DorcheSter Guardian   -    1998

Barbecues are not always healthy

"96% of charcoal in this country is imported from the developing world, supporting slave labour and destruction to the rain forests. Its ironic, when in Britain we have all the resources to make top quality charcoal ourselves."
Claire Price reports...

Charcoal goes up in a puff of smoke, so who cares where it comes from? Well, the world does actually, and if you knew the environmental damage imported charcoal caused, so would you.

Charcoal is surprisingly big business in this country, the public getting through approximately 50,000 tonnes of it each year. It is mainly used for barbecues, but it also artistic and horticultural uses too. However, although we use so much charcoal in Britain, as much as 96% of it is imported from third world countries.

The industry needs to change for the sake of the environment and because of the exploitation of these poorer countries. In South East Asia, wood from mangrove swamps is burnt to make charcoal. In South America and West Africa, the rainforests are chopped down and burnt. In both cases, the woodland that the charcoal is being made from is not sustainable and the labourers work for next to nothing. The only people who benefit from importing charcoal are the shipping companies. It is because of this that Britain ought to produce its own charcoal so that the workers in the third world countries are encouraged to trade in different materials that don't inevitably lead to the destruction of their natural habitat.

Jim Bettle from Blandford took up the initiative by endeavouring to set up his own charcoal business. Always being interested in working with the great outdoors, he taught himself how to produce charcoal by attending various courses on he subject. By the end of 1996, Jim set up The Dorset Charcoal Company using just a converted oil drum. Charcoal companies like Jim's actually help save wildlife in Britain by clearing out derelict woods and encouraging new growth which animals can feed from. The charcoal burners are moved to a different wood in a certain locality, making use of the gnarled, thick tree trunks which have no other economic use.

Says Jim, 'Isn't it crazy that in this world of Earth summits and trying to protect the environment that a bulk product like charcoal is being shipped hundreds of miles when we have the resources right on our doorstep? When you think of the destruction of the rainforests and the amount of oil needed to ship a tanker load of charcoal half way around the world, it just doesn't make sense".

The charcoal making process is physically demanding and Jim has to use both strength and skill to make sure that his charcoal is of the highest quality. First of all, the wood must be cut to size and stacked in the charcoal burner. The charcoal burner, or kiln, is then fired and the lid is placed on top and sealed to stop any air entering. The rate at which the wood burns is controlled by the restriction of the air supply and the movement of the kiln's chimneys. Once the smoke coming out of the chimneys has turned blue, all air intakes are sealed, thereby starving the charcoal of oxygen. The kiln is extremely hot and has to be left 24 hours to cool down. After this time, the lid is removed and the charcoal is packed into bags ready to be sold.

Not only is Jim's charcoal better for the environment but the end product is also of a much higher standard than that of imported charcoal. British charcoal is made from wood which is generally less dense and because of this, it is far easier to light, thus eliminating the need for lighter fuel and firelighters.

There are presently 300 to 400 charcoal burners in Britain but Jim would like to see this number rise over the years. As he says, "The British charcoal business is on the increase as consumers are becoming more aware of where their goods come from. However, as we only account for 4% of the market, we've still got a long way to go. I hope to raise awareness of the implications of buying imported charcoal and to encourage other charcoal companies to be set up around Britain".