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Fight climate change by eating your leftovers this holiday season

Food waste is filling up landfills globally, but action can be taken

Photo illustration by Kristen Radtke / The Verge

In my family, there are two traditions when it comes to holiday meals: there must be way more food on the table than everyone can eat, and everyone must take home a plate of food at the end of the meal to make sure all the hard work that went into its preparation wasn’t wasted.

While small holiday gatherings have become the norm in my house in recent years, my mom still prepares big portions. When I asked her why, it boiled down to wanting to make sure there was enough for everyone, not just to enjoy the meal but to enjoy leftovers for as long as they wanted. That seemed perfectly reasonable to me — until I learned what a problem those leftovers are for the planet if they go to waste.

The holidays are a busy time for trash collectors. Americans throw away 25 percent more trash between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, including things like plastic from old tech and gift wrap. Food waste, which accounts for 30 to 40 percent of waste entering landfills year-round, also rises sharply during the holidays. During Thanksgiving week alone, Americans throw out roughly 200 million pounds of turkey meat, along with 30 million pounds of gravy and 14 million pounds of dinner rolls.

All told, that wasted food takes a serious toll on the planet. When thrown-away food makes its way to landfills and rots, it produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. That’s on top of the pollution released during the production of lost and wasted food — equivalent to 32.6 million cars’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions in the US alone.

Globally, the situation is even worse. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) stated in its 2021 Food Waste Index that if food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet, accounting for a staggering 10 percent of the total. Despite its obvious impact, food waste at the retail and consumer level and loss along the supply chain typically aren’t a focus in global climate change conversations, including the recent UN climate summit in Glasgow. “People don’t see the link at all,” Liz Goodwin, director of food loss and waste at the World Resources Institute, tells The Verge. “It was disappointing that we had COP26, and food was hardly on the agenda.”

That said, change is starting to happen on a smaller scale. States and local governments across the US have taken note of how food waste and climate change intertwine and are enacting pilot programs or new rules to crack down on waste. Composting programs, both municipal and independently run, are making inroads in US cities and states looking to reduce the amount of waste entering landfills and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Chris Wood, co-president of Moonshot Compost, a Houston-based composting company, said there’s a real opportunity in attracting people to composting services. Composting companies work with households, offices, and businesses by collecting their food waste via curbside collection programs or at drop-off locations around the city. For Wood and co-president Joe Villa, an uptick in demand for their composting service came during the pandemic when residents began paying closer attention to how much food they were buying due to them spending more time at home.

Composting services give community members an opportunity to reduce their food waste, but participation in these programs is voluntary. In California, a new law requiring residents to separate all organic material like food and yard waste from their other garbage is set to go into effect on January 1st. City and county trash services will collect the food waste and turn it into compost or renewable biogas. Grocery stores, meanwhile, will be required to donate any edible food they collect to organizations like food banks, AP reported.

California’s law follows a similar one in Vermont, which banned throwing out food with the trash last year, AP said. Eventually, the Golden State could fine $10,000 to cities and counties that don’t comply with the rule.

Streamlining food date labels could also reduce food waste. With no national standards around these labels and manufacturers using numerous phrases to indicate shelf life like best by, expires on, use by, sell by and more, consumers are often left guessing how good a piece of food is to eat by smelling it or eyeballing it. Or, not wanting to take a chance, they may choose to throw away perfectly good food if the label date has passed.

“The absence of having standard, clear labels means that the consumer is forced to trust the date blindly,” Marie Spiker, a researcher and assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Public Health, tells The Verge. “Consumers end up throwing away a lot of food they don’t have to, and the burden is on the consumer to do a lot of research.”

Reducing food waste through sound policy will ultimately help us tackle climate change. If done correctly, such policies could also alleviate food insecurity. Grocery stores giving food that would otherwise be thrown out to food banks could help some of the 54 million Americans who are food insecure get their next meal.

But individual action can also play a huge role in tackling food waste, particularly in the US, where households waste roughly 32 percent of the food they buy on average. Put another way, a family of four throws out about $1,500 worth of food each year.

“One of the most powerful tools we have is just to directly decrease our own waste in our homes,” Spiker said. “It’s also really challenging to do because most of our waste is happening in this very diffuse way.”

When I started thinking about how my family and I prepare meals during the holidays, it became clear that we could be doing more to reduce food waste and that planning goes a long way. While we’re cooking our plates of sides and mac and cheese, one of the things I’ll be thinking about is how to repurpose the leftovers. I’m also asking myself if the portions we’re cooking are realistic and where we can cut back.

In the midst of a holiday season where climate change is an urgent reality, I have an opportunity to be mindful of the waste I create and, by doing so, help those who don’t have the time or resources to think about sustainability. It’s a small step, but if enough other people take similar action, it’ll give the planet a breather at a time when that’s badly needed.

Correction December 22nd, 11:50AM ET: An earlier version of this story misquoted Spiker as saying the lack of clear food labels means consumers are forced to trust data blindly. In fact, she said consumers are forced to trust the date blindly. We regret the error.