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What I'm Freaking Out About

How Much Environmental Damage Did Your Thanksgiving Dinner Do?

Researchers broke it down by state.

Ashley P. Taylor

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Thanksgiving is a day of tradition, good and bad. Oh the family visits, the festive food! But also the traffic and airport delays. The shopping, cooking, cleaning, and—a trouble that may be particularly salient this year—the attempt to converse with relatives and in-laws of different political views. Frankly, some of this crap is a downer. And not to be all doom and gloom about it, but there's one more reason to feel uneasy about the holiday: It may be turning the heat up on our planet, cooking us all like turkeys.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University recently calculated Thanksgiving's environmental cost in terms of pounds of CO2 emitted per meal. The greenhouse gas is responsible for raising the globe's thermostat, and in a new press release, the researchers break down the environmental impact by state. 

The worst? West Virginia, where cooking a typical Thanksgiving dinner contributes 80 pounds of CO2 to the planet's decline. That's equivalent to the carbon emissions of driving about 100 miles in your average American car, according to estimates from the University of Michigan Carbon Footprint Factsheet. Thirteen states put out more than 50 pounds of C02 per meal, and fully half emit more than 40.

This should come as no big surprise given that food production is the largest contributor to the average US household's greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 83 percent of the total, according to a 2008 study study, also from Carnegie Mellon.

To calculate the carbon cost of a Thanksgiving meal in each state, the researchers had to first define a "typical" Thanksgiving meal. They went with roasted turkey stuffed with sausage and apples, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie—which, let's be real, is probably a modest approximation of the typical family feast. Then the researchers calculated the carbon footprint left by raising, growing, and cooking the food.

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A major contributing factor in a meal's environmental impact was the state's mode of electricity production. States like West Virginia, Wyoming, and Kentucky, which use mostly coal-fired power plants, had the largest footprints, whereas states that rely more heavily on renewable energy had smaller ones. Vermont, for instance, uses 100 percent renewable energy, according to the report. As such, it had the smallest footprint, at just .02 pounds of CO2 per Thanksgiving dinner. (West Virginia, if you recall, puts out 400 times that much.)

Another influence on carbon footprint was the type of stove—gas or electric—used most often in each state. Gas stoves have a lower carbon footprint than electric ones in all but those 11 states where electricity is generated from renewable energy sources and nuclear power plants. The upshot is that cooking a 16-pound turkey in an electric oven in Wyoming, where electricity is primarily produced by burning coal, emits 32 pounds of CO2, whereas cooking the same turkey in the same oven in Maine, where electricity comes mostly from renewable sources, emits less than 3 pounds of the greenhouse gas.

If you're worried about your meal's impact, try to stick to locally grown foods and smaller portions of meat. Odds are you're eating turkey today, and while that's not as environmentally friendly as a giant bowl of vegetables, it is better than red meat, which has twice the carbon footprint of fish and fowl.

Another thing to consider is your travel: The researchers calculated that if your Thanksgiving guests collectively travel 180 miles, the environment would be better off if they stayed home and cooked for themselves. So next year, instead of inviting every relative across the country to your house, consider populating your table with neighbors and nearby friends. 

The strategy is particularly smart if you don't happen to care much for your family. "The environment," you'll explain. "It just doesn't want you here." 

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