Giving Thanks to the Planet

Turkey Day eco-mysteries, solved.

Cooked turkey

This Thursday, millions of Americans will gather to gorge themselves silly among family and friends. Don’t let eco-guilt ruin your holiday: Here are four Thanksgiving-related environmental dilemmas, with answers from the Lantern archives.

How can I choose a greener turkey this year?

The knee-jerk answer to any green-eating question is usually “go local.” But food-miles are only one part of the environmental equation—for example, energy-inefficient farm operations might outweigh the benefits of a shorter farm-to-market journey. You can use this tool  to find a turkey farmer in your area.

You can also green your festivities by breaking with tradition: Instead of serving turkey, serve chicken. In 2007, the Lantern estimated that if everyone in the United States ate roast chicken instead of roast turkey, we’d reduce Thanksgving’s CO2 output by about 109,641 metric tons. Impressive, right? Yes, but that’s still only about one-thousandth of 1 percent of the nation’s annual CO2 emissions. (Read more about the calculations behind those figures in this column from 2007.)

The holiday season means one thing to me: sitting around the fireplace. I keep seeing fake logs for sale that claim to be “green.” Are these synthetic products really any greener than a piece of real wood?

You might think that burning natural firewood would produce the cleanest emissions. In fact, the opposite is true. When organic material doesn’t burn completely, the smoke it releases contains tiny bits of  particulate matter and other hazardous substances—such as  carbon monoxidebenzeneformaldehyde, and  polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons—into the air. These noxious fumes have been linked to lung and heart disease, not to mention burning eyes and runny noses. Artificial logs—whether made from wax and fiber, cardboard, or coffee grounds—emit all the same pollutants as natural firewood, but less of them. That’s in part because they pack in much more energy per pound, and also because they burn more completely.

If you already have wood piling up in your backyard, however, the Lantern thinks you should use what you’ve got. Just make sure that tree came down early in the year. Wood that’s properly dried, or “seasoned,” burns more cleanly and efficiently. (For more on building a clean-burning wood fire—and what exactly fake logs are made of—see this column from 2009.)

What’s the better way to protect all those leftover drumsticks and slices of pie: aluminum foil or plastic wrap?

Though plastic wrap gets a bad rap for  polluting the oceans, aluminum has a heavy manufacturing footprint. It takes a whole lot more energy—and hence, greenhouse gas emissions—to mine bauxite ore from the earth and then process it into thin sheets of aluminum than it does to turn oil or natural gas into plastic wrap.

The Lantern used COMPASS, a nifty software tool from the  Sustainable Packaging Coalition, to compare 1 square foot of aluminum foil and 1 square foot of low-density polyethylene cling wrap. Aluminum foil lost on nearly all the metrics COMPASS assesses (PDF), including fossil fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, human health impacts, and toxicity to freshwater and marine life.

But if you insist on wrapping your leftovers in foil, you can reduce its impact by reusing it. Using one piece of foil three times requires about as much fossil fuel as using three pieces of plastic wrap and is less toxic to ocean life. You’d have to use that foil six times, however, before starting to break even with single-use plastic on greenhouse gas emissions and human health impacts. (You can find out more about these comparisons—and about recycled aluminum—in this column from April.)

I’m inevitably going to get rid of some food at the end of this week’s debauchery. If I don’t have a composter, am I better off feeding my leftover sweet potatoes to the garbage disposal or the trash can?

Tossing food down your disposal can eventually add excess nutrients to rivers and streams, changing their chemical composition and potentially harming aquatic life. If you opt for the disposal, you’ll also be using a lot more water than if you chucked your waste in the trash bin—and you’ll be indirectly responsible for all the metal-mining and manufacturing needed to make the appliance.

On the other hand, trucking all that garbage from your curb to a landfill uses a lot of energy. And when your trash decomposes, it will likely release more damaging greenhouse gases—namely, methane.

Composting is always best, but if that’s not an option, the Lantern advised that you go ahead and use your garbage disposal under the following conditions: First, make sure that your community isn’t running low on water. (To check your local status, click  here.) Second, don’t put any grease or fat in the disposal. And finally, find out whether your local water-treatment plant captures methane and uses it to produce energy. If it doesn’t—and your local landfill does—you may be better off tossing those mashed potatoes in the trash. (For a more detailed analysis of the disposal-landfill showdown, check out this column from 2008.)

Is there an environmental quandary that’s been keeping you up at night? Send it to, and check this space every Tuesday.

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