Column: The shocking amount of leftover turkey that ends up in landfills

As part of a long-standing White House tradition, President Barack Obama today pardoned two turkeys — Tater and Tot, both of which are headed to Virginia Tech’s Animal and Poultry Sciences Department where students and veterinarians will tend to their needs.

The practice of freeing birds from the White House butcher block is not new. In fact, it goes back to 1863 (before Thanksgiving was acknowledged as an official U.S. holiday), when President Abraham Lincoln granted his son Tad’s wish to save a holiday turkey’s life. According to Smithsonian Magazine, “Ronald Reagan was the first president to use the word ‘pardon’ in connection with a Thanksgiving turkey,” and it was President George H. W. Bush who began a yearly tradition of freeing a holiday bird.

Despite the relatively recent fascination with the White House pardons, the turkey has had a firm spot in the minds of American leaders since the country’s independence. Benjamin Franklin actually proposed the turkey be the official bird of the United States. When the bald eagle was chosen instead, Franklin penned a note to his daughter lamenting the choice, suggesting “the turkey is a much more respectable bird” and contrasting it with the eagle’s “bad moral character.”

Of the more than 212 million turkeys raised and consumed in the United States during 2015, few look forward to the bucolic settings that await Tater and Tot. According to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans consumed about 46 million turkeys last year during Thanksgiving. And given the average bird weighed 16 pounds, Americans appear to have eaten a grand total of approximately 736 million pounds of turkey at Thanksgiving dinner last year.

But such calculations can be deceptive. You see, not all of the purchased meat was actually consumed. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects a shocking 35 percent of turkey meat does not get eaten during Thanksgiving. Where does it go? Into trash cans. That equates to over 200 million pounds of turkey that finds its way into landfills. And while this number might seem high, it’s not far from United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s estimate that one-third of global food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted.

Food waste impacts global hunger, has meaningful costs and affects the environment. The 1.3 billion tons of food wasted globally is enough to feed the roughly 1 billion people who are regularly hungry. And we Americans are particularly wasteful. The amount of food wasted in the United States in 2010 was enough to fill the Empire State Building 91 times! Merely reducing this waste by 20 percent, notes the National Resource Defense Council, would generate enough food to feed 25 million people. Minimizing food waste on a global scale could feed hundreds of millions of hungry people.

Food waste is also expensive. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs estimates that global food waste has an economic cost of $1 trillion. Within America, food waste costs an average family of four approximately $600 per year, according to research conducted at the University of Arizona. Further, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that it cost $1.3 billion to dispose of food waste in landfills in 2008. None of these figures incorporates the opportunity costs of producing food. National Geographic noted that “an area significantly larger than Canada was plowed to grow food…that no one would eat.” Think of how that land might otherwise have been used!

And when it comes to the environment, food waste is not an innocent bystander. Because of the anaerobic process by which food waste decomposes, landfills are big producers of methane. Research from Princeton University notes that methane is “30 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas” than carbon dioxide. The result: Food waste is a significant contributor to climate change. In fact, the United Nations highlighted the magnitude of the problem: “waste generates about 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.” And if you were to aggregate food waste into a country, it would be the third largest producer of greenhouse gases behind the United States and China.

So what can be done? Despite the daunting challenge that food waste presents, there are actions we can take to help reduce the problem. We need to begin by acknowledging the severity of the problem and capturing more comprehensive data. As the old management adage goes, you can’t measure what you don’t measure. We can also improve infrastructure related to food systems. This will reduce losses that take place in the supply chain due to spoilage or damage. And we might consider feeding food waste to livestock. Doing so would save enough grain to feed 3 billion people, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

We can also work on clarifying the meaning of food date labels. Research conducted by the Natural Resource Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic found “the current system of expiration dates misleads consumers to believe they must discard food to protect their own safety,” despite the fact that dates are merely guides by manufacturers suggest likely peak quality. The result of this “dating game” is that an estimated $165 billion of edible food is thrown away. Simple standardization might prevent waste-inducing misinterpretation of food dates.

But there are also seemingly small tweaks to our daily lives that can add up to have big impact. Consider that “scores of US colleges have cut by 25% to 30% the amount of food that students take, and waste” by merely removing cafeteria trays, notes National Geographic. This Thanksgiving, rather than plating individual meals, you might offer family and friends food via a buffet — thereby allowing them to take only what they want. And of course, you can always reduce portion sizes, a move that will both ease the pressure on your waist and reduce waste.

Best wishes for a happy Thanksgiving!