Charcoal – Should I be making it, should you be cooking with it?

The backbone of my business is producing high quality Pembrokeshire charcoal. Neglected, unmanaged Welsh woodlands do not like growing long straight, knot free poles that are well suited to greenwood work and crafts. The result is that a lot of what I fell ends up being converted to charcoal which is sold to local shops, campsites and blacksmiths around my home in Pembrokeshire.

Before charcoal production became a key part of business I considered carefully the environmental impact of what I was setting out to do. To produce charcoal you take any carbon rich piece of organic matter, in my case wood, super heat it, driving off all the liquids and gases (pyrolisis) which leaves you with lovely lumps of high grade charcoal. The problem is that the gases and liquids that are given off aren’t particularly pleasant.

Some of my early charcoal made in an old oil barrel.

Some of my early charcoal made in an old oil barrel.

To start you have water vapour (fairly harmless but has a registered impact on climate change) closely followed by the gases carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane and ethane. Then you have a group called the pyroacids which include acetic acid and methanol) and finally tars and heavy oils.

So with this in mind, why produce charcoal in the first place? Well, for a start the majority (90%) of all charcoal used in the UK is imported. In real terms that’s 60,000 tonnes of imported charcoal which would have traveled from South America, South Africa or East Asia. In some cases charcoal is produced in North Africa before being transported to South Africa for packaging and then finally shipped back north again to markets in the Europe and the United Kingdom. To me none of the above seemed to make much sense and raised several environmental and social concerns. Environmentally what was the impact of the transport miles needed to fuel our lust for burning sausages throughout the summer months? Where is the wood for this charcoal coming from, is it responsibly managed, is it tropical rainforest or mangrove swamp? Then socially what kind of conditions were the burners living and working in? There are undoubtedly great examples of best practice out there, with charcoal production providing a useful habitat management option and a sustainable income for local populations. However, there must also be examples of greed winning out over the environment and human rights to create an industry that is destroying local environments and the lives of the workers involved. When you consider that British retailers are buying charcoal for 75 pence per kilo which has traveled thousands of miles and been sifted through who knows how many components of the supply chain, well someone has to be getting a raw deal along the way.

However, if charcoal production is done locally and trade exists directly between supplier and buyer, then you have a cottage industry that not only provides an income for coppice workers but also makes the management of our woodlands self funding. Woodlands have been used for resources to some extent by humans ever since the last Ice Age, and the flora and fauna that now call it home have adapted to and have become reliant on this human intervention. By producing charcoal I was able to make my woodland (or rather the one I lease) pay it’s way. I would be looking after it whilst it was looking after me, a symbiotic relationship between man and nature that is a rarity in our modern world. So by producing charcoal locally, I argued, and still do, that we can replace the imported charcoal with local, and by doing so support the sustainable management of our ailing woodlands.

So with the benefits of local charcoal justified (at least to myself) I was still faced with the problem that what I was doing was fundamentally polluting. To go someway into combating this I decided to invest in a retort (more specifically the Exeter Retort). The Exeter Retort, and indeed all retorts, work by recycling the wood gases (which contain all the nasties listed above) and re-burning them to fuel the pyrolysis process. This reduces emissions by up to 75% compared to traditional ring kilns.

Exeter Retort in action

Exeter Retort in action

All in all, after my research I felt that producing charcoal as part of a responsible woodland management plan was definitely a positive and I feel very comfortable in what I’m doing. I’m always looking for ways to further reduce my emissions. In some way’s I’m doing well, for example I only use hand tools in my woodland management electing the axe and cross cut saw over the chainsaw (more on this in another blog). But in otherways I’m failing miserably. I drive a big diesel guzzling pick up and the other day I caught myself lighting the fire in the external retort firebox with firelighters. The firelighters I am now abandoning and the pick up I’m looking into converting to veg oil and leaving it behind as much as possible in lieu of the bicycle. However, there is much more to be done before I can claim to be really doing my bit for the planet.

2 thoughts on “Charcoal – Should I be making it, should you be cooking with it?

  1. Lee Bassett

    Great article on charcoal burning, it has certainly helped me to understand the benefits of burning local charcoal. I just wanted to also let you know how inspiring I’ve found your blog to be! I’m currently on a trainee-ship in heritage landscape management but would eventually like to become a coppice worker. Your blog is an excellent source of information and inspiration!

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Morning Lee,

      Thank you very much for your comments and very happy you find the blog both useful and inspiring. Great news that you’re wanting to become a coppice worker, I’m finding it to be a truly rewarding profession. If you want any more info then please feel free to get in touch.

      All the best,

      David

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *