Thanksgiving is known as one of the most gluttonous holidays of the year — and it’s also one of the most wasteful.
About 200 million pounds of turkey and more than 150 million pounds of potatoes, green beans, and other sides never get eaten, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which adds up to still-edible food rotting in landfills and producing methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
All told, uneaten Thanksgiving dishes stand to add about 500 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere. And that doesn’t account for the resources expended to get holiday favorites like stuffing, cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes onto your table. And turkeys require hundreds of gallons of water to produce.
This waste comes at a time when many residents are still struggling to recover from the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly one in four residents was at risk of food insecurity even before the pandemic, according to data from the Department of Public Health. Hunger statewide has doubled, according to the California Association of Food Banks.
The good news is that while food waste is considered a massive environmental issue, it’s also a significant opportunity to ease our impact on the planet. Here are some tips to reduce your carbon footprint during the holidays.
Start with meal planning: As the EPA suggests, “shop your refrigerator first.” Make a list of only what you need and apportion serving sizes based on the number of guests you are expecting to feed.
“I recommend you try not to buy more than you can consume,” said Mary Risley, founder of Food Runners, a nonprofit that collects excess food from grocery stores and retailers and transports it to soup kitchens and shelters.
Shop locally to save miles: Because the bulk of our food is grown outside of The City, the number of miles it takes to get to shelves also means added emissions. Shopping at farmers markets or at stores that source their products locally can cut down on food miles and supports farmers and growers in and around the Bay Area.
“In these pandemic times of supply chain shortages, drought, and climate change, truly valuing our food and the human labor and resources it takes to bring it to our tables carries a lot more gravitas,” said Christine Farren, executive director of the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA). “When you support local farmers at the farmers market you help shorten supply chains, which prevents food waste from field to market.”
Do away with perfectionism: According to CUESA, most oddly shaped fruits and vegetables rarely make the cut on grocery store shelves. But at the farmers market, you can find ugly, perfectly delicious produce to fill your table, reducing the number of food items that end up in landfills.
Love your leftovers: Get creative with next-day meals. Risley recommends throwing everything in a frittata or in a Turkey Galette — basically, a turkey pizza. Or, she said, “after you make turkey sandwiches till you get bored, then put the whole turkey in a gigantic pot and throw in all the vegetables and make soup.”
Use your freezer: If you can’t stomach another day of turkey, consider popping your leftovers in the freezer to save them for a rainy day.
Share unwanted food with those in need: Consider sharing extra food with family or donating unopened, non-perishable food items to local food banks, food pantries, or nonprofits that redistribute food. While Food Runners won’t pick up from people’s homes, they do have a list of community centers, pantries and other agencies that accept personal food donations. “Nobody should be throwing food away,” said Risley.
Consider composting: By diverting food waste from landfills, composted food scraps can help replenish soils, reduce methane emissions and grow to the next generation of crops.
Recology’s spokesperson Robert Reed said the company came up with a simple philosophy to address holiday waste: “Buy only what you need,” he said. “Make full use of what you have. And then, please compost all your food scraps and your yard trimmings.”