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How to Have a More Sustainable Fourth of July

by SLCgreen intern Mariah Trujillo

The sun is shining and inviting us outside for barbecues, picnics, and other festive get-togethers.  

As the focus of our minds shifts to friends, food, and outdoor recreation, it can be easy to lose sight of sustainability and air quality. In the winter, it’s hard to forget about air quality—it’s right in front of us during inversion episodes.

However, summertime can bring a different kind of air pollution. High temperatures, bright sun, and  some holiday celebrations bring about their own slew of risks to our air quality.

Not to despair! The summer months provide the perfect opportunity to revisit our time-tested sustainable practices and learn about new ones. With that in mind, let’s learn how to celebrate a sustainable and clean Fourth of July! 

We’ll talk about air pollution, fire risk, alternative celebrations, food, and minimizing plastic waste. Read on!

Fireworks and Air Pollution

Fireworks, while a fun celebration, unfortunately, produce pollutants that contribute to poor air quality. This includes: coarse particulates (PM10) and fine particulates (PM2.5).  

The pollution can grow disturbingly high in the 12 hours immediately after Fourth of July and 24th of July celebrations—higher than we would see on all but the worst wintertime inversion days. 

High levels of particulate matter pose health risks to children, older people, and those with pre-existing respiratory conditions. Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, we have become increasingly aware of the importance of respiratory and lung health and how vulnerable our health can be. The particulates that fireworks release have impacts on health, including but not limited to: triggering asthma attacks, acute bronchitis flare-ups, increased vulnerability to respiratory illnesses, and even heart attacks and arrhythmias for those with heart disease. 

Fireworks Restrictions 

Of course, fireworks can also pose a wildfire risk during our persistent drought. Salt Lake County is currently categorized as a D3 – Extreme Drought Zone.  For this reason, the Salt Lake City Fire Marshall has banned the use of fireworks in certain areas of the city.  

To stay up to date with the current firework restrictions, check out the Salt Lake City Fire Department webpage containing the most recent regulations and information, including a map of areas of Salt Lake City where firework use is prohibited. Violating a “No Firework Zone” may result in a fine of $1,000 

Laser Light Shows 

Sheesh—with all the impacts of fireworks, you may wonder what else you could do to celebrate the Fourth and 24th in a way that does not create air pollution, risk wildfire, nor pose safety hazards (not to mention the stress that fireworks can cause to some veterans, pets, and young kids) 

Salt Lake City went through the same thought process. 

That’s why this July, Salt Lake City will NOT be hosting the traditional 4th of July and 24th of July fireworks shows at Jordan Park and Liberty Park.

Instead . . .  

Check out these awesome firework-free events hosted by Salt Lake City Public Lands!

Each show will begin after sundown (typically around 9:30pm) and last 15-20 minutes. Make sure you get there early to claim your spot on the lawn. 

This event is open and friendly to all ages and admission is FREE! 

The Food Truck League will be sending some of the best trucks in town! 

Outside food and drink (non-alcoholic) is permitted. 

Let’s Talk about Food (and barbecue grills)… 

Backyard barbecues and cookouts are one of the most defining summertime activities, but they can also contribute disproportionately to local air pollution, as well as carbon emissions. Some grills and smokers rely on the burning of a solid fuel source, such as charcoal, wood, or pellets. Grills that rely on these fuel sources contribute to air pollution by incompletely combusting these fuels, leading to increased particulate pollution. This goes for that festive backyard firepit as well.  

So what’s a summertime fun lover to do? Simply plan your grilling on days when the air quality isn’t as bad. 

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality tracks the air quality and reports on advised actions for SLC residents. Depending on the air quality levels, they release an ”Action Forecast” that advises on resident action when it comes to fuel burning.

The three levels are: Unrestricted Action: residents may burn solid fuel freely; Voluntary Action: residents are asked to voluntarily not use solid fuel burning devices, including grills and open burning (such as fire pits, grills, campfires); Mandatory Action: residents may not use solid fuel burning devices and are not to utilize open burning. You can access the up-to-date Action Forecast here

Even better, use a different kind of grill. Gas grills have a carbon footprint that is about 1/3 of that of a charcoal grill. However, gas grills are only the beginning. There are a wide range of electric grills currently on the market that provide a green alternative that release high concentrations of particulates and ground-level ozone. Solar-powered grills are becoming increasingly common and rely solely on the sun’s renewable energy. In addition, solar-powered grills tend to be more mobile and require less cost to use. This summer, consider making the switch from a wood, charcoal, gas, or pellet grill to an electric grill.  

Serve locally produced foods at your celebrations this summer! 

In addition, foods that are traditionally served at barbecues could be increasing your carbon footprint in ways you might not even see.  

In Utah, food choices contribute to 25% of our household carbon footprints, making that backyard party menus exceptionally important if you’re interested in celebrating more sustainably. Meat is one food group that has one of the highest carbon footprints, while also being one of the most common items served at these events. Raising livestock is one of the leading contributors of the greenhouse gas, methane.  

In addition to production of greenhouse gasses in agriculture, the transportation of foods over long distances contributes to the carbon footprint of many of our everyday food items. This summer, try substituting hamburgers and steaks with locally grown vegetable skewers! Or, if you crave the taste of meat, try out some meat substitutes! 

The Downtown Farmers market is an amazing place to buy locally grown produce that you can serve and your backyard get-together!

And don’t forget to compost any veggie or fruit scraps produced as you cook your delicious holiday feast! 

Let’s talk about plastics… 

With an increase in outdoor festivities for the holiday and the summer, the use of disposable plastic waste is on the rise, but this doesn’t have to be the case. 

We can keep our summer celebrations plastic-free! Are you worried about ruining nice dining dishes by offering them to your backyard guests? Well, guess what? You don’t have to! Make a quick trip over to the nearest thrift store and buy a cheap set of “BBQ dishes”. You can store them in a small tote in your garage for easy access. Then you never have to go through the hassle of having to buy a new set of disposable dishes every time you throw a party!  

Or, ask your guests to BYOD (bring your own dishware). 

If you do end up using some disposables for your gatherings this weekend, help your guests recycle what can be recycled. 

We’ve created some handy recycling signs for small, private events that can be posted above your waste bins. Disposable plastic plates are usually too contaminated with food residue to be recycled. Plastic cutlery unfortunately cannot be recycled in the blue bin. What you often can recycle are empty plastic cups, water bottles, and aluminum cans.  Glass can be recycled separately. 

Have a happy, safe, and sustainable Fourth of July! 

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