What is Our Charcoal Obsession Doing to the Environment?

Now that we know about all the healthy benefits that charcoal, or “activated carbon,” can give us, like detoxing our guts and countering accidental poisonings, we need to take a look at how healthy its production is for our environment.

Activated carbon is made from carbonaceous materials, like wood, bamboo, or coconut shells. Sometimes it is made from waste products, such as the “olive cakes” left behind after olive oil production. This means that the biggest impact charcoal production tends to have on the environment is the deforestation it causes. Like any other wood product, charcoal demands a healthy dose of trees to produce it. Although labels and companies may be secretive about their sources or even about what the charcoal is made from, look for products made from bamboo, which is quick to regrow and by no means endangered. Some companies also use regenerative parts of trees — branches that will grow back and may actually be keeping the tree healthy — instead of cutting down whole trees.

As charcoal also necessitates being burned in order to be useful, another unfortunate impact that its production causes is the release of CO2. As a greenhouse gas, CO2, or carbon dioxide, is one of the many gases contributing to global warming.

However, charcoal also poses some benefits to the environment, when used in the right context. Just as it can help to rid your organs of toxins, it can also do so for the air we breathe. It is a very effective air filter, removing toxins like heavy metals, mold, moisture, and particles from the air. One type of charcoal, biochar, actually acts as a carbon storehouse (like trees) and is therefore beneficial to the environment.

Plus, the act of producing charcoal is actually an act of recycling. One study, for example, found that creating activated charcoal was a more environmentally sound alternative to dumping wood waste in landfills, and doing so actually has less of an impact on global warming.

So whether you’re looking for some cool black ice cream or just a capsule to settle your stomach, make sure you know where your activated carbon is coming from, what it is made of, and the ethics of the company you are buying it from. You may even want to try making your own!