When we think of the holiday season, we often think of spending time with friends and family, enjoying meals and activities with loved ones, and of course, gift-giving.
While it’s true that the end of the year is a time for cheer, it’s also known for another reason: the significant amount of waste that’s produced during the holiday season. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, Americans throw away 25% more trash than any other time of year.
To keep the holiday season as cheerful as it should be, here’s a little guide on how to reduce waste this Thanksgiving.
Holiday Waste… Er, Cheer
Some types of holiday waste are more apparent, like the shopping bags, ribbons, bows, and wrapping paper that contribute to an additional 1 million tons a week of garbage. Then there are those ill-fitting jeans, itchy socks, and ugly sweaters.
In recent years, up to 77% of gift recipients planned to return some of their gifts. Unfortunately, roughly 90% of returned gifts can’t be resold, meaning they often end up in landfills.
Well, what about “Turkey Day?” Surely without gifts this has less of a wasteful impact? Not so fast. Let’s consider some Thanksgiving food waste statistics. In the United States, roughly 206 billion pounds of food waste is generated every year. This is around 40% of our total food supply, roughly equaling the weight of 450,000 Statue of Liberties!
While it’s unclear exactly how much food is wasted on Thanksgiving, like general waste, the holiday season is responsible for a lot. Just turkeys alone contribute to more than 200 million pounds of Thanksgiving waste! This doesn’t even begin to consider the mashed potatoes that don’t taste good reheated, the leftovers wrapped in cling wrap that won’t get eaten by loved ones, or the plastic or paper cups and plates that end up in the trash can after dinner is done.
Worse, when holiday food waste ends up in landfills it releases one of the worst types of greenhouse gasses: methane—which has a global warming power 80 times higher than carbon dioxide over the first two decades in our atmosphere. Not only that, but there are also all of the ethical concerns that come with food waste, like the fact nearly 60 million Americans have trouble putting food on the table.
Enough with the gloomy news—this is the cheerful holiday season, after all. Here are a few ways you can toss out less this Thanksgiving.
More Thanks, Less Waste: 7 Tips for a Low-Waste Thanksgiving
1. Remember why you’re celebrating
We all have something we don’t like in the typical Thanksgiving spread. Some can’t stand stuffing, others turn their noses up at green bean casserole. While food is the focus on the fourth Thursday of November, it’s really time with loved ones that makes it special.
In fact, according to The Kitchn, when people come together over a meal, things like good conversation, cleanliness, decor, and the host are just as—if not more—important as the food itself.
2. Shake off the idea that you can’t run out of food
With the realization that Thanksgiving is more about friends and family than food, consider this: you don’t need to plan for everyone to make two, three, or even four trips to the kitchen. We tend to go overboard when it comes to the Thanksgiving meal, and our gluttonous habits mean that an average eater will consume a whopping 4,500 calories during the day—double what’s recommended.
Consider a smaller turkey to accommodate the number of people you have, or serving just one or two sides—instead of six. One dessert is generally enough for smaller groups, too.
3. Do some eater calculations
Ultimately, you should aim to keep everyone happy and fed, but not full and overwhelmed with leftovers. When it comes to how to do that, consider sticking with the holiday favorites, or foods that you know everyone will enjoy. If you need a hand, the National Resource Defense Center (NRDC) has a Guest-Imator, an online calculator to determine how much food is needed to keep your guests happy and full.
4. Be thoughtful with your grocery shopping
The grocery store is a chaotic place come holiday time. To shop in the most effective and sustainable way (while also saving time!), consider taking an inventory of everything you already have in your kitchen cupboards. Use this to consider any swaps you might be able to make to use up what you already have.
Also consider making a list that will be easy to stick to while grocery shopping. Research demonstrates that a list can keep impulse purchases down; which is helpful, considering that we spend an average of $5,400 on them every year!
5. Try something other than turkey
It’s the star of the show, but turkey is also responsible for roughly two-thirds of the emissions impact of our Thanksgiving meal—even worse if some of it is tossed out! Like other types of meat, the production of turkey is associated with significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.
That said, consider sourcing a pasture-raised, heritage breed, responsibly-produced version. Or, if your loved ones are willing to try something new, consider lower-impact main dishes, like bivalves (oysters, clams, or mussels), smaller poultry (like Cornish game hens), duck, game meat, or something meat-free. When it comes to the latter, pumpkin pasta, veggie lasagna, or Shepherd’s pie are great alternatives.
6. Use proper storage options
A Zero Waste Thanksgiving is difficult, and leftovers are nearly inevitable. So, when they do happen, be sure to keep them edible! Even if they’re well-intentioned, 76% of us admit to throwing away leftovers.
To avoid this fate, make a leftover plan. Consider how leftovers can be incorporated into future meals (there are plenty of ideas here), then use appropriate containers to keep things fresh! Stasher Bags are excellent for freezing, and Stainless Steel Tins are great for soups, sauces, and side dishes. At the very least, consider trading plastic wrap for Beeswax Food Wraps!
7. Put leftovers to a better use
Realistically, even some of the well-planned, well-stored food won’t end up on your plate again. In this case, consider putting it to better use by donating or composting it. When it comes to the former, you’ll want to reach out to local food pantries first to see what they’ll accept. Some will only accept ingredients (canned green beans, boxes of pasta, etc.), while others will take cooked food.
Many of our favorite Thanksgiving foods can also help to build healthy soil by being composted. These include uncooked fruits and vegetables, eggshells from baking, coffee grounds and tea bags, and in some cases, meat and bones.
However, as a general rule of thumb, avoid trying to compost bread, dairy products (cheese, butter, sour cream, etc.), and fats and oils. This means your butter-drenched mashed potatoes probably can’t go in a compost heap.
Hopefully this keeps your holiday celebrations full of thanks and giving—without all of the waste!