Those Thanksgiving Leftovers? They’re Killing the Planet

Cutting Holiday Food Waste Starts at the Store

Thanksgiving kicks off the season’s overconsumption. (Photo credit: Satya Murthy/Flickr.)

Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, Americans throw out 25 percent more trash than the rest of the year. Holiday flights and cross-country road trips spike greenhouse gas emissions. Gifts come shrouded in plastic, which winds up in landfills and oceans.

Not to be too much of a Debbie Downer, but the holidays are tough on the planet. All of that overconsumption at the expense of wildlife and the environment starts with the Thanksgiving feast and the food waste that gets served up with it.

About 200 million pounds of turkey will be thrown away at Thanksgiving. More than 150 million pounds of potatoes, green beans and other vegetable sides will never get eaten. Bread baskets will be filled with an estimated 14 million pounds of dinner rolls that will simply be dumped after the big meal.

All of that wasted food comes with nearly half a million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. It wastes more than 200 gallons of water per person. And producing that uneaten food contributes to habitat loss, pesticide use and other threats to wildlife.

But poorly planned family dinners don’t deserve all the blame for the piles of wasted food at Thanksgiving. Even though more than 40 percent of wasted food gets thrown out by households, grocery stores play an important role in influencing what you buy in the first place. And nearly as much food waste happens at stores before ingredients even reach your shopping cart.

Earlier this year, the Center for Biological Diversity, where I work, analyzed and graded food-waste reduction commitments and policies in the 10 largest grocery companies in the United States. We found that nine of the companies failed to publicly report their total food waste, and six hadn’t made specific commitments to reduce food waste.

Even the companies working to address food waste seem to shelve efforts when the holidays roll around.

Grocery stores influence what ends up in your cart. (Photo credit: arbyreed/Flickr.)

Walmart, which earned the highest grade in the report with a B, leaves waste reduction off the table in its online resources for Thanksgiving.

Its “helpful ingredient checklist” includes four different kinds of meat. The printable version of the checklist assumes you’ll be serving three different kinds of pie. Walmart also recommends 1.5 pounds of turkey per person, although many chefs suggest one pound and a regular serving size is only 2 to 3 ounces.

Walmart isn’t alone in promoting the kind of indulgent over-purchasing that leads to waste. Supermarket Thanksgiving promotions are laden with pressure to buy more food than you’ll need. This may help their sales, but it results in people spending more than necessary and only shifts the burden of throwing out excess food to their customers.

Instead of promoting huge portion sizes, grocery stores should help their customers plan holiday meals that minimize food waste. While customers are grateful for savings when entertaining, sales should be built into per item costs, not based on bulk purchasing.

Although Kroger has a section on their website for Thanksgiving tips and Albertsons/Safeway offers an app that helps shoppers plan their purchases, neither company has taken advantage of these tools to provide resources for customers to rein in holiday waste.

And there’s more supermarkets can do. Billions of pounds of edible produce is wasted simply because it doesn’t meet strict cosmetic standards for size, shape or color, but no one can tell the difference once it’s been chopped, pureed or cooked. Stores should use imperfect fruits and vegetables in their prepared sides, like cranberry sauces, green bean casseroles and other dishes. And, since imperfect produce is often cheaper, this is another way companies can pass cost savings onto customers.

American grocery companies should also publish how much food is being wasted throughout their operations. Without accurate data, it’s hard to know just how big the problem is and the most effective ways to address it. By better understanding how much food is wasted during the holidays, stores and customers can adjust their purchases to reduce the environmental cost of the season.

Now’s the perfect time for grocery companies to double down on their commitment to fight food waste with increased accountability and customer support that doesn’t center on excess. I know my holiday dinner won’t be ruined if there are fewer than three desserts, or even if we skip the turkey altogether.

Stephanie Feldstein is the population and sustainability director at the Center for Biological Diversity.