A group of people sit at a table eating, they are trying to have a more sustainable Thanksgiving.
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Thankful for our environment

How to Have a Sustainable Thanksgiving

Ashley Robinson
November 6, 2023

Thanksgiving is coming up, and it’s a holiday built around abundance, sharing, and, most importantly, food! The Thanksgiving feast is a favorite tradition of a lot of Americans, and it’s a great way to get together with family and kick off the holiday season. That said, the holiday can take a toll on the environment for a lot of reasons. Between food waste, disposable cookware and décor, the emissions from holiday travel, and the kickoff of holiday shopping with Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Thanksgiving can get pretty energy-intensive and wasteful. But with some planning and awareness, you can make your Thanksgiving celebrations sustainable and abundant.

Shop Consciously

Getting ready for a big Thanksgiving celebration involves a lot of shopping. The grocery run is going to be big no matter what, but there are a few things you can keep in mind to keep your purchases more environmentally friendly!

  • Write a super detailed grocery list that includes quantities to avoid over-purchasing. This should also help you avoid multiple trips to the store, which saves on emissions, too!
  • Buy seasonal and local ingredients where you can. Shipping produce across the country and globe takes a lot of energy, and cooking with local produce can taste a lot better! Here’s a guide to see what’s in season around you.
  • Keep the turkey reasonable! Animal products, including turkey, generate more emissions than other foods. So make sure to buy a bird that fits the guest count, not a giant one just for show. Or you could go for a turkey breast or even a chicken or tofu alternative instead.
  • Consider skipping the disposable plates and cutlery and asking guests to borrow the extras you may need instead. If you do need to purchase, try to choose biodegradable options instead of plastics.
  • Instead of purchasing disposable pans for roasting, pies, and sides, consider investing in a few high-quality oven-to-table pieces for your kitchen. You can reuse them for all sorts of holidays and parties, and they’ll look great on your Thanksgiving table, too!

Keep An Eye on Food Waste

The biggest environmental issue with Thanksgiving is food waste. It’s estimated that Americans waste about 300 million pounds of food during Thanksgiving. That’s the same thing as every single person in the US throwing away a pound of food! The average cost of this food waste last year was about $450 million dollars, and with food prices continuing to skyrocket, that number is sure to go up this year.

In addition to the financial cost, this waste comes with a big environmental price tag. All of this wasted food takes water, labor, and energy to grow, often involving lots of emissions from fossil fuels. And almost all food waste ends up in landfills, which then generates methane gas (which contributes to climate change) as it decomposes. So, to celebrate the holiday without waste, keep these things in mind:

  • Make a good menu plan with reasonable recipe batches. Obviously, the fun of Thanksgiving dinner is having an over-the-top spread, but that means you probably don’t need a giant pan of every single item. Here’s a handy tool for helping calculate how much to make for your Thanksgiving.
  • If you’re having a potluck, ask your guests to bring specific items and quantities to avoid repeats and too much food.
  • Don’t panic if something goes wrong while you’re cooking! There’s often a way to fix or repurpose recipes gone wrong, so try a quick search before you throw something away.
  • Plan for leftovers. Make sure you have lots of reusable storage options for yourself and guests to handle leftovers (you can even ask your guests to bring containers from home), and maybe look at some Thanksgiving leftover recipe ideas ahead of time to get excited!
  • Embrace your freezer for leftovers that you won’t eat in a few days.
  • When all else fails, try to compost food scraps and waste instead of throwing them in the trash.

Travel Smart

Holiday travel is notoriously stressful because so many people are in transit at the same time. This also means that the environmental impact of travel is even larger, because there are more flights every day, and during peak road traffic periods, more cars are stuck idling as they creep down crowded highways. “Interrupted flow conditions” (so, traffic) have been shown to increase emissions per mile, and commercial flights are a big contributor to climate change.

The surest way to limit the environmental impact (and a lot of the stress) of holiday travel is to consider staying close to home. But if that’s not an option with your family, see if you can opt for a lower-impact way of traveling.

Flying is the most emissions-intensive option, and airports are a nightmare around the holidays anyway. If you’re only going a few hundred miles, consider taking a train or bus, or carpooling with family members instead of a flight to lower the impact.

Unfortunately, our rail systems are woefully underfunded and underdeveloped, so there’s a good chance you may need to drive to get where you’re going. In that case, try to stick to off-peak times to avoid getting stuck in traffic. Here’s a useful tool that shows peak traffic on roads and businesses during Thanksgiving week that can help you make shopping and travel plans to avoid the crowds.

Take a Step Back from Black Friday

For a lot of people (and for most retailers), Thanksgiving marks the start of the holiday shopping season. Black Friday and Cyber Monday – these days are designed to get you to spend money and buy a lot of stuff. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this spike in consumption has a huge environmental impact. One study estimates that 80% of Black Friday purchases end up in landfills or incinerated after a very short life. And the uptick in online shopping compounds the problem. A study from the UK estimates that Black Friday deliveries generated over 380,000 tons of emissions in 2021. And that’s just for the deliveries, and just in the UK!  

If you’re keeping an eye on your personal energy and resource consumption, the best thing to do is simply be careful how much stuff you buy. We live in a consumer economy, and it’s truly hard to escape it entirely, but before you get sucked into Black Friday deals, take a beat and think about what you really want and need. Try not to fall into the “it’s on sale, so I should buy it now” mindset. Skipping the purchase will save you 100% of that money, and stepping away from the consumer mindset will save the environment a lot of resources as well.

For the items you do want to buy, consider going to the store in person rather than ordering it online. For items you do order online, try to group your purchases into as few shipments as possible and choose the slower shipment options to limit the emissions from deliveries. No matter what you’re looking to buy, try to buy high-quality items that will actually be used and will last, so those purchases don’t end up right in the landfill. And make sure to recycle the packaging if you can!

Thanksgiving should be a day of good food, friends, and family, not waste. Spend a little time planning how you want to include your favorite dishes and traditions this year, and with a little awareness, you can make sure your Thanksgiving celebrations are fun, abundant, and sustainable.  

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