For me, pumpkin carving is one of the most fun traditions of the Halloween season.
Every October, I look forward to the night when my family gets together at our childhood home to carve pumpkins, using stencils that my mom’s had for decades. Then, on another night, I get together with a close group of friends and do the same thing all over.
... And again on a different night with my partner.
All of this to say: Pumpkin carving is fun and I plan to do it forever and ever. But there is a downside that, I’ll admit, I didn’t much consider until I got older.
It turns out that once Halloween is over and our jack-o’-lanterns are shriveled and deflated, we aren’t supposed to throw them in the trash. Pumpkins that are tossed in a landfill can’t break down into the soil as they would naturally, and instead release methane gas -- a greenhouse gas that significantly contributes to climate change.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, methane gas is the “primary contributor to the formation of ground-level ozone, a hazardous air pollutant and greenhouse gas, exposure to which causes 1 million premature deaths every year. Methane is also a powerful greenhouse gas. Over a 20-year period, it is 80 times more potent at warming than carbon dioxide.”
The U.S. produces about 990,000 tons (more than 2.1 billion pounds) of pumpkins every year. It’s estimated that about 1 billion pounds of pumpkins are thrown into landfills each year after Halloween and Thanksgiving.
So, what exactly are we supposed to do with our leftover pumpkins that are falling apart on our front porches if we can’t throw them away?
Personally, I’ll probably just leave them for the squirrels and chipmunks (they’ve already dug into my uncarved pumpkins), but experts say you have a couple options to help decrease pumpkin methane emissions.
Composting at home
The best way to dispose of pumpkins is to allow them to naturally decompose into the soil, according to experts. The best way is to do this through a process called composting, which involves mixing different types of decaying organic matter to create a nutrient-rich soil.
This soil, often called “black gold,” is used as a fertilizer for lawns, gardens and the like.
There are composting facilities throughout Michigan, but many communities allow at-home composting, as well.
Composting can be simple, and only requires some basic gardening tools, a composting “bin” that can be made of inexpensive materials, and some green and brown waste. There are two methods to composting at home: fast compost (4 weeks-1 year) and slow compost (1 year-18 months).
You can compost items like grass clippings, leaves, weeds, coffee grounds, some food waste and more. Items like pet or human waste, meat or dairy aren’t supposed to be composted.
Once the compost is ready for harvest, it can be used to mix into the soil of your yard, or used as a mulch.
Click here to see a guide for composting at home from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. You can also check out EGLE’s short video below for a quick how-to.
The Michigan government has a great FAQ page about composting -- both at home and at facilities. Click here to check it out.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has some additional information on composting at home on their website right here.
Yard waste collecting
In some communities that collect yard waste, leftover pumpkins can be turned over to yard waste collectors. Find out if your community picks up yard waste at the curb of your home, or if you have to drop it off at a facility.
It’s a good idea to contact your city or township to determine what their rules are for disposing of yard waste. Some communities, like the city of Dearborn, do not allow fruit or vegetables to be mixed in with yard waste. The city of Ann Arbor, however, allows residents to dispose of food waste (among many other things) in their compost bin that is collected weekly during certain months.
In many cases, yard waste collected by a city is taken to a registered compost facility that turns the waste into fertilizer that is then sold.
Leftovers for you, your pets
If your pumpkin hasn’t rotted yet, you can use and cook the seeds, or the actual fruit of the pumpkin.
I suggest plucking those seeds out at the beginning of the pumpkin carving process, washing them and baking them that night -- partly because they’re still in good condition, and partly because I want to snack on those seeds right away.
If you don’t want to eat the pumpkin yourself, good news: Cats and dogs like pumpkins, too! Pumpkins are safe for both animals to eat, so feel free to offer some up to your pets. Do note, however, that cats should only be fed cooked or canned pumpkin, as raw pumpkin is hard for them to digest. Pumpkin is also a great source of fiber for the animals, but be careful not to overdo it.
As long as those carved pumpkins aren’t painted or coated, especially with toxic materials meant to “preserve” the life of your jack-o’-lantern, pumpkins are safe for animals to eat. Your local wildlife will likely dive right in, if you let them.
Be aware that experts say you should not attempt to feed wildlife by throwing your pumpkins into a natural area where they’ll find it. Feeding wild animals can lead to public health concerns, animals becoming accustomed to people and becoming aggressive, and too many animals near roads, where they can crash into vehicles. It is also illegal in some places to throw food and food waste at a nature preserve or a park.
However, if you’re just planning to let the local squirrels in your backyard nibble away at a rotting pumpkin before disposing of it some other way, that should be just fine -- and will help reduce that pumpkin’s methane emissions.