Sense Blog
Thanksgiving Dinner

How to Reduce Your Thanksgiving Carbon Footprint

What are the energy costs of our Thanksgiving feasts and family gatherings?

Thanksgiving is nearly here. It’s the holiday when families get together, eat good food, and enjoy each others’ company.

This year, we wondered about the carbon footprint of Thanksgiving. What are the energy costs of our Thanksgiving feasts and family gatherings? Those questions led us to How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything by Mike Berners-Lee.

With Berners-Lee’s insights, we’ve calculated the carbon cost of Thanksgiving. The typical Thanksgiving gathering includes 12 people, so we started by assuming that a family of four hosted the meal, with 6 people traveling 50 miles by car and 2 traveling by plane.

Let’s begin with the turkey. The traditional turkey at Thanksgiving is a good choice energetically. The carbon footprint of a turkey is about an eighth of the carbon cost of red meat. One reason is that turkeys fatten up quickly, going from egg to a 20-pound bird in less than three months. If you buy a locally raised turkey, you’ve reduced the transportation and refrigeration costs further.

What about the rest of the feast, including pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce? They have a relatively low carbon footprint, too, according to Berners-Lee. Potatoes, pumpkins, apples, and cranberries don’t require a lot of carbon-intensive packaging or refrigeration and shipping is relatively efficient, especially if they are grown in your region. And while ingredients like sour cream and butter are more energy intensive, you’re not eating enough in that single meal to matter a lot.

Food waste has a big impact collectively, however, so plan your feast carefully and serve up the leftovers.

The cost of cooking a Thanksgiving meal is relatively low, too. Roasting a 16-pound turkey and other fixings in a 350 degree oven for 4 hours adds up to about 8kWh. At an average cost of 12 cents per kWh, your electric bill increases by about 96 cents and the energy you use translates into just 0.006 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

The biggest carbon cost, by far, comes from travel. Remember we assumed six people traveling by car and two by plane? Let’s assume there are two car loads of people, each of which is driving 100 miles for a total of 400 miles roundtrip on the road, and there are two additional people who are flying 1,200 miles, about the distance from Miami, Florida, to Kansas City, Kansas.

We used the calculator at FlightNook to determine that two people flying roundtrip from Miami to Kansas have a carbon footprint of 764 kg of CO2 or 0.76 metric tons. The two cars will generate an average carbon footprint of 0.12 metric tons of CO2. So the holiday travelers have generated 0.88 metric tons of CO2 to come together for Thanksgiving. An acre of forest growing for one year would offset that much carbon.

What if the air travelers had taken a train instead? The carbon cost of 2400 miles of train travel is 0.02 metric tons — 1/38th of the flight. For the travelers on the road, if both cars were hybrids with 45 MPG ratings, the carbon cost would be 0.078 metric tons; if the travelers were driving the most fuel efficient 2019 midsize pickup trucks at 22 MPG, the carbon cost would double to 0.156 metric tons.

Every day we make energy choices that seem small in the moment but have a big impact collectively. This Thanksgiving, we’re thankful for our customers who pay attention to their energy use and make decisions to reduce their carbon footprints. Together, we are making a difference!

To calculate the carbon footprint of your lifestyle, check out the EPA’s calculator.