The Thanksgiving meal is generally a big event, whether you are serving turkey and all the trimmings or something a little more unorthodox. Either way, the celebration is full of tradition. One of the holiday’s more modern traditions is not being mindful of Mother Earth. Fortunately, it’s easy to turn that around with a few easy steps. Here are some tips from sustainability experts on how to put on a celebration to remember, without forgetting about the environmental impact.
Make a Complete Plan
When deciding on whom to invite and what to serve, don’t forget to put your decorating plans on the list. Maryam Shariat Mudrick of Greater Good Events in New Jersey suggest being intentional in your choices, choosing quality over quantity. “Rather than purchasing a new set of turkey-themed paper napkins that will be thrown away, consider how you can reuse loved pieces in a way that still feels festive and creates an environment for celebration and connection,” says Shariat Mudrick.
If you need to buy new things for your holiday, consider shopping with indigenous-owned brands or artisans. Not sure where to look locally? Check online for items from companies like 4Kinship and Land of Daughters. “Look for opportunities to support and honor Native peoples in your community,” says Justine Broughal, also with Greater Good Events. “Use the items on your table as an opportunity to have a conversation about the history of Native people in the U.S.” (You can use this map to find out what native land you’re living on.)
Invite Nature to the Table
Instead of buying Thanksgiving-themed tchotchkes to adorn your home, consider using gifts from the outdoors.
Stephanie Seferian, of Mama Minimalist and author of "Sustainable Minimalism: Embrace Zero Waste, Build Sustainability Habits That Last, and Become a Minimalist without Sacrificing the Planet," points out that using flowers might not be as friendly to the environment as you think. “Decorating your table with flowers can be a highly unsustainable practice, as the flower industry is a major contributor to carbon emissions. Eight percent of roses sold in America, for example, are grown in South America,” says Seferian. “If you choose to adorn your home with cut blooms, buy ones grown locally and in season.”
You also can use dried florals and greens to spruce up your home as well. “Not only do they fit fall color palettes well, but they can also be packed away and used again year after year,” says Shariat Mudrick. “Just try to refrain from purchasing painted dried florals, most of which cannot be composted.”
An even more sustainable idea is to use potted plants or bulbs, says Seferian. “They can be enjoyed much longer than their cut counterparts. As an alternative to flowers altogether, consider using foliage from your neighborhood as your centerpiece," says Seferian. "Branches, vines, and oak leaves are modest, natural materials that celebrate the season.”
Candles add a glow, and often a scent, but they also add a larger carbon footprint than other choices. “Most candles on the market are made with paraffin, a byproduct of crude oil,” says Seferian. She suggests 100 percent beeswax versions if you really want to use candles. When you're done with the candle, “scrape and melt out the remaining wax, then microwave for 20 seconds and wipe out any that remains before recycling or repurposing [the jar],” says Seferian, who also hosts the podcast The Sustainable Minimalists.
Food for Thought
Pumpkin doesn’t have to be confined to the pie category. It can also dress up your table in unexpected ways. “Use edible gourds and pumpkins [as decorations], and then roast them up with your leftovers a few days later!” says Broughal. Not sure how to arrange them? Seferian has an idea: “Consider placing a parade of baby squash directly down the length of your table runner,” she says. Even a simple bowl of fruit in a favorite bowl can add a pop of color and cheer to the room. Seferian recommends using cherries, grapes or clementines since they make a pretty centerpiece and also double as dessert. If you want to stay seasonal, Shariat Mudrick suggests whole fruits with vibrant color such as persimmons and pomegranates.
You might be tempted to use some of your seasonal or fancier-looking plastic tableware for convenience, but other options are much more sustainable and meaningful. This is the time to break out the family silver and fine china, says Seferian. “Fine china adds elegance to the Thanksgiving dinner table." The more times you opt for a reusable product instead of a single-use one, the more you offset the carbon emissions from its creation.
Ditch the turkey-themed paper napkins, too. Use washable linens instead. “Aim for 100 percent cotton or linen fabrics to limit the release of microplastics,” says Broughal. “You can always dye older linens in your home to give them a fresh look.”
If you don’t have any reusable table linens, consider borrowing items from your neighbors through swapping groups like Buy Nothing, they suggest. Shariat Mudrick is a fan of having a lot of cloth linens for your kitchen in a variety of colors. She says you can use special colors for different celebrations and also cut down on paper towel and napkin use all year.
A Cleaner Clean-Up
Sustainability doesn’t stop at the table. Once the feast is complete, you’ll have dishes to wash and trash to take out. Your game plan should contain the best way to do both. Seferian has a whole system for maximizing your eco-friendly efforts here. She suggests using three bins to collect waste. In bin one, ask guests to toss their compostable scraps such as fruit, vegetables, and grains. Use bin two for all things that can be recycled, such as glass, aluminum, plastic, and paper that didn’t touch any food. Make sure you rinse items other than paper before putting them in the bin. Bin three is where you put actual trash and foods that can’t be composted, such as fish, meats, and dairy. Make sure to mark each bin clearly so there's no confusion.
Use the dishwasher, if you have one. Fill it to capacity for efficiency and skip the pre-rinse to save even more water.
Taking some of these simple steps will help you start a new tradition of caring for the Earth just as you care for the loved ones around your table. As Shariat Mudrick says: “Challenge the norms around how we decorate and design the table for Thanksgiving. We don’t have to decorate in oranges and reds. If you have a platter you love that isn’t in those colors, use it! Thanksgiving is about being grateful and celebrating the things that bring us joy, regardless of color scheme.”