By: Sonja Brankovic
With the end-of-year holiday season in full swing, it’s a good time to reflect on some of our traditions and find out how sustainable they really are. Pumpkin carving is a fun pastime for all ages, but how many millions of these rotted food-worthy gourds do we throw out each year? It’s hard to imagine a Thanksgiving table without a roast turkey, but is the process of bird raising and butchering eco-friendly? Finally, to round out the year, many of us decorate a real (or tasteful fake) Christmas tree. These trees may travel across state lines in order to grace your living room – could there be a better option?
A Halloween glow-up: from pumpkin to biofuel
Carving pumpkins for Halloween is a – hallowed – tradition that can trace its history back hundreds of years ago in Ireland. However, in those times the Irish were using turnips or potatoes for carving; it wasn’t until the 1800s when Irish immigrants came to America and realized pumpkins were better canvases than turnips that the tradition became what it is today. The iconic jack-o’-lantern comes from an Irish folktale about Stingy Jack, a miserly trickster who supposedly duped the Devil into buying his drink. Not to be outwitted, the Devil eventually refused an elderly Jack a spot in hell (heaven was not on the table) and sent him packing off into the dark night with only a burning coal to help him see the way. Jack carved out a turnip and placed the coal inside, crafting both a light and a scary apparition for anyone who saw him wandering.
The myth grew and changed, and now most Americans associate Halloween with pumpkins, pumpkin spice lattes, fun costumes, festivals, and trick-or-treating. Unfortunately, most of the pumpkins used for carving and decoration will not be consumed – they’ll be thrown out, adding an extra 254 million tons of waste to our landfills. Composting is a great alternative to the landfill, but the Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office hopes to take pumpkin repurposing a step further by using the gourd as a feedstock for biorefineries capable of producing biofuels. This process involves using anaerobic digestion to convert waste to energy, and is similar to composting – however, a biorefinery would heat up the deteriorating waste and collect biogas then direct it through a turbine to generate power. Commercial-scale biorefineries are still in their nascent period, but hopefully this technology will become more main-stream in the coming years and help prevent pumpkin loss.
Help a turkey, buy a Tofurky
The tradition of heaving a turkey for a Thanksgiving meal does not necessarily go back to the first pilgrim feast in the 1620s. Although turkeys are indigenous to North America and would have been an option for the pilgrims’ centerpiece dish, it gained official footing in 1863 – when President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving was a national holiday.
Almost 200 years later, turkeys are being bred and killed by the millions for this much-loved holiday. Approximately 276 million Americans (88% of the country’s population) consumed 46 million turkeys in 2012. More modern traditions have been added to the occasion, including the presidential pardon of two turkeys (with paired names such as Stars and Stripes, Tater and Tot, Mac and Cheese, Cobbler and Gobbler, and Apple and Cider) each year.
In the past decade, public awareness of the environmental toll of animal agriculture and a growing distaste for factory farming has kindled an interest in alternative main dishes. Turkeys, like chickens, are typically bred in crowded conditions and are fed excessively to reach market weight in a short amount of time. In addition, manure runoff (high in nitrogen and phosphorous) from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) offer leeches into surface and groundwater. Fake meat alternatives – for example, Tofurky, Quorn’s Turk’y Roast, or Gardein’s Stuffed Turkey – can be eco-friendlier substitutes for the Thanksgiving table.
Will that fake fir tree prevent global deforestation?
No. It won’t. Fake Christmas firs may be easier and cheaper to store and decorate than real trees, but they are also commonly produced using petroleum-based plastics and shipped to the US from China, creating a much larger carbon footprint than purchasing US-grown firs – even if the trees are transported across state lines. The main benefit to the fake tree is recyclability – however, it would take close to 20 years of annual use to break even on the eco-impact.
Real fir trees – commonly grown in North Carolina and Oregon – take 8-10 years to grow to salable size. During those years, the trees act as carbon sinks, trapping environmental CO2 (an acre of firs can consume 12,000 lbs of CO2!). Fir tree operations often utilize land that would otherwise be unusable, like barren slopes or spare lots. In addition, after the holidays have ended, the firs can be easily mulched and composted.