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A Green Thanksgiving

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

As Halloween has passed us by, a certain chill now fills the air as we begin to prepare for the next large holiday, Thanksgiving. Many of us look forward to seeing family and friends while sharing a substantial meal. Traditions vary across households, but one issue seems to tie them all together: unsustainable practices.

It may seem counterintuitive, seeing as we all gather together in a shared meal, so fewer emissions and less waste, right? Unfortunately, according to an article by the Natural Resources Defense Council, over 200 million pounds of turkey meat alone is thrown out annually. This amount of waste has a combined carbon footprint equivalent to 800 thousand trips from Florida to California. You may be asking yourself how this is possible, and what can we do about it? Don’t worry; below is a list of ways you can hold onto your Thanksgiving traditions while also being a little bit more green!

The turkey

Yes, Tom himself is a major source of holiday emissions. It is estimated that about 88% of Americans plan to partake in eating turkey this holiday season. According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, a majority of turkeys produced in the U.S. are raised in just five states: Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas, Indiana, and Missouri. This means that for those 88% of Americans who plan to consume turkey, most of them will be purchasing turkeys from large companies that transported this product to their state. In addition to transportation being expensive, it produces massive amounts of greenhouse gases. Not only this, but about half of all turkey in the U.S. is produced by just four companies in large agricultural operations. Industrial farms are a major source of global emissions, coming in as the second largest global warming contributor.

You can avoid buying from these big box companies by purchasing your turkey from a local farmer. Not only would you avoid paying into industrial farms, but you would also be supporting farmers in your community. Practical Farmers of Iowa provides a list of some farms that sell turkeys in Iowa. If you live in another state or would like to find a closer farm, you are just a short google search away from finding the farm nearest you!

Avoiding waste

Food waste is a year-round problem that is only exacerbated by the holiday season. Another big contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions is the estimated 133 billion pounds of food that ends up in the trash annually. Though this feels overwhelming, below are a few tips you can use to reduce your food and serveware waste, and maybe even save a little time and money!

  1. Plan ahead

    1. Coordinate. If you are hosting Thanksgiving, consider coordinating with your guests. Keep a list of what your guests are bringing and share it with them. This will help you avoid duplicate dishes and will allow you to know where to fill in any missing favorites.

    2. Takeaway. Try asking your guests to bring their dishes in reusable containers they can take home with them. This will reduce the use of metal and plastic containers that may end up in the landfill.

    3. Untapped resources. Have you checked the back of your cupboard recently? If not, then you might have some useful ingredients that could save you a trip to the grocery store. Check your cabinets, freezer, and fridge for ingredients on your list. You can save time and money by not needing to shop for all new ingredients.

  2. Leave the duds Is there a dish that, year after year, never gets touched, but always appears at the table? If so, you might be able to leave that dish off the menu this year. Save your time, money, and food by choosing to only make fan favorites. If the holidays just don’t feel the same without it, try making a smaller amount of the dish for that one uncle who enjoys it.

  3. Leftovers Take a page out of Ross Geller’s book and use the leftovers! Try being creative with your leftovers so nothing gets wasted. You can go the Friends route and make your own “moist maker” sandwich, or you can get creative with the ingredients! This article is a compilation of a variety of recipes meant to use up leftover food; some recipes include fried mashed potato balls, turkey noodle soup, green bean casserole bundles, and turkey enchiladas.

    1. Disappearing act. Try asking your guests to bring their own containers for leftovers. This makes some of those leftovers disappear from your fridge while reducing the use of single-use food storage.

    2. Seconds. If you know you are going to have a lot of leftovers, try inviting your guests to return the following day to get ‘seconds’. This could become a new tradition in your family to keep the holiday fun going.

    3. Freeze! Put a pause on Thanksgiving leftovers by freezing them. Leftovers can be great for lunches, but we also need a bit of variety or we can get bored. Try freezing your leftovers and thawing them for later lunches or recipes.

  4. Dishes. No one likes doing dishes on a normal day, but on Thanksgiving it feels like an insurmountable task that many avoid by purchasing paper, plastic, and foam serveware. While this may save time now, those dishes are not recyclable. Yes, even those paper plates and napkins are not recyclable! Avoid this by using your normal dinnerware. You may be imagining the mountain of dishes clogging your sink now. Never fear; try coordinating with your guests by asking each person to wash the plate and utensils they use. If you worry that you may not have enough dinnerware, ask your guests to bring some from home. It could be fun to see the different plates on the table and may incentivize your guests to clean their dishes before they return home.

  5. Recycle. Did you know that aluminum foil trays are recyclable? If you or your guests are unable to bring a dish in a reusable container, clean out the foil tray and recycle it.


Fall decorations can make your home feel cozy for the holidays. The beautiful natural colors that reflect the change in seasons really do make Thanksgiving feel like the holiday you grew up loving. The temptation to purchase all of the beautiful fake leaves, wreaths, and vases is strong, so try to get crafty with it! If there are kids in attendance, try having some decorating activities for them to do while they wait for the food. Below are a few sustainable decoration ideas that are good for all ages!

Food as edible art

This holiday is all about food and family, so why not incorporate both into your decorating? The following are activities that can bring the family together while creating delicious decorations that will get them into the holiday mood.

  1. Decorate seasonal cookies. Use cookie cutters in the shapes of turkeys, leaves, acorns, and pumpkins. This can be a fun activity as well as a good appetizer! Here is a great sugar cookie recipe and a cookie frosting recipe.

  2. Decorate your favorite pies. Whether it be pumpkin, blueberry, cherry, or apple, get creative with your crusts! Create the classic lattice or use cookie cutters to put turkeys, leaves, and other fun seasonal shapes atop your pies!

Foraging for decorations

If you are a fan of the natural colors and shapes of the season, your backyard may be the best source of decorations. Leaves, pinecones, and acorns can be used in a variety of ways to help bring the feeling of autumn into your home.

  1. Leaf garland Collect a variety of colorful leaves from your backyard, making sure to collect sturdy leaves that won’t crumble with a slight touch. Thread a blunt sewing needle with a portion of twine cut to the desired length of your garland. Push the leaves onto the needle and pull them onto the twine to the desired location. Continue until your garland is full.

  2. Natural tabletop decor In addition to collecting a variety of colorful leaves, gather some pinecones and acorns. Arrange them on your table in a festive display. These items may look especially nice together with a few candles from around the house! You could even arrange your pinecones, leaves, and acorns in a clear vase for a fun centerpiece.

Keeping it classy

If you like more sophisticated decorations for your Thanksgiving festivities, don’t worry; you don’t have to run to the big box stores and buy all new decorations. Listed below are some ways you can still have fancy-feeling decorations without putting more strain on the environment or your wallet.

  1. Reuse Don't throw out your pumpkins! With Halloween recently passed, you may have a few decorative gourds or uncarved pumpkins, and these would be great additions to your Thanksgiving decor. Fresh decorations always look nice and can be composted. You could also put the jack-o-lantern candles to use again.

  2. Treasure hunting Go to your local thrift store, where they often have seasonal displays using donated materials. You never know what you might find, and it can be fun to search for just the right piece.

  3. Sharing is caring If you and your neighbors or friends are big on holiday decorating, but also like to change up the decor each year, set up a decor swap. Coordinate with your friends and trade items you’re willing to let go of. You can meet with different friends to keep your decorations fresh without having to buy new items each year!

Hopefully, your fears of having a wasteful Thanksgiving have been quelled with these tips. Remember, you don’t have to overhaul your entire celebration; even using a few of these suggestions can help reduce your annual waste. Now equipped with these tools, have yourself a greater, greener Thanksgiving!



Christy, C. (2018, November 7). Looking for a Thanksgiving Turkey? Practical Farmers of Iowa.

Collins, A. (2018, November 13). A Thankful Feast, Not a Wasteful One. Natural Resources Defense Council.

Easy, Eco-Friendly Ideas for Your Thanksgiving Table. (n.d.). Just Energy.

Food Waste FAQs. (n.d.). United States Department of Agriculture.

Hammon, D. (2018, November 16). 5 tips for beautiful, sustainable Thanksgiving decor. In Habitat.

Leonard, C. (2013, November 22). That turkey on your plate could use some more industry competition. Washington Post.

Roberts, T. (2018, November 9). Have a Sustainable Thanksgiving. Rise.

Sustainable Thanksgiving: How to throw an eco-friendly feast. (2021, August 17). Grove Collaborative.

25 Genius Ways to Use up All Your Thanksgiving Leftovers. (2019, November 15). Delish.

Wells-Barrett, C. (2021, October 25). Turkeys are estimated to cost Americans nearly a billion dollars for Thanksgiving 2021. Finder.


About the Author

Bri Hull is the Communications Associate at the Tallgrass Prairie Center. Originally from Kansas City, Missouri, Bri came to Iowa to attend Wartburg College. In her time in Iowa she developed an interest in environmental science and stayed to learn more about ways she can help her community. In her time with Green Iowa AmeriCorps, Bri hopes to learn how to become more green and how to reach out to her community to do the same.


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