Smashing the Great Pumpkin-Waste Problem

After the trick-or-treaters have gone home, what becomes of the Halloween pumpkins that have outlived their decorative purpose?

You might be tempted just to throw them all away—and that’s certainly what many people do. Every year, more than 1 billion pounds of pumpkin get tossed out and left to rot in America’s landfills. Some are thrown away the day after Halloween, contributing to the 30.3 million tons of annual food waste in the U.S. When left to decompose in a landfill, that food waste produces methane gas, a greenhouse gas that’s far more potent than carbon dioxide. (It’s not just in the U.S.; the Guardian reported that in the U.K., people are expected to throw away a record 8 million pumpkins this year.)

That’s why cities and environmentalists are encouraging residents to find other ways to say goodbye to their gourds. Pumpkins are, after all, a fruit, and uncarved ones can be used as food for people and animals. Composting pumpkins, meanwhile, can capture nutrients and water that can be put directly into parks, gardens, and farms.

In Illinois, the recycling and composting nonprofit Scarce has been hosting a one-day pumpkin collection after Halloween every year since 2014. The organization has 31 collection sites at public spaces across the state—including churches, libraries, schools, and parks—and since its first event, it has saved 254 tons of pumpkins from landfills. In 2016, it collected 56 tons of pumpkins, according to its website, and with gourds being 90 percent water, that means that year, the organization diverted nearly 12,000 gallons of water back into the state’s soil.

And then there are the rituals of getting groups together to jump-start the decomposition process… yes, we’re talking about smashing pumpkins. In Tucson, Arizona, residents enjoy the spectacle of pumpkins getting flung into the air via giant slings. Newton, Massachusetts’s first pumpkin smashing event used pumpkins for basketball and target practice—but the most popular event, as the Boston College newspaper noted, is an open field where people simply throw their pumpkins on the ground. (The remains are collected and composted after the fun is over.)

When Hudson River Park’s Community Compost Program held its first pumpkin-smashing event last year in New York City, it brought more than 500 people together to break down nearly 1,000 pounds of organic waste. The city of Elgin, Illinois—35 miles northwest of Chicago—meanwhile, has held such an event for the last four years, and said its 2018 event kept 3.72 tons of pumpkin out of the landfill, up from 2.96 tons in 2017, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Saving pumpkins from the landfill can also help tackle food insecurity. Howden pumpkins, the variety used in carving projects, aren’t the tastiest on their own, but can nonetheless be used as ingredients in soups and desserts. In Washington, D.C., the company Compost Cab, which offers composting services to residents and businesses, hosts a program each year where it collects whole, un-carved pumpkins and donates them to community anti-hunger organizations. In 2018, Compost Cab collected five tons of pumpkins, 3,000 pounds of which went to hunger-fighting groups. The company also provides educational programs teaching kids and their families how they can cook their own pumpkins.

As for carved pumpkins, they can still be a treat for farm and zoo animals. In Missoula, Montana, members of the nonprofit compost group Soil Cycle have gone from house to house, knocking on doors and collecting unwanted pumpkins to send to a local farm to be used as animal feed. Last year, according to the organization, the group collected 2,000 pounds of gourds. In Little Rock, Arkansas, the city zoo is asking for pumpkin donations to give to its animals. The Oakland Zoo in California also lets its animals destroy and devour leftover pumpkins.

A whole, uncarved pumpkin can last a long time—up to 12 weeks, according to NPR. Its usefulness is usually much shorter than that after Halloween, but there are plenty of ways to keep it from becoming just another piece of produce rotting in a landfill.

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What We’re Reading: A Terrible Thing to Waste, by Harriet A. Washington

Ten, twenty, one hundred times a day, I think about the end times. They are coming and I am terrified.

In July, Alaska experienced record-high heat of 90 degrees Fahrenheit. A paper released by an Australian think tank laid out future scenarios, based on scientific research about climate change, that include massive displacement, cities abandoned, and devastating food shortages by 2050 should leaders fail reduce the degree of warming by 2030.

I have never been in the least bit skeptical of climate change, yet even just a few years ago, I could go a day or two without thinking about it beyond the brief moments when I dropped a plastic bottle or a flattened carboard box into a recycling bin. That was, I know, a different kind of denial steeped in relative privilege. As is so often the case in so many catastrophes, for many low-income communities of color, the future is, in many ways, already here.

Last year, even as the Trump administration shut down many of the institutions and policies established to address environmental racism, researchers in the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Center for Environmental Assessment released a study demonstrating that people of color are far more likely to live near polluters—landfills and factories, for example—and to breathe polluted air.

Also last year, I was infuriated by yet another rearing of the hideous and idiotic head of pseudo-scientific racism in a feud between the philosopher and author Sam Harris and Vox’s Founder and Editor at Large, Ezra Klein. Sam Harris had interviewed The Bell Curve author Charles Murray on his podcast. In The Bell Curve, Murray argued, among other things, that the United States should limit immigration from Africa because, he claimed, Black people have lower IQs than white people. In the interview with Harris, both men, who are white, asserted that African Americans are intrinsically less intelligent than white Americans due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Vox published a piece criticizing the interview and Harris challenged Klein to a debate.

Last month, I read Harriet A. Washington’s new book A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and its Assault on the American Mind. Washington, the winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award for her book Medical Apartheid, provides damning data and stories to illuminate how communities of color in America are being poisoned due to decisions and policies that expose them to dangerous levels of environmental toxins. This poisoning has “horrifying cognitive symptoms” as evidenced by effects on IQ.

We need to face the facts. We must face the future that is already here, that has been here for too many people of color in America for a very long time.

Washington, as many before her, disputes that IQ alone can be used to measure intelligence. And, she points out that the test can be invalid due to culture and context. Yet, she argues that the test can be used, rather than to measure innate ability (as some pseudo-scientific racists have used it), to provide a limited measure of achievement.

A Terrible Thing to Waste is a difficult book to read. But we need to face the facts. We must face the future that is already here, that has been here for too many people of color in America for a very long time. And, Washington both highlights the important work of environmental justice activists and offers ways that all of us can fight for cleaner air, for cleaner water, for reducing the degree of warming. Being terrified, being infuriated, must not paralyze us. We must fight for our planet, for communities of color, for all of our lives.

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