Thanksgiving is a time when we reflect on the blessings were have, and what better way to reflect that sentiment then to have a Thanksgiving dinner that is as sustainable as possible?
In an attempt to help out eco-conscious families, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University recently calculated the carbon footprint of the typical Thanksgiving feast on a state-by-state basis and found that it depends on where the food is prepared.
The team founded their calculations on how the dinner is made – gas compared to electric range – the particular state’s primary power source and how the food is sourced in each region.
They discovered Thanksgiving dinners cooked in states with a lot of renewable energy, like Maine and Vermont, generate the lowest quantities of greenhouse gas. Conversely, states that use coal power, like Wyoming, West Virginia and Kentucky, have the highest greenhouse gas emissions tied to the typical Thanksgiving dinner.
Prep and Production Matter
“Food production – how the food is grown or raised – and meal preparation – how the food is cooked – both contribute to the carbon footprint,” Paul Fischbeck, professor of social and decisions sciences at CMU, said in a news release. “We broke our dinner down into its separate dishes, and then broke those down into the individual ingredients. For each ingredient, we tracked its carbon emissions from ‘farm-to-fork.’ Production and preparation both contribute about 50 pounds of carbon dioxide, but it varies from state to state and house to house.”
Further evaluation revealed high variation between comparable stove types in several states. For instance, cooking a 16-pound turkey in an electric oven in coal-dependent Wyoming emits 32 pounds of greenhouse gas. In Maine, cooking the same turkey in the same oven, but powered by mainly renewable energy releases less than 3 pounds of greenhouse gas.
Normally, gas ranges leave a smaller footprint than electric ranges, but the team discovered that does not hold true for 11 states whose principal sources for electricity are renewables and nuclear power.
The team noted that traveling to commemorate Thanksgiving only exacerbates the problem of carbon emissions.
“Bringing relatives into town can easily double the carbon footprint of the meal,” said Orchi Banerjee, a sophomore majoring in decision science. “American cars emit close to a pound of carbon dioxide per mile traveled. If your guests collectively drive more than 180 miles round trip, it may help the environment if they stayed home and cooked their own meal.”
For those starting to feel a bit guilty about traveling for Thanksgiving, Fischbeck said it’s important to keep things in perspective.
“It is important to keep things in perspective. Yes, the carbon footprint of Thanksgiving is larger than an average meal, but compared to all the environmental lifestyle decisions that American family could make, these are very, very small potatoes,” he said.
Image credit: Thinkstock
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