Commentary: About all those leftovers no one is going to eat

By Rachel Felver
Posted 11/27/21

Forty-five million turkeys, 50 million pumpkin pies and 40 million green bean casseroles. No matter which way you look at it, Americans eat a lot every Thanksgiving, which also means a lot of wasted food. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that 172 million pounds of turkey, 30 million pounds of gravy, 40 million pounds of mashed potatoes and 38 million pounds of stuffing are wasted just this one day each year.

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Commentary: About all those leftovers no one is going to eat

Posted

Forty-five million turkeys, 50 million pumpkin pies and 40 million green bean casseroles. No matter which way you look at it, Americans eat a lot every Thanksgiving, which also means a lot of wasted food. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that 172 million pounds of turkey, 30 million pounds of gravy, 40 million pounds of mashed potatoes and 38 million pounds of stuffing are wasted just this one day each year.

The nonprofit ReFED estimates that 35% of all food in the United States went unsold or uneaten in 2019, translating into an approximate loss of $408 billion. And with 38 million people in the United States classified as “food insecure,” we need to be doing something differently.

 Environmental impacts

Most people don’t realize the negative impact that food waste has on our environment. When food piles up in a landfill and begins to decompose, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), methane is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide. To give you an idea of how significant this is, global food waste produces a larger carbon footprint than the airline industry does. Overall, it emits approximately 8% of the world’s total greenhouse gases, meaning that if food waste were a country, it would come in third only behind the United States and China.

 Food waste strains our finite water resources and contributes to water pollution. Growing, processing, packaging, storing, shipping, transporting and preparing food takes an inordinate amount of water. Researchers have found that about 25% of all fresh water consumed in the United States each year is associated with discarded food, resulting in $172 billion in wasted water.

 Growing surplus food that just goes to waste ends up squandering 18% of farmland and takes up 21% of our landfills. With a growing population and increasing development, we do not have land to waste. Cultivating this extra agricultural land uses 19% more fertilizer, and overall contributes to the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay and the waters in your backyard.

 Preventing food waste

In 2015, EPA, in coordination with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, set a goal to cut the nation’s food waste by 50% by 2030. Here are ways in which you can help, right at home:

  • Cook with intention. Before going to the grocery store, make a list and only buy the ingredients you need. Label what you buy with the date in which you bought it, so you can keep track of its expiration date. Experts believe 37% of food waste is due to items getting tossed out in the home.
  • Buy local. Food produced locally is usually fresher and will last longer. Additionally, purchasing local food items will not only help reduce greenhouse gas emissions but will support businesses in your community. To get started, take a look at the Potomac Conservancy’s guide to buying local food.
  • Compost. When food is placed in compost bins, microbes convert that organic matter into nutrient-rich soil, helping to keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and producing valuable fertilizer. Begin composting at home and check out if your community participates.
  • Advocate. Contact your local elected officials and ask them to support policies and programs that advance composting, food-recovery programs or decreasing food waste.
  • Support businesses that prioritize reducing food waste. Some local restaurants and grocery stores participate in food-recovery programs that direct unused food to shelters or soup kitchens. Others provide food waste to farms or businesses with anaerobic digesters, which can convert methane into electricity. Unused food can also be turned into fertilizer, construction material and animal bedding.
  • Donate. If you have extra food, consider donating to a local food bank.
  • Excess Food Opportunities Map. EPA has created a map that lists areas of opportunity from around the country to divert excess food waste (e.g., hospitals or restaurants) and over 5,000 organizations that are looking for food donations to make these important connections.

Rachel Felver is the director of communications for the Chesapeake Bay Program, where this was first published.