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sustainable thanksgiving

Have a Sustainable Thanksgiving

By Tobias RobertsRise Writer
Nov 9, 2018

Now that Halloween has come and gone, the holiday season is ready to begin with full force. It won’t be long before Christmas lights start to shine around the neighborhood, and the local mall begins to advertise their holiday specials. Thanksgiving Day is one of the most important American holidays and one that millions of families of all faiths and traditions celebrate. At the same time, the ecological cost of raising 46 million turkeys and then shipping them around the country each year takes its toll on the environment. Fortunately, there are ways to reduce the environmental impact of one of the most important family holidays. Below, we offer a few ideas to help make your Thanksgiving a green and sustainable celebration of thankfulness. 

dabbing turkey
Photo Credit: Tee Public

What is the Environmental Impact of Thanksgiving? 

Almost all holidays in the United States coincide with a noticeable spike in consumer purchases. While this might be good for the economy, the amount of stuff that is purchased during each national holiday certainly comes with an ecological price tag. During the 2018 holiday season, one report estimates that consumers will spend 4.1 percent more than they did during last year, for an average shopping bill of $1,007.24. Though much of this spending occurs after the infamous Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Thanksgiving Day celebration are another important contribution to the holiday spending spree. 

Thanksgiving dinner is one of the essential parts of this holiday. While the opportunity to share a home-cooked meal with family members from near and far is a moment worth celebrating, that roasted turkey and the guests seated around your table come with a sizeable carbon footprint. 

According to recent research conducted by the University of Manchester in England, the average Thanksgiving dinner for a family of eight contributes around 44 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. Much of these emissions stem from the turkey itself, though the transportation costs also factor into the equation. 

Cars in America emit around one pound of CO2 for each mile traveled. If you have invited family and friends from out of state to visit your home for a Thanksgiving dinner, the distance traveled adds to the total carbon footprint. For folks who fly, the amount of CO2 emitted per mile increases to 53 pounds, which will only increase the footprint of your family get together. 

The Environmental Cost of Tom the Turkey

For many families, the opportunity to share a meal and gather together is an important annual event. If you can’t find ways to reduce the environmental impact of the necessary travel, there are ways to reduce other aspects of the ecological cost associated with Thanksgiving. 

For starters, there is an enormous difference between a locally-sourced free-range turkey that you purchase from a local farmer and the generic Butterball turkey that you buy at your local supermarket. 

According to one recent study by the World Resources Institute, industrial farms around the world contributed over 6 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions 2011. This was equivalent to 13 percent of total global emissions. The industrial agriculture sector is the world’s second-largest contributor to global warming after the energy sector. 

Almost nine out of every ten American families eat turkey on Thanksgiving, and just four industrial agriculture corporations produce at least half of those turkeys. The industrial process of raising these turkeys release large amounts of CO2 emissions. It also takes almost 1 million barrels of oil to produce and ship turkeys across the country. 

Before you decide to ditch your traditional turkey dinner for roast beef, however, it is worth noting that turkey has a much lower environmental cost than beef. Each kilo of beef that you eat is responsible for up to 27 grams kg of CO2, while turkey only contributes 10.9 kg of CO2 emissions. By changing your Thanksgiving dinner menu from turkey to beef, you can expect to almost triple the accumulated environmental footprint. 

However, there are ways to even further reduce the CO2 emissions of the main course of your Thanksgiving dinner. Raising turkeys (or any other animal) in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), releases large amounts of nitrogen and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere and environment through the accumulation of manure. When animals are penned up in concentrated feeding operations, they rely on commercial animal feed. This feed is often sourced from soybeans grown in Argentina and corn grown in Iowa. The processing and transport of poultry feed are known to cause between 64 to 72 percent of the global warming potential of intensive poultry raising systems. 

Turkey raised by local farmers are often raised on pasture. They forage for their food and leave their manure spread around the farm where it contributes to increased soil fertility. Free-range turkeys that are purchased locally also radically reduce the ecological cost that comes with transporting animals across the country and is also much healthier and better-tasting.

The Ecological Cost of Food Waste

Another major contributor to the ecological footprint of Thanksgiving is the amount of food that is wasted. Surprisingly, food waste contributes to almost 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Both due to the environmental cost of producing food and emissions that come with sending organic waste to the landfill. In the United States, food is the single-largest component of waste with around 133 billion pounds of food ending up in the garbage each year.

One easy solution to reducing the carbon footprint of your Thanksgiving celebration is not to throw away your leftovers. Consider inviting people over for a “day-after” celebration to help you get rid of the number of leftovers taking up space in your refrigerator. If the mega-turkey you purchased left you with an enormous amount of uneaten food, use your freezer to keep that turkey fresh and edible for several months into the future. 

Natural and Recycled Decorating Ideas

Instead of heading to your local party store to purchase some uninspiring and conventional Thanksgiving decorations (probably made from plastic and shipped from China), it’s possible to add a bit of authentic Thanksgiving charm to your home by using natural materials that you can find around your home.

Unless you live in Florida, the chances are that your backyard is filled with fallen leaves. Scavenging for a collection of brightly-colored fall leaves will give you the raw ingredients to come up with some unique leaf art creations that you can use to decorate your home. Glue the most eye-catching fall leaves onto an old piece of plywood and place around your home. Autumn leaves can also be glued to the outside of a used mason jar for a beautiful candle holder that will add to the Thanksgiving ambiance.

Instead of purchasing plastic pumpkins and gourds to decorate your table, a trip to your local farmers market will net you dozens of different colored and shaped real gourds. Brightly colored Indian corn can also be hung around the home for a natural Thanksgiving decorating idea.

Thanksgiving is an important annual celebration to share with family members and to show gratitude for the gifts that we’ve been given. By purchasing local, free-range turkeys, freezing leftovers, and coming up with some creative, natural decorating ideas, you can limit the environmental impact of this holiday season.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2020-07-21T14:25:08+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.