Each year, an American family of four loses $1,500 on average because of uneaten food, the USDA says — that’s about 1,160 pounds never consumed. Habits during Thanksgiving week and the winter holidays can contribute a big slice of that total.
Many families feel pressure to follow Thanksgiving’s culinary traditions and are home from work and school to indulge. Some may miscalculate how much they’ll actually eat once gathered around the table and how quickly interest in leftovers will fade.
Between Thanksgiving and the New Year, 25% more trash is produced than during the rest of the year, although that extends beyond food. On Thanksgiving Day alone, 200 million pounds of turkey, 150 million pounds of sides and 14 million pounds of dinner rolls are estimated to go to waste nationwide.
“‘Tis the season for food waste? It’s estimated [by USDA figures] that between 30%-40% of the food supply goes to waste each year, with the heaviest losses occurring now during the holiday season and millions of pounds of uneaten turkey, green beans, mashed potatoes and other seasonal trimmings, unfortunately, will end up in landfills,” said Maen Mahfoud, founder and CEO of Replate.
“Don’t be afraid to speak up to generous guests who want to contribute; coordinate ahead of time to avoid repeat dishes.”
Mahfound uses Replate ‘s technology to speed up and automate “food rescue” or transferring uneaten supplies from companies, including Doordash
as well as restaurants, to nonprofits or families in need. Just this one tech firm, formed in 2016, has recovered 2.7 million pounds of food, delivering 2.28 million meals, according to company figures.
“The beauty of technology is that it doesn’t only make doing the right thing easy but also it helps us scale its impact faster. When you give people or businesses the right tool to prevent food waste or donate their surplus food then you solved half of the battle,” he said. “The other half of the battle is to change norms around food waste. Talking about food waste on certain days a year or holidays is not enough. We need to engage with it on a daily basis at home and at work.”
Holidays are also the time that the disparities between higher and lower income brackets in the U.S. are made more clear, although food insecurity and excess produce, meat, dairy and packaged goods dumped in methane-producing landfills — a contributor to global warming — is a year-round issue.
Even Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, has conditionally dangled $6 billion of his personal fortune to help the United Nations feed the world.
In 2018, government data estimated that over 37 million Americans were food insecure. By December 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed people out of the workforce and pushed up food costs through shortages and revived demand, that figure had risen to 38.3 million people, or 10.5% of U.S. households.
Cutting down on waste can do your household budget, your personal carbon footprint and the nation’s food system a service. Considering these tips for Thanksgiving is a good place to start:
Make a list to avoid overbuying
“Before you go to the grocery store or order online, plan and make a list to reduce the chance that you’ll buy more than you need. Research shows that making a written list can help shoppers avoid impulse purchases, which may include foods they don’t need,” says Jean Buzby, an economist who serves as USDA’s Food Loss and Waste Liaison.
“For turkey, one rule of thumb is to plan for one pound per person, or a pound and a half if you want leftovers,” Buzby says.
Don’t be afraid to speak up to generous guests who want to contribute; coordinate ahead of time to avoid repeat dishes and excess quantities. And, get in the habit of cutting recipes in half if that’s more appropriate for your group size.
Think of scraps as merely another source of inspiration. You might freeze vegetable peelings and meat trimmings for stock for future culinary creations. Or think of the right-now: you can season potato peelings and bake them into chips, while extra rolls and bread going stale can be made into bread pudding.
“Place food in clear containers marked with the contents and date.”
Buzby has more tips: take an extra beat and think about how you’re packing up leftovers, she says. Place food in clear containers marked with the contents and date. Let guests who are taking home extras choose their favorite dishes so that their take-away containers match what they’ll actually eat. For example, guests who only like white turkey meat would likely waste a leftover drumstick or wing.
Remember that overwhelming landfills is an issue, even when some of the food can biodegrade. That’s were composting comes in.
Composting food scraps creates the nutrient-rich fill that can help your garden grow. Those new to composting, might try these composting resources from the Environmental Protection Agency or see if your city or county have services. When composting, make sure to only toss organics in the collection container and keep out produce stickers and noncompostable plastic bags, service ware or utensils.
Lastly, consider donations if you have extra cans of pumpkin pie filling, green beans and cranberry sauce, or really any food with a shelf life. Try the Feeding America website or EPA’s Excess Food Opportunities Map to find a food bank nearby. AmpleHarvest.org allows users to search food pantries by ZIP code and shows the search results on an interactive map.
Food waste happens from farm to fridge
From farm to fridge, food loss takes place along the production and consumption pipeline. Early on, loss can arise from problems during drying, milling, transporting or processing that expose food to damage by insects, rodents, birds, molds and bacteria.
At the retail level, equipment malfunction (such as faulty cold storage), over-ordering and culling of blemished produce can result in food loss. Consumers also contribute to food loss when they buy or cook more than they need and choose to throw out the extras.
“‘The pandemic has also led some Americans to focus more on what does not get eaten.’”
— Sheril Kirshenbaum, executive director of the nonprofit Science Debate.
The impact can be far-reaching. Wholesome food that could have helped feed families in need is sent to landfills. Plus, land, water, labor, energy and other efforts are used in producing, processing, transporting, preparing, storing and disposing of discarded food.
“The pandemic has also led some Americans to focus more on what does not get eaten. One in 4 of our respondents (27%) [to a Michigan State University poll] said they were paying more attention to food waste,” said Sheril Kirshenbaum, a science writer and researcher with the university and the executive director of the nonprofit Science Debate.
“Given that food waste globally accounts for 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and that the U.S. wastes between 30% and 40% of its food supply while 6.1 million U.S. children currently live in food-insecure households, reducing food waste has the potential to address multiple challenges at the same time,” Kirshenbaum writes with research partner Douglas Buhler, in a commentary.
Goal to cut food waste by 50% by 2030
In 2015, the USDA joined with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set a goal to cut our nation’s food waste by 50% by the year 2030. The nation knows it has a problem when it comes to dumping food. Efforts so far are mostly a patchwork of initiatives, but many are scalable if cities and households see the benefits.
At a September conference that brought together U.S.-based state and city officials, academics and lawmakers touting European examples to reduce waste, Josh Kelly of the Vermont State Waste Management and Prevention Division highlighted what he views as the state’s successful Universal Recycling Law. The law bans the landfilling of all food waste, including household waste.
Todd Lawrence from Urban Green Lab shared Nashville’s Food Waste Initiative’s multi-faceted approach, which includes using composted food waste in the landscaping around government buildings. And Sarah Feteih from the San Diego Food System Alliance shared how her city’s online competition engaged residents in food waste tracking challenges and reduced household-level food waste by 38%.
In 2019, the New York City Department of Sanitation expanded its trash separation rules, proposing that even more food-related businesses would be required to separate organic waste.
Packaging is its own issue
Food, plus packaging, makes up about 45% of all the materials in U.S. landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Earlier this month, it pushed into service a new insulated packaging for frozen and chilled foods from Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods Market made from recycled paper. The new delivery vessel is curbside recyclable. Grocery deliveries can include turkey, green beans or frosty pints of ice cream, it said, because the packaging eliminates the need for plastic liners or bubble-bag insulation.
Moving to all curbside-recyclable insulation packaging reduces material waste, and each year replaces approximately 735,000 pounds of plastic film, 3.15 million pounds of natural cotton fiber and 15 million pounds of non-recyclable mixed plastic, Amazon says.