Between Thanksgiving and New Years, the amount of waste we produce increases by about 1 million extra tons or 25%. That’s a lot of Sears ads, leftovers, Saran wrap, and Amazon boxes. In the United States, food waste makes up about 21% of what actually gets discarded-- the highest category above plastics (which is at 17.7%). All of that waste is ending up in landfills or incinerators and is not used again. Food waste in those landfills is breaking down and releasing a number of different gases, most notably methane and carbon dioxide, with methane being a greenhouse gas about 20 times as potent as CO2. According to the EPA, landfills make up about 18% of all methane emissions in the U.S. Not only does this excess waste take up space and release methane, it’s wasting valuable food that cannot be used again (unless we count methane-capture systems as renewable energy, which we shouldn’t, and is a whole other conversation for another day). So, how can we address this? We can start at home and take a few steps toward a less wasteful holiday season.
I will diverge a bit from the three R's (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle) and say we can follow the 2 R’s + C, Reduce, Reuse, and Compost
Reduce: It’s no surprise that not creating the waste in the first place is the best way to keep things out of landfills. It’s easy to go crazy during the holidays, everything is displayed nicely in stores, food is on sale (except maybe not canned pumpkin), and making homemade food with family is a great comfort. But, between 30-50% of food worldwide never even makes it to the plate. So, try and make sure that you are using what you buy.
Make a pointed grocery list before you go to the store, and stick to it. (And, remember to use your reusable bag, but be warned, it could make you buy more junk food)
If you do get something extra, ask a relative or friend if they need any of those important ingredients.
Feel free to donate the excess to a food bank or homeless shelter nearby. They are always accepting donations and having extra can be a great comfort around the holidays.
Reuse: After you’ve made and ate all of the delicious food you can handle, it’s time to deal with leftovers. We can’t “reuse” food in the way we can reuse old t-shirts or cereal boxes, but there are ways to eliminate the waste.
Be prepared for leftovers with reusable containers. Consider them your back-up to a day (or many days) of excess. Bring extra for family members, or suggest they bring their own. You can share the wealth and everyone can get a home-cooked meal later in the week.
Get creative with leftovers. There are entire pages on food blogs dedicated to reusing old leftovers, so try a new recipe out.
Compost: Composting is a great way to handle old food waste and create nutrient-rich soil that can be used in gardens, or potted plants.
A backyard pile is perfect for anyone with a backyard and a good mixture of yard and food waste. The recipe is simple: “One part green, two parts brown, makes the compost to ground. Add some water and some soil, turning is the only toil.” Green materials are those with a high nitrogen content, like grasses, flowers, and fruit and veggie scraps. Brown materials are those with high carbon content, like dry leaves, dead potted plants, and straw. For those of you worried about winter, here are some winter composting tips.
A worm compost or vermicompost is great for folks in apartments, or those who want nutrient rich vermicast to use in their garden. Because you’re making a mini-ecosystem, it requires a bit more attention. Old fruit and veggie scraps, bread, and newspaper are examples of what can go in this compost. All you need is a plastic tub with a lid, drill, newspaper, red wigglers, food scraps, some soil, and directions. You can keep your worm bin where it’s not too hot or cold. If you take proper care, you won’t even notice it’s there.
The possibilities of what we can do to reduce the waste sent landfills are numerous. Hopefully, these tips will help you make it through the holidays without wasting too much food. If you have other ideas or something that worked well, share that information with others. You can count it as doubling your environmental handprint. Food is delicious and should be appreciated, so making sure we are making the most of it, and sharing it with the people we love is most important.
Happy (yummy) holidays!
MacKenzie Maxwell, Environmental Educator