As people rush to get rid of their jack-o’-lanterns in favor of Thanksgiving decorations, thousands of ornamental pumpkins will likely end up in landfills.
Lacking oxygen and unable to break down and return to the soil, these discarded gourds decompose and fill the atmosphere with methane — a greenhouse gas that is more than 25 times as powerful as carbon dioxide in trapping heat.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, about a quarter of landfill material in the United States is food waste, and landfills alone contribute to 15 percent of all methane emissions in the country.
Some Illinoisans have taken matters quite literally into their own hands. Every weekend after Halloween, hundreds of people flock to an increasing number of locations across the state where they can break pumpkins apart by tossing them into trailers, or as many prefer, smash them with baseball bats, sledgehammers and golf clubs.
After being squashed, the pumpkins are sent to processing centers to be turned into compost in an oxygen-rich environment.
“So you don’t produce the nasty greenhouse gases if you’re composting because it’s actually a completely different chemical process than it breaking down in a landfill,” said Jennifer Olson, director of guest and community engagement at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.
The final product is a rich soil amendment that can be used to improve soil health with its mineral nutrients and beneficial microorganisms.
“There’s so many things we can’t solve, but this is something we can do something about and have fun,” said Kay McKeen, founder and executive director of SCARCE (School and Community Assistance for Recycling and Composting Education).
The Addison-based environmental education nonprofit began organizing and promoting pumpkin smash events in Illinois in 2014, and they have since reportedly composted over 1,000 tons of pumpkins, reduced greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of almost 752 tons of carbon dioxide and diverted more than 217,286 gallons of water from landfills.
On Saturday, pumpkins were smashed at over 90 sites registered with SCARCE across Chicago and its suburbs — as well as others in New York, Michigan and Indiana.
At an Edgewater smash event, 3-year-old Marty Hover swung his arm past the count of three, and threw tiny gourds and pumpkin tops into a collection trailer.
“Let’s go find out where the pumpkins are gonna go!” said Marty’s mother, Jessica Woodburn, grabbing his hand as they approached a table with information about composting.
Pumpkins have always been a big deal in Illinois.
In 2022, the state harvested 17,600 acres of pumpkins — almost 26 percent of the total harvested acreage across the country and more than double that of other top pumpkin-producing states such as California and Indiana — according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The village of Morton in central Illinois is known as the “Pumpkin Capital of the World.” One plant owned by Libby’s and its parent company Nestlé packs 85 percent of the canned pumpkin worldwide, according to the town. This canned product is mainly used for making pumpkin pie, which was named the Illinois State Pie in 2015 in honor of the Morton industry.
While most of the pumpkins grown in Illinois are harvested for food processing, there are still plenty of households that buy ornamental pumpkins for jack-o’-lanterns or decoration. While the state greatly outperforms others in pumpkin production, it also is a leader in diverting pumpkin waste.
In 2006, McKeen and a former intern at the nonprofit began lobbying state legislators to pass state laws to allow curbside collection of food scraps.
“We didn’t realize at that time that we should also have a fun way to do special collections to get people educated about composting. Our law didn’t allow for special collections,” McKeen said.
Ten years later, the state passed a law allowing one-day special collections of compostable waste.
SCARCE hosted some of the first pumpkin collections. Its approach of prioritizing fun and learning soon turned the events into a smashing success.
“Whatever we can put back into the soil, that’s what nature does, right? Leaves fall down from the trees and they become vitamins for the soil. So we’re just doing what nature does,” McKeen said.