THE BLOG
08/28/2014 04:19 pm ET | Updated Oct 28, 2014

Grilling for Labor Day? Don't Burn the Planet

Right now - in the time it takes to read these words - 818 hot dogs were consumed in the United States. And another 818...right now.

The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (yes, that's a real thing) estimates that Americans eat 7 billion hot dogs between Memorial Day and Labor Day. If that sheer quantity of hot dogs doesn't turn your stomach, maybe this will: Those franks add up to billions of pounds of greenhouse gas emissions.

Hot dog season accounts for the greenhouse gas equivalent of about 2 million cars on the road for a year. And that's not even counting all the burgers and steaks thrown on the grill. Nor is it counting all the other environmental impacts of meat production - the habitat loss, water use, pesticide use and direct threats to wildlife.

A tofu dog, on the other hand, accounts for about one-thirteenth the emissions - as well as less land and water, and fewer wildlife conflicts - of a beef hot dog. Not that I have anything against tofu dogs, but to some people, that's still not an appealing trade-off. Good thing it's far from the only option for shrinking the environmental footprint of your Labor Day celebration.

The Center for Biological Diversity, where I work, put together a menu for an extinction-free barbecue with more than a dozen recipes contributed by top vegan chefs and bloggers, including Alicia Silverstone (The Kind Diet), Bryant Terry (Afro-Vegan), Laura Theodore (Jazzy Vegetarian) and Vegan Black Metal Chef. The menu ranges from more traditional fare - such as hot dog alternatives and guacamole dip - to new favorites for the more adventurous - such as BBQ sweet potato and chile peanut tacos and Balinese-inspired spicy green bean salad.

It's not just the health of the planet to consider when firing up the grill this weekend. A Harvard University study found that each additional serving of red meat increased risk of premature death by 13 percent. If that meat is processed - for example, hot dogs - the risk increases to 20 percent.

On the upside, small changes can make a big difference. Once you start replacing servings of meat with plant protein, your statistical life span starts to improve. Same goes for the planet. Cutting meat from your diet just one day a week saves more emissions than if you were to shift to an entirely local diet. And if everyone in the U.S. took meat and dairy off their plates just one day a week, it would be the equivalent of taking 7.6 million cars off the road. It won't solve the climate crisis on its own, but it's a pretty good start.

Labor Day marks the unofficial end of summer - or, as one livestock analyst put it "the season's grand finale of meat consumption." But we can choose to take extinction off the grill and make this weekend the beginning of traditions that are better for the climate, for wildlife and for us.

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