The Carbon Footprint of a Thanksgiving Meal & How to Lower It
Thanksgiving kicks off the holiday season as the second most celebrated holiday in the US. Whether your traditions are old or new, the entire country gathers around a table that features a holiday feast. A new report from Brightly steps back from the Thanksgiving table to examine the sustainability of the nationwide meal, detailing the carbon footprint of each signature Thanksgiving dish.
Brightly’s report ranks carbon emissions based on the average 12 person table during this holiday dinner. The study highlights that the central problem is the most popular centerpiece for the Thanksgiving feast: Turkey. Turkey is the centerpiece for 81 percent of Thanksgiving tables across the United States, presenting a substantial environmental impact for a single day. Other dishes include pork stuffing, cranberry sauce, pie, and mashed potatoes.
Brightly’s report aims to raise awareness during the holiday season by asking people to consider introducing more eco-friendly and plant-based options without abandoning all of their traditional dishes. The report is meant to visualize the impact that a single dinner can have on the planet, further advocating for plant-based and eco-friendly solutions beyond the Thanksgiving table.
"No one is expected to forgo their favorite holiday dishes in order to reduce their carbon footprint, but we can all take small steps in order to make it a more planet-friendly feast,” Co-Founder and CMO of Brightly Liza Moiseeva said. “We recommend making vegetable stuffing instead of pork stuffing, using non-dairy swaps in some of your recipes, and cooking the meal all at once. It's common to cook dishes ahead of time to reheat later, but that increases the carbon emissions associated with cooking."
Brightly recorded that an average Thanksgiving dinner produces approximately 103 pounds of CO2. Typically, the Thanksgiving table is dominated by meat and dairy products, presenting significant environmental strains on the supply system. A recent study from the scientific journal Nature Food concluded that meat production is responsible for 57 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, more than twice the level that plant-based food production generates. The alarming statistic is a key motivation to Brightly’s report to promote a national shift to plant-based, sustainable foods.
“The emissions are at the higher end of what we expected, it was a little bit of a surprise,” Climate Scientist at the University of Illinois and co-author Atul Jain wrote in the report published in Nature Food. “This study shows the entire cycle of the food production system, and policymakers may want to use the results to think about how to control greenhouse gas emissions.”
How to Make Your Thanksgiving More Sustainable
Brightly presents a six-step solution to the environmental problems that stem from Thanksgiving dinner. The report suggests that American consumers make vegetable stuffing, leave behind roast beef, cut down on dairy, cook in unison, defrost overnight to save water and energy, and add more veggies, especially as an alternative to Turkey.
The eco-friendly publication determined that a typical 20-pound turkey would account for 64 pounds of the total 103 pounds of CO2 emissions during Thanksgiving dinner. Between the animal agriculture supply chain and the energy it takes to cook a Thanksgiving turkey, it ranks as the most environmentally harmful dish on the table.
Experts predict that 4.5 million plant-based turkeys will be served on Thanksgiving. With this in mind, a previous study concluded that a turkey dinner produces twice the greenhouse gas emissions as a vegan nut roast, meaning that omitting turkey from the table could slash the carbon footprint almost in half.
The UN-funded think tank Chatham House released a report earlier this year that claims the best thing that consumers can do for the environment is reduce meat and dairy demand and incorporate more plant-based diets. The report states that “the largest differences occur between animal-sourced and plant-sourced foods, with the latter having smaller footprints; in some cases, substantially smaller."
Recently, plant-based eating entered the forefront of international discourse regarding the clime crisis and carbon emissions. The Plant Based Treaty expands on the Paris Agreement to highlight the environmental benefits that come from plant-based agriculture and diets. The treaty explains how changing international food systems to shift towards plant-based production could help restore a damaged environment and atmosphere, curbing the carbon emissions that come from livestock.
Moving away from animal-based foods could significantly reduce carbon emissions. Another report found that 20 livestock companies produce more greenhouse gas emissions than three major countries: France, Britain, and Germany. The report emphasizes the dangers of meat and dairy consumption.
Some other signature dishes that Brightly suggest being made plant-based include Stuffing (25 pounds of C02), Mashed Potatoes (9 pounds of CO2), Cranberry Sauce (2 pounds of CO2), and Pie (3 pounds of CO2). By cutting the dairy and meat ingredients, Brightly intends to lift the disproportionate environmental burden from a single holiday dinner.