, napkins, or silverware, consider buying recycled and/or organic products. For beverages, try buying the largest practical package and pouring into cups, rather than purchasing little single-serving bottles or cans that create excess waste. This goes for pretty much everything, from chips to fruit to potato salad. And, of course, drink/serve tap water or filtered tap water rather than bottled water to save both money AND energy.
And don't forget to walk, bike, or carpool if you head down to see the fireworks!