INDIANAPOLIS – The billions of pounds in food waste Americans throw away each year amounts to almost 40% of the entire food supply, and emits millions of tons in greenhouse gases in landfills.
The most wasteful time of the year? The holidays.
Each year at Thanksgiving, tables are heavy with slices of turkey, mounds of mashed potatoes and platefuls of pie. But after the feast is done, piles of food scraps and uneaten leftovers find their way into the garbage.
Food is often cut off from oxygen when it’s piled up in a landfill. As a result, as it breaks down it releases methane, one of the strongest greenhouse gases. There’s so much food releasing methane in landfills around the world that the total emissions impact is more than that of any individual country, except the US and China.
About 200 million pounds of turkey alone are thrown out after Thanksgiving, said Yvette Cabrera, interim food waste director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The emissions from that leftover turkey is equivalent, she said, to what would be produced if every person in Jacksonville, Florida, climbed into their own car and took a trip – to San Francisco.
“That’s a ton of greenhouse gas emissions,” Cabrera said. “And when good food goes to waste, so does everything it takes to get it onto our plate.”
That includes, Cabrera said, the water and energy used to grow that food, package it, wash it and ship it to your local grocery store.
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This year, Thanksgiving gatherings will likely be smaller as people take precautions to social distance because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which could mean even more leftover food goes to waste.
So, how can you cut back on food waste this Thanksgiving?
Reducing food waste starts before you even hit the grocery store.
The key is knowing just how much food you’ll need to feed everybody without overdoing it. Cabrera suggests taking a moment before shopping to plan for everything you hope to cook and determine how much of each item you need.
“A lot of us have kind of deep-rooted associations between food on the table and our ability to care for our loved ones and sometimes we go a little bit overboard to be sure we won’t run out,” Cabrera said. “The most important thing is to plan your portions and figure out just how much you need to prepare.”
This practice – which can be applied throughout the year, she points out – could also save you money. The average family of four loses about $ 1,800 in wasted food each year.
And don’t forget about after the meal, too: going into Thanksgiving with a plan for leftovers ensures your lovingly made sweet potato casserole is enjoyed to the fullest extent possible.
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Nobody sets out to have a wasteful Thanksgiving, Cabrera said, and a handful of simple changes can save a lot of unused food from heading to the landfill.
Here are the steps she suggests you take.
Plan your portions
Before you even buy your ingredients, plan how much of each dish you’ll need to feed everyone this Thanksgiving, and buy only that amount. The NRDC offers a free online tool called the Guest-imator that helps you find out just how much of each ingredient you need, based on how many small, average and large eaters you have attending.
Shop your own kitchen
Don’t go to the grocery store without first checking your own refrigerator and kitchen cabinets for ingredients you can use. You might realize you only need one can of pumpkin puree, or that you could just as easily swap out your broccoli dish for asparagus to use up the last of your vegetables.
Skip the bird (if you dare)
“Many people gasp at this idea,” Cabrera said. But turkey, like others meats, has a larger environmental footprint than vegetarian options, which also means it’s more damaging when it’s tossed in the trash.
Researchers estimate turkey is responsible for almost two-thirds of the emissions produced by the entire meal.
Start off small
Large plates can encourage a guest to load up more food than they can eat, so simply giving guests smaller plates can prevent excess food waste.
“Start off small,” Cabrera said. “If anyone is still hungry after the first pass, then they can always go back for seconds.”
Get ready for leftovers recipes
Most Thanksgiving foods will last several days after the meal. And if the prospect of eating the same dinner five days in a row doesn’t entice you, try getting creative with making other kinds of food with your leftover ingredients. Cabrera said in her family, they make turkey soup and turkey sandwiches.
When in doubt, freeze it
Although people may not realize it, most Thanksgiving foods are easily freezable – even the turkey. If you don’t think you’ll be able to eat all of your leftovers before they go bad, consider packing them away in your freezer for a later date.
Some food scraps, like asparagus bottoms, banana peels or parts of the turkey, just won’t be eaten. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be used to help the environment.
Composting returns nutrients to the soil and allows the food to break down naturally. It can even be used as fertilizer for your garden.
“When you throw a food waste into a landfill or an incinerator, it creates really powerful greenhouse gases that are huge climate change drivers,” Cabrera said. “If we instead choose to separate our food scraps from the rest of our waste and make sure that it’s going to a beneficial outlet like composting, then it’s the flip side. We’re helping our food system instead of hurting it.”
Follow reporter London Gibson on Twitter @londongibson.
IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.
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