Eat Those Turkey Leftovers, Reduce Greenhouse Gases

In the days after feasting on Thanksgiving dinner, Americans will be throwing away millions of tons of leftovers, and that waste comes with a potentially unappreciated environmental cost: emissions of potent greenhouse gases.

Food disposed of in landfills slowly rots and releases methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest global greenhouse gas emitter, after only the U.S. and China.

Just the amount of turkey thrown out on Thanksgiving will emit the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of cross-country car trips.

Credit: Climate Central

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency have introduced programs to limit food waste, and thousands of businesses have jumped on board. But there are also ways to prevent food waste at home, including those unwanted Thanksgiving leftovers, which can be sent home with guests or donated to a local shelter.

Thanksgiving “really is a time we think of the value of food, we think about farmers, we think about the bounty we are so lucky to have in this country,” making it “a good time to focus people’s attention on the issues of food waste,” Elise Golan, director for sustainable development for the USDA, said.

Wasted Food, Excess Emissions

Food waste happens for many different reasons, from not meeting the grocery industry’s strict aesthetic standards, to confusion over what a “best-by” date really means.

In the United States, an estimated 40 percent of food is lost between farm and consumer, amounting to about 20 pounds of food tossed per person every month. Much of that ends up in landfills, where it accounts for more than 20 percent of waste material, according to the EPA.

“Food waste is an inefficiency in the system,” Martin Heller, of the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan, said.

Emissions don’t just come from decomposing food; producing that food — especially items like beef and dairy that have a large carbon footprint — also has associated emissions.

Credit: churl/flickr

The greenhouse gases resulting from the production of food ultimately not consumed contributes the equivalent of “the emissions of 33 million average passenger vehicles annually,” according to a paper co-authored by Heller.

The USDA estimates that 35 percent of turkey meat cooked on Thanksgiving gets thrown out. The greenhouse gas emissions that go into producing that wasted turkey are equivalent to 800,000 car trips from New York to San Francisco.

“I just don’t think many people think about food waste in that perspective,” Heller said.

‘Momentum Growing’

As of 2012, less than 5 percent of food waste was being recovered for composting or other recycling. While composting is a great way to recycle nutrients, it is not available in every community, and “from a greenhouse gas emissions standpoint, usually does not score very well,” Heller said.

Turning food waste into pig feed, or capturing the methane from rotting food and using it for fuel, could be better alternatives, he said.

The USDA has also implemented a variety of food loss reduction efforts, from expanding composting to reducing food loss earlier in the production chain. One example is their rural development grants, which have been used to develop educational programs alongside composting programs in rural areas of the United States.

“Even modest programs can be quite effective,” Golan said. “That’s where you build up from the community level and ultimately have the biggest impact.”

In September 2015, the USDA and EPA announced a new goal to reduce food waste by 50 percent at the retail and consumer levels by 2030, by working with local governments, charitable organizations, and the private sector, as well as on educational outreach to teach consumers ways to reduce food loss and waste.

Fifteen major companies, including General Mills, Kellogg Company, PepsiCo, and Walmart, have pledged to meet the 2030 goal, the USDA said. And more than 4,500 businesses have signed up for another USDA/EPA initiative, the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, which began in 2013 to reduce, recover, and recycle food waste.

“We can see momentum growing,” Golan said.

The USDA also funds the research and development of new ways to add value to products that would have otherwise been wasted. One product coming out of this program takes fruits and vegetables that don’t meet industry aesthetic standards and turns them into “chips.”

Even though food waste is a year-round problem, Thanksgiving, a holiday centered around excessive quantities of food, is a great time to begin thinking about it and preventing all that extra turkey and stuffing from going to waste. The USDA says leftovers can be safely frozen for up to a year, and some shelters may also be able to accept donated leftovers.