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.
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!
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:
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.
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.