Pumpkins in Pain

Pumpkins are adored by many as a symbol of fall festivities, but the massive amounts thrown out each year are catastrophic to the environment.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Cover Image
By Eugenia Ochoa

It’s the beginning of autumn, and the leaves are just starting to dust the ground. On the stoops of festive houses and apartments, there are skeletons, spiderwebs, and witches galore. And, of course, there are pumpkins.

An average household adorns their property with maybe one or two squashes roughly the size of a miniature poodle. Ambitious families display painted masterpieces or carved faces that seem to jeer at passersby. Pumpkins remain the go-to Halloween decoration of choice in several states. This year, Americans are projected to spend a total of $804 million—equivalent to the value of approximately 1.91 million tons of pumpkins—on gourds of various shapes and sizes.

The majority of these pumpkins is harvested during the fall months, especially in preparation for Halloween. However, when November comes and Halloween goods are stashed away in storage boxes until the following year, pumpkins often end up in the bins. The United States wastes 40 million tons of food each year. Of this waste, nearly 900,000 tons come from discarded pumpkins.

Unlike plastic skeletons or Christmas ornaments that can be forgotten in storage, pumpkins have expiration dates, but many underestimate how long they last. Uncarved pumpkins can last for two to three months, provided that they’re untouched by wildlife or extreme temperatures. A jack-o’-lantern, on the other hand, can only brave the elements for three to five days before it starts to rot. Pumpkins are better off without those carved faces that many adore. However, carving a pumpkin is a long-lasting holiday tradition that acts as a key bonding moment with family and friends. Just last year, more than 146 million Americans reported that they planned to carve a pumpkin to take part in Halloween celebrations. Americans should consider composting their jack-o’-lanterns instead of disposing of them if they insist on continuing this tradition.

When pumpkins are thrown out, they end up in landfills, along with the rest of our trash. There, they’re buried with other organic waste and rot without oxygen, releasing potent amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is extremely harmful to our climate, with 28 to 34 times more global warming potential than that of carbon dioxide. Many climate scientists claim that reducing the release of methane will be key to alleviating the climate crisis.

If you’ve been throwing out your jack-o’-lanterns, consider using an individual composting bin from the government of New York City instead. The curbside composting program began in 1993 as the NYC Compost Project and has now expanded its resources to automatically provide a composting bin to all Queens residential buildings with 10 or more units. If this detail doesn’t describe your housing situation, then you can apply to receive a bin for your own household via the New York City Department of Sanitation website. If individual composting isn’t an option, many neighborhoods have designated compost bins. The New York City Department of Sanitation provides a detailed map of drop-off composting locations in the five boroughs. The United States Composting Council has a similar map for nation-wide composting locations. If composting sounds unappealing, then consider researching zoos that accept donations. The Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, New York and the Cape May County Zoo in New Jersey (as well as multiple animal sanctuaries across the country) accept old pumpkins as donations to feed or entertain animals.

Families can also find many ways to repurpose pumpkins used for Halloween decorations. There is an array of pumpkin-inspired recipes perfect for fall weather. Aside from the usual pumpkin pies, soups, and breads, there has been a rise in nontraditional recipes like pumpkin cream cheese muffins, pumpkin lasagna rolls, pumpkin spice, pumpkin seeds, cheesecake-stuffed pumpkin bread, and even pumpkin carbonara. Some of these recipes ensure that all components of a pumpkin are fully utilized, reducing waste. Baking or cooking together can be a festive moment to replace the joys of carving a pumpkin. If planning a recipe ahead of time, one can even pick a more flavorful squash to display for the holidays. Spaghetti, butternut, and acorn squashes are colorful and delicious options.

Many don’t pause to consider the impacts of their holiday fun. But any amount of individual action is better than none, and your thoughtfulness can ensure that pumpkins end up in a better place than the landfill. Enjoy a sustainable Halloween!