To many, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the holiday season—a time for togetherness, cheer… and, unfortunately, 25% more U.S. waste generation than any other time in the year.
Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, Americans send an additional one million pounds of trash to landfill every week. And not to be overshadowed by the December celebrations, convenience-factor flatware choices, inevitable spill cleanup, and a feast’s worth of food scraps have made Turkey Day increasingly wasteful.
But, it doesn’t have to be.
By following a few simple tips for waste reduction and recycling, you’ll have the opportunity to make sustainability a Thanksgiving tradition.
Tip #1: Reduce Food Waste
Food waste is already the largest single source of waste in the U.S. About 35 million tons of food waste and other organics head to landfill each year, making up nearly a quarter of all American landfill space. Decaying anaerobically in tightly packed heaps, food scraps release methane—resulting in landfill-bound food waste being accountable for 9% of human-related greenhouse gas emissions.
But the single day of Thanksgiving might have the most mind-blowing food waste statistics of all. 35% of a Thanksgiving turkey is thrown away, equivalent to 200 million pounds tossed out every Thanksgiving. More than just the bird, around 25% of the overall feast is discarded, too.
What to do: Compost all organic material, like vegetables, fruits, coffee grinds, and breads—basically, anything that doesn’t include animal proteins and fats. For the latter, that means packaging up apportioned leftovers of turkey and gravy for friends and family instead of throwing it away.
If you don’t have a composting setup or service, consider upcycling those scraps into new recipes. In fact, IKEA offers a free cookbook, The ScrapsBook, that gives you inspiration for giving a delicious second chance to leftovers and discards.
Tip #2: Use Less Plastic
No supermarket chain in the United States reports its plastic footprint, but of the 14.5 million tons of plastic containers and packaging, there’s consensus that products bought in the grocery store are a primary source of waste.
Think about it in the context of your Thanksgiving meal, where the idea of hosting friends and family demands time-saving convenience. Diced yams, charcuterie plates, take-and-bake pie boxes with clear windows—anything “pre-packaged,” “single-use,” or “disposable” will likely be easy for you but hard for recyclers.
No surprise: Less than 14% of the nearly 86 million tons of plastic packaging annually produced around the world is recycled. And, by the EPA’s count, that doesn’t include all the plastic plates, utensils, and garbage liners we go through each Thanksgiving.
What to do: Combining themes with Tip 1, package any leftovers for friends and family in glass Mason jars or empty glass sauce containers. By choosing a plastic alternative like glass, you can be assured that the recipient is gaining a container that’s reusable, easily recyclable, and dishwasher safe!
Additionally, no matter the size of your gathering, putting eco-conscious practices before convenience can drastically reduce waste. Use your ceramic plates and metal silverware instead of paper or plastic—if everyone pitches in, clean-up will still be a snap.
Tip #3: Recycle as Much as Possible
Caught up in the heat of the moment or the drowsiness of post-turkey feasting, it’s common to throw away the whole lot rather than attempt to sort out the recycling. But recycling should be a tradition upheld no matter the occasion.
To alleviate the burden of determining what is and what is not recyclable, we’re providing the likely material and recyclability of common items found all around the cornucopia.
Canned cranberry sauce or pumpkin purée: Aluminum or steel cans are widely recyclable.
Boxed pie crusts and stuffing mixes: Commonly contained in paperboard, these boxes can be broken down and recycled.
Whipped cream cans: Aluminum “spray” whipped cream cans are recyclable, but ensure they’re completely empty of aerosol and remove the plastic cap.
Egg cartons: Foam cartons are not recyclable. Cardboard cartons are both compostable and recyclable.
Boxed turkey, chicken, or vegetable stock: A combination of paper, polyethylene, and sometimes aluminum (such as those in Tetra Pak containers) makes recycling more difficult for stocks in cartons. You’ll need to search your zip code to see if it can be recycled.
Plastic butter tubs: Usually crafted with polypropylene (the #5 plastic), curbside collection may or may not be accepted depending on your area. While infrastructure for #5 is rapidly scaling, currently, only 31% of Americans can put those containers in their bin. When in doubt, check your hauler’s website.
Wine bottles: Wine and beer bottles are infinitely recyclable as long as glass is accepted locally.
Pie tins and aluminum foil: Always a shock, many haulers reject aluminum foil, cake pans, and pie tins because of their high likelihood of contamination. Check with your hauler.
Used paper plates, napkins, and paper towels: Given that napkins and paper towels are typically only discarded after cleaning up spills or removing food residue from fingers, these are not recyclable. The soiled and degraded paper fibers cannot be used to create new paper products.
Do your best, consider the 5 Rs at every step, and enjoy the holiday!