Easy Ways to Cut Frightful Halloween Waste, Keep the Fun

A small carved pumpkin has started to turn moldy along the cut edges of its mouth and eyes. It sits on the grass with two other pumpkins behind it.

Halloween, like most holidays, has become an off-the-rails consumer-fest. According to a giddy National Retail Federation (NRF), Americans will resume their pre-pandemic spending on Halloween, with consumers doling out $100 on average, ringing up a grand total of $10.6 billion. They’ll buy costumes and candy and decorations and cards—and I imagine more garbage bags too. 

The following ideas will reduce some of the associated waste this Halloween.

Say no

You have no moral obligation to participate in the excesses of Halloween but do have a right to say no to activities you dread. If you have small children and worry the other parents will judge you for failing to sew elaborate costumes from fabric you wove yourself or for skipping trunk or treat this year, more likely they will be relieved if you speak up and say enough with this craziness, let’s turn it down a few notches because they’re likely thinking the same thing and don’t want to speak up.

If you love Halloween but not the consumerism, you can scale back and not miss out one bit!

Find or arrange a Halloween costume swap

Flimsy synthetic (i.e. plastic) costumes pollute at every point along their lifecycle, from extraction of raw material (fossil fuels), to refining (too often in frontline communities), to manufacturing, to shipping, to disposal in a landfill, incinerator or the natural environment. By swapping costumes you’ll help reduce this plastic pollution.

How bad is the costume waste problem? According to an October 2019 survey, 

UK Halloween celebrations generate over two thousand tonnes of plastic waste from clothing and costumes alone. The investigation found that 83% of the material in 324 clothing items promoted through online platforms of retailers was oil-based plastic. 

Halloween Clothing & Costumes Survey 2019

And that’s just in the UK. Everything is bigger here in the US—the holiday and the waste. This year, the NRF predicts the second-highest spending on Halloween of all time, with Americans shelling out:

  • 1.7 billion for adult costumes
  • 1.2 billion for children’s costumes
  • 0.7 billion for pet costumes

Swapping costumes not only keeps materials out of the waste stream, it also saves money. Members of your Buy Nothing Group have probably already posted a bunch of costumes online. Perhaps you’ll find a pet costume. Whether you bought the costume you’ll torment Fido and Fluffy with or found it for free, they don’t care. They just want you to stop.

Search for costume inspirational in the thrift shop

For a costume or for ideas, hit the thrift shop. Perhaps next year you’ll find a costume swap to take the costume to.

According to the EPA, the majority of textile waste consists of clothing. The chart below from the EPA’s website reveals the size—and growth—of the textile waste problem. Keeping clothes out of landfill, even just a costume, can only help. (Laws prohibiting clothing manufacturers from doing whatever they want would make greater progress but we can each do what we can.)

This is not sustainable

Hand out plastic-free treats if possible

Simple gum comes in small cardboard boxes and the gum itself doesn’t contain plastic. Most gum does. By Christmas, Quality Street in the UK will sell its candy in recyclable paper rather than foil and plastic. That doesn’t help you this Halloween and Nestlé (owner of Quality Street) is a horrible company but this change does show that companies have begun to listen to consumers concerned about the plastic pollution crisis.

Depending on how well you know your neighbors, you could buy bulk candy and divide it up into small envelopes or cloth bags. Someone on Instagram told me they give out 50-cent pieces. I think kids would love that. They rarely see 50-cent pieces. In addition to the novelty, they can spend the money. Seed packets might also work. Kids will still take home plenty of candy if you give them something else.

If you want to send a card, get creative and make it

According to the NRF, Americans will spend $600 million on Halloween greeting cards this year. (What do these cards say? “Get over your candy-induced stomach ache soon!”) 

Fortunately, cards are fun to make and kids love making them. Rummage through the paper recycling bin, a fabric and button stash if you have one and other craft materials you may have lying around. You’ll make a one-of-a-kind card, save money and enjoy the process!

Go for natural decorations

Polyester cobwebs, plastic pumpkins, plastic skeletons and plastic tombstones—their materials are derived from fossil fuels. As we electrify our grids and cars, Big Oil needs a new market for its product. To keep the oil and money flowing, it has been pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into building more plants to produce plastic. Like burning fossil fuels for energy (and some plastics are burned for energy), plastic contributes to climate change.

Fallen leaves, sunflower heads, cornstalks and cardboard can go into a festive display that then becomes mulch on November 1st.

Send less pumpkin to landfill

If you carve a pumpkin, save the seeds for roasting and any pumpkin flesh for cooking. Or decorate with whole, uncarved pumpkins you’ll eat later. Pumpkins head south soon after carving.

Compost any rotting pumpkins or look for a neighbor accepting food scraps for their compost bins. Last year, I asked for post-Halloween Jack-o-lanterns on Nextdoor and scored about 20 for our insatiable compost bins!

Go here for more ideas to keep pumpkins out of landfill.

A small carved pumpkin has started to turn moldy along the cut edges of its mouth and eyes. It sits on the grass with two other pumpkins behind it.

Make cookie dough with excess Halloween candy

Last year when my daughter Charlotte lived with her uncle, aunt and preschool cousin in Montreal, they amassed huge piles of Halloween candy. So Charlotte made chocolate chip cookie dough and in lieu of chocolate chips, stirred in M&Ms, Smarties and chopped-up chocolate bars. She froze some of the cookie dough balls to bake later. If you do lots of baking over the holidays, you can start after Halloween, scratch one item off of your to-do list, put surplus candy out of sight and save money.

Yesterday, after I posted on Instagram my “annual pooping all over Halloween” as my husband calls it, one reader commented that she saves Halloween candy to decorate gingerbread houses over the holidays. Such a brilliant idea!

Balls of cookie dough with M&Ms are spread on a piece of parchment paper on an aluminum cookie sheet
Charlotte baked cookies with excess Halloween candy in 2021

The holiday sales pitches start around Halloween and don’t let up until after the New Year. Being mindful of the push to buy, buy, buy can help us to instead consume less, slow down and enjoy ourselves.

Accolades for my cookbook, The Zero-Waste Chef: Plant-Forward Recipes and Tips for a Sustainable Kitchen and Planet:

You can check out the book here.

US Cover

2 Replies to “Easy Ways to Cut Frightful Halloween Waste, Keep the Fun”

  1. I told my daughter’s that I will give them $15 Cdn. each towards costumes they are going to make, absolutely no last minute trips to a store that suddently morphs 2 weeks in an empty “for lease” in a strip mall. When I lived in Ausse and NZ, I was okay with being at the beach with buddies or at the town’s Guy Fawkes effigy at the public beach, although I didn’t like the idea of burning anyone. I worked on a Burns Unit. However, I am so grateful for the invites I had by people I knew and some I did not for Dia de Los Muertas when I lived in Taos, NM for several years. The respect for family members who had died, and have the family share memories of their loved ones, made me feel honored to know these stories. The food that the familes made for their guests were always favoured family recipes and so heart warming! The North American commercial spin-off really upsets me, since I learned the origin. I am not a scrooge, I allow my young teenagers to “trick-n-treat” for a few blocks with my children and see whose garage gives the scariest show, but I admit, I can’t wait until they don’t want to go out on this night anymore. We live in a high density area where children don’t walk up to our door.

  2. I’m in graduate school, plus working full-time, so last year, my kids made their costumes out of things they already had in the costume box and other fabric we had. My daughter was Leetah from Elfquest (an old graphic novel series) and my son was a ninja. I find, in Virginia, that a black long sleeve shirt and black pants go a long way towards a good Halloween costume! We’ve also done well finding costumes at the thrift store and then handing them down to friends or sending them back to the thrift store. Fingers crossed about this year…

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