The holiday season is here again: family gatherings, gifts, decorations, and food. Holiday consumption is at an all time high, in line with our general culture, and with that consumption comes A LOT of waste. Between Thanksgiving and New Years, it is estimated that Americans generate between 25%-45% more waste than at any other time of the year. Although we will focus on food waste for the purpose of this blog, it is crucial to note the significant amount of non-food waste generated from food and product packaging, gift wrap, decorations, convenience items such as eatware, and so on. A huge opportunity. Now, we will focus on organic waste – but mostly on food.
According to ReFED, Thanksgiving alone, the biggest holiday revolving around food, is estimated to produce over 300 million pounds of food waste from celebrations across the U.S., totaling $450 million in loss. This doesn’t include Christmas, nor does it account for all of the wasted food by manufacturers and retailers from efforts to maintain in-stock products and the best selection for holiday shoppers. Gobble gobble!
The most disliked Thanksgiving foods include candied yams and cranberries, while for Christmas they include Jell-O molds and mincemeat pies. Turkey, stuffing, and potatoes are mentioned as most favorite at both the Thanksgiving and Christmas tables. Green bean casserole showed up as a least favorite for both holidays, although there are plenty of people who like unhealthy, but tasty, vegetable creation. Rachel’s Thanksgiving trifle doesn’t show up on any list. (C’mon, any “Friends” fans out there?)
The additional data is tough to come by, but wasted food totals are estimated to be easily in the tens of millions of pounds, in addition to the 300,000 pounds wasted by households at Thanksgiving. The other aspect to food loss is that it doesn’t just come at face value. When looking at the total impacts from food loss, we need to consider the wasted energy, fuel, water, and land – all of the inputs that went into to producing that food. That’s ho-ho-horrible!
We can’t talk about holiday waste without at least mentioning Christmas trees. An estimated 25-30 million live Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. each year. After fulfilling its purpose as a beautiful, lit, ornament-filled presence for the holiday season, a Christmas tree is often put out in the back ravine or on the curb for local pick up. Retailers that have extra trees don’t often have easy options and even though landfilling isn’t the best (or even allowable) option, many of these trees end up landfilled instead of being recycled.
So, what can we do to prevent holiday organic waste? Changing behavior is important – but often difficult – especially when it comes to upholding holiday traditions. Little shifts in purchasing and ordering habits, preparation, and using leftovers can go a long way.
- Plan for “just enough” preparation of meals and extras.
- Take a survey of the family’s preferences. Forego the green bean casserole and Jell-O mold if the family doesn’t like them. It might be hard to change holiday traditions, but think about how much waste it might prevent!
- Get Santa’s preferences before putting out cookies and milk.
- Use of leftovers with creative planning. This can mean freezing meals and using extra foods for new meals, such as meat bones for soups.
- Recycle inedible food in at-home compost bins or through your local food waste recycling collection.
- Recycle used Christmas trees and wreaths (after removing any bows or other decorations). Some communities offer residents local pick up for trees after the holiday season, where they are brought to a local compost facility. Another option is to recycle trees to build habitat for fish. This program is usually coordinated locally, so contact your local USDA Forest Service for more information.
- Manufacturers and Retailers:
- Package and market food merchandise as generically as possible, or as seasonal packaging, rather than for a specific holiday.
- Forecast sales of holiday foods and Christmas trees so more are sold overall. Focus on timely deliveries, proper handling and rotation, and cater to local customer preferences.
- Execute a planned discount and donations strategy for excess, unsold food items. Coordinate with food banks and pantries to get unsellable food out as quickly as possible. Handle prepared, hot foods appropriately and establish relationships with partners that can distribute these items to local organizations that can prepare them for people in need.
- Recycle unsold, un-donatable produce, candy, bakery, meats, and other items by working with a vendor partner to help collect and recycle the inedible food into beneficial products. Read more the various ways to recycle the unsold food items into valuable products.
- Recycle the unsold Christmas trees and wreaths (after removing any bows or other decorations). With some planning, trees can be collected and picked up by a service provider to be composted. Another option is to recycle trees to build habitat for fish. This program is usually coordinated locally, so contact your local USDA Forest Service for more information.
Did you know? Denali provides services to recycle and depackage unsold, inedible food items and other organic byproducts into a variety of products. Denali can also recycle green waste such as Christmas trees, wreaths, and other plants. Learn more.
Denali is a leading expert and recycler in the U.S. organics recycling industry. In food waste alone, Denali was responsible for managing over 600,000 tons of food waste from retail, foodservice, and industrial food processors in 2022. In recognizing the impact that food waste has on the climate, Denali is committed to working with customers to find innovative, data-driven solutions to reduce waste on the front end. Denali views what others consider “waste” as a valuable resource, manages multiple recycling facilities in the U.S., and has a sizable fleet to transport organic wastes to a diverse network of recyclers. As a contributor to the circular economy, Denali closes the loop by producing valuable products from recycled organics, including animal feed, biodiesel, compost, tire lubricants, and mulch.
“Quick Tree Facts,” National Christmas Tree Association.
“Thanksgiving Dinner Will Result in 305 Million Pounds of Food Waste in the U.S.,” ReFED. November 2022.
“These are America’s Least Favorite Thanksgiving Sides,” Better Homes and Gardens. September 2022.
“Prevent Waste During the Holidays,” South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. 2019
“How to Reduce Food Waste This Holiday Season,” WWF. 2023.