A smashed pumpkin can do more for the environment than a rotting one. Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Community pumpkin-smashing events aim to cut down on Halloween’s contribution to America’s food waste problem and reap the benefits of composting.

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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