Carry On Carving? - Denis the Dustcart Blog
Published: 28 October 2021
In his regular feature, Denis the Dustcart asks how we can reduce the environmental impact of a Halloween tradition while still encouraging widespread fun
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Halloween is perhaps the only time of year when everyone gets creative.
I’m not talking about dressing up. There were too many identical Frankenstein’s Monsters, Ghostfaces and Avengers knocking on my door last year for me to believe that fancy dress these days demands much creativity.
I’m of course talking about pumpkin carving.
More and more people appear keen to break away from ‘passé’ traditional designs. Some of the pumpkins shared around the internet are, frankly, masterpieces of sculpture. Rotary tool accessory sales must go through the roof at this time of year.
Even people less inclined towards the creative arts get involved. It’s a fun, family-centred activity, and so can be choosing your pumpkin – ‘the one’, the spirit of your family’s Halloween.
Retaining our motivation to have fun is crucially important within our efforts to be environmentally conscious. These are not mutually exclusive objectives, contrary to what many would have us believe.
We just have to keep an open mind – to be conscious of how our fun impacts the natural world and make decisions based on the best information available.
This is where it gets complicated with pumpkins.
The sheer number of pumpkins wasted every year is shocking. In the UK, we buy 24m and chuck away more than half of those uneaten.
Then again, not all pumpkins are grown to be food.
An obvious statement? What I mean is, they aren’t even grown to be edible.
And that really is shocking – if not surprising.
Most supermarket pumpkins are in fact grown only to be carved. They don’t cook well and taste awful.
There is much debate about the relative environmental and ecological impacts of the different kinds of pumpkins available – local organic, mass-produced supermarket.
It’s a virtually irrelevant concern, however, if our sole intention when buying a pumpkin is to carve it. There isn’t an ‘environmentally friendly’ choice. Simple as that. The best we can do is to choose the ‘least harmful’ option.
Chucking away the flesh and leaving our jack-o’-lanterns outside to rot on the doorstep, leaking methane into the atmosphere, will more than undo any of the good work we intended by investigating the various impacts of how and where it was grown and where we bought it.
Pumpkins should be food as well as fun. Unless we plan on eating it, we are fundamentally missing the point of what makes our pumpkin ‘the environmental choice’.
So firstly, and above any effort we make in minimising the footprint of bringing a fresh pumpkin into our home, we should commit to eating what we can of it – even if it’s only the seeds.
Food waste alone accounts for 8% of all greenhouse emissions. That’s just the waste, not the food that we actually end up eating.
Obviously, for cooking and eating you’ll want to buy a pumpkin that was actually grown to be food. But even local, organically grown pumpkins will have an impact, depending on how you buy it.
The harmful emissions associated with pumpkins are not limited to the oozing gasses of rotting jack-o’-lanterns. It’s any ‘wasted’ pesticides and fertilisers used in growing them; it’s the fuel ‘wasted’ in producing and transporting them, and then by us collecting them in cars.
How much land are we giving over to growing pumpkins that won’t get eaten? What price are we paying to satisfy our Halloween traditions?
If this all sounds a little party-pooperish, my point is simply that eating our pumpkin is the only way we can meaningfully reduce the impact of buying it – no matter whether it’s organic and local or mass-produced and bought from a supermarket.
And if the supermarket ones can’t be eaten, it doesn’t really matter that they actually may have a smaller carbon footprint before they become waste.
A study in Germany showed that the pumpkin with the lowest carbon footprint in fact came from a large specialist pumpkin farm using potassium-based fertilisers.
Next best was an organic pumpkin imported from Argentina.
After that came a small organic farm and then a conventional farm, neither of which made their main income from pumpkin production.
Does that sound a bit odd?
Well, it turns out that the distance we travel to buy our pumpkin, and whether that trip is in addition to the one we make for our general shop, accounts for as much as 89% of the carbon footprint of our pumpkin.
It seems that an organic pumpkin shipped over from Argentina with tonnes of other pumpkins and delivered to our supermarket of choice, to be bought by us along with all the other things we buy, may have a smaller carbon footprint than a pumpkin purchased on a special pumpkin-picking trip with the family.
While the carbon footprint of the small organic farm itself may be lower, it’s how we shop that bumps up the footprint of the pumpkin we buy from that farm.
So, if you make a trip to a farm shop with the special intention of purchasing a low-carbon pumpkin, you may not yield the result you seek. However, if you were planning a family walk anyway, perhaps the impact of your field-trip to the pumpkin patch or farm shop would be lower – as long as it isn’t well out of your way.
Other things to consider include:
- the efficiency of cultivation (the large pumpkin farm produces three-times as many pumpkins as a conventional farm not specialising in pumpkins);
- the use of certain fertilisers – potassium-based being best, nitrogen-based worst. (Whether the nitrogen fertiliser is organic or inorganic seems to make little difference. The resultant nitrous oxide emissions have a global warming effect 300 times worse than carbon dioxide).
It turns out the impact of our chosen pumpkin is influenced by more than whether it was grown organically or inorganically and how far it travelled to reach the shop. Where we buy it, how far we travel to buy it, whether we go there especially to buy it, and whether we will actually eat it will all have a significant effect on its footprint.
So should we just stop buying pumpkins? Can we really justify having fun at the expense of the environment?
No, we can’t – but no, I don’t think we should cut out our pumpkin-carving fun. Not when it brings about so much widespread creative energy.
But we certainly need to look at the problems pumpkin waste is causing.
That isn’t to say we should privilege the environment over having fun, but that we should remain environmentally aware and make better choices within activities that bring us joy.
Being environmentally-conscious isn’t incompatible with having fun.
If picking the perfect pumpkin on a muddy stomp is part of your family’s Halloween tradition, don’t be put off making this trip; just make sure you plan it as part of – or in place of – a journey or day out you were making anyway.
Make sure you can eat what you remove from your pumpkin when making your jack-o’-lantern. Then, once your creation has suitably impressed/terrified the local trick-or-treaters on Halloween, compost it or leave it where the birds can get it – but not on the ground, since they make hedgehogs sick.
By all means buy a pumpkin. But if you do buy one, make sure it’s edible.