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Zero-waste Thanksgiving: how to celebrate sustainably this year

Thanksgiving will always have an important place in our hearts, but this year, in the midst of a pandemic and economic crisis, its meaning is more valuable than ever. 2020 might not be the year when we gather our entire extended family around the table, but if you are safe, in good health, and have a place to call home, that’s enough to make Thanksgiving special.

But the start of the holiday season also marks the beginning of another, less mindful tradition: food waste. Last year, around 200 million pounds of turkey, 40 million pounds of mashed potatoes, and 30 million pounds of stuffing ended up in trash cans, according to the US Chamber of Commerce. Although travel restrictions and social distancing guidelines might lead to lower waste levels this year, Americans are still expected to throw away large amounts of food, which is not good for the environment. Almost all the food we take to the bin ends up in a landfill, where it decays, producing greenhouse gases that further lead to air pollution.

As landfills around the Finger Lakes region are shutting down, it’s time to rethink the way we celebrate and make choices that have a lower impact on the environment.

Here are a few changes that anyone can implement this Thanksgiving to reduce food waste.

Cut down your ingredients by half

Ideally, we should cook in a way that promotes responsibility and mindfulness. In reality, the average American Thanksgiving dinner table has way more food than a family needs, and most of the leftovers go to the landfill. This year, the Thanksgiving feast will be smaller anyway since you won’t be able to invite the entire family, so why not reduce the amount of ingredients used by half? It might sound like a lot, but you’ll discover that you’ll have more than enough food for everyone, and even leftovers for the next couple of days.

Another trick is to coordinate recipes with other family members. If you have people coming over and they’ll bring their own casseroles, the dinner table will be overflowing with food. So, ask them what they want to bring and take that dish off the list. If you’re not sure how much food you need, you can always use an online tool that gives you an estimate based on the number of guests.

Rethink the traditional menu

Traditionally, the perfect Thanksgiving table has mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, and the mandatory turkey. But does your family really enjoy these foods, or are you cooking them just to cling to tradition? If there aren’t that many of you and part of the group are vegetarian, perhaps you can cook a smaller turkey or include some vegetarian options on the menu. Remember, Thanksgiving is about togetherness and gratitude, not irresponsible food consumption.

Source your ingredients responsibly

When buying ingredients for Thanksgiving food, we often go the extra mile and add to cart things that we may already have around the house. Before you go shopping, check your pantry, especially non-perishables, such as spices, sugar, and flour. You may already have enough.

As for the ingredients which you still need to buy, check to see if there are sustainable sources near you. For example, instead of buying herbs, fruits, and vegetables from the supermarket, you can get them from local vendors at the farmers’ market. Instead of getting the turkey from the meat aisle, ask if you can buy one from a local farm – not only does it taste better, but it also helps small local businesses, the meat is free from added hormones and antibiotics, and small farms have a much lower environmental impact compared to commercial animal farming.

Use leftovers creatively

After a delicious feast, you’re probably food and don’t want to eat the same food for days in a row. But you don’t have to. Instead of throwing away the leftovers, you can use them creatively for new recipes. With the leftover turkey, you can cook turkey soup, salads, or sandwiches.

With leftover mashed potatoes, you can cook potato croquettes, Irish cottage pie, or potato gratin. And if you really, really don’t want to see those leftovers again, you can always cook them into delicious treats for your pets!

Donate leftovers to a local restaurant

If you didn’t estimate ingredients correctly, or you simply have too many leftovers, donating is always an option. You can share your leftover meals with neighbors (respecting social distancing, of course), and, if not, there’s an app for that. For example, residents in the New York area can use an app to get paired with a local restaurant that picks up leftovers and donates them to anyone who wants them. New Yorkers waste over 1.3 million tons of food every year, which has a devastating impact on the environment in the long run, but it’s good to see that local restaurants are fighting waste by implementing sustainable solutions such as Miltek balers and collaborating with residents to make a difference.

Mind the decorations

Thanksgiving preparations also involve decorating the house – and that’s another neglected source of waste. To protect the environment, you should avoid single-use decorations as much as possible, because they’re made from plastics that are hard to recycle and end up in the landfill. And, as much as you hate doing the dishes, don’t use plastic cups and cutlery. You should also pay attention to cardboard gift boxes and wrapping paper. Most people assume that, since they’re made of paper, these objects are recyclable, but that’s not always the case. For example, if the box or paper has glitter or plastic elements on it, it risks clogging the gears of recycling machinery, so it will be sent to the landfill anyway. To be safe, double-check that the gift supplies are 100% recyclable, or ask at your local recycling supplier for guidance.

Remember that the first R in the three R strategy stands for Reuse, so keep this year’s decorations for later use instead of throwing them away.

Categories: FoodLife