Americans waste a ton of food, as a matter of course. Nearly 35 million tons, to be precise, are thrown away each year in the U.S., and the amount of food we trash triples during the period between Thanksgiving and New Year's.
But Thanksgiving day stands out as one of our most shameful showings of wastefulness -- an irony furthered by the fact that we're supposed to be expressing extra appreciation for what's on our plates. On this one day, Dana Gunders at the National Resource Defense Council estimates that we waste about 204 million pounds of turkey -- that's $277 million worth, or enough to provide every food-insecure household in America with 46(!) 4-ounce servings of meat.
This also has a massive climate impact: Gunders calculates that the energy used to produce that wasted turkey equates to adding an extra one million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere -- about the same as driving across the country 800,000 times -- and uses up 105 billion gallons of water -- enough to supply all of drought-stricken California for over two days. Once the food's relegated to a landfill, its impact only grows: it decomposes to create methane, a greenhouse gas that's some 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
The nice thing about food waste, though, is that enormous a problem as it is to consider, it's relatively simple to solve on an individual level: making more informed purchases, taking smaller portions and the creative use of leftovers are all things you can do to not be part of the problem. Regarding that second one, Michael Pollan came out with a brand new food rule urging us to take back control of our plates:
Supersized portions have become the bane of both our health and the health of the planet. Most of us eat what’s put in front of us, ignoring signals of satiety; the only possible outcomes are either overeating or food waste. Gluttony is never pretty, but when a billion people in the world are hungry, it becomes unconscionable. So if you’re serving yourself, take no more than you know you can finish; err on the side of serving yourself too little, since you can always go back for seconds. When you’re at a restaurant that serves Brobdingnagian portions, tell your server you’d prefer a modest serving and the option of asking for more if it doesn’t satisfy. To let others manipulate you by overfilling your plate is a wasteful concession to marketing and the very opposite of conscious eating. We need a movement to make reasonable portions and “seconds” the norm in restaurants. That way, the restaurant can still offer the perceived value of “all you can eat” but without the inevitable waste.
Jonathan Bloom, who blogs about food waste, recommends trying out this nifty Thanksgiving food calculator, which figures out just how much you have to buy to keep your guests happy without overdoing it.