UCSF Sustainability Stories


Robert Hood


Greening Your Thanksgiving Holiday

If you are planning a celebration for the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend, you can take some simple steps to reduce your carbon footprint.

It’s important to know that the food you place in your refrigerator and oven has a relatively insignificant impact on the environment compared to traveling to your final destination. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the number of long-distance trips (to and from a destination 50 miles away or more) increases by 54 percent over the Thanksgiving holiday.

According to the study, most long-distance holiday travel, about 91 percent, is by personal vehicle. The study also shows that Thanksgiving Day is actually a heavier long-distance travel day than Wednesday.

Did Americans curtail holiday travel last year because of the pandemic? Not really. Vehicle travel in early November was as much as 20 percent lower than a year earlier, but it surged around the holiday and peaked on Thanksgiving Day at only about five percent less than the pandemic-free period in 2019, according to StreetLight Data. Not only was this travel bad for the environment, but, according to the Associated Press, virus deaths and hospitalizations hit new highs a week after Thanksgiving.

So, celebrating Thanksgiving close to home is not only better for the environment, but it’s also safer as the world continues to battle the coronavirus. If you do meet with family and friends for small gatherings, here are a few ways you can reduce your impact on the environment.

  • Shop your local farmers market. Because the food is grown locally, it helps protect the environment. Food in the USA travels an average of 1,500 miles to reach large chain stores. Local farmers also use less pesticide than big box farms.
  • According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, you can reduce food waste by planning ahead. How much food should you cook for your party? Well, the Natural Resources Defense Council has a “Guest-imator”  that lets you enter the number of people you expect (divided into small, medium and large appetite categories for added precision) and the types and number of dishes you hope to make, then provides the recommended servings for each recipe. It’s estimated that 200 million pounds of turkey meat is thrown out over the holiday week.
  • If you do have leftover food in San Francisco, contact Food Runners and a volunteer will pick up your donation and deliver it to a suitable feeding program in San Francisco. Similar services are provided in other Bay Area cities.
  • Using real or compostable silverware, dishes, and napkins will create sustainable Thanksgiving place settings. Washing dishes together can also be a bonding experience and Mother Nature will thank you.
  • Be sure to use natural decorations to provide a festive atmosphere for your Thanksgiving celebration. A trip to your local nursery can generate ideas.

Early planning and creativity can result in a memorable – and green – Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends.