Can Halloween Be Good for the Environment?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Oct. 28 2008 7:04 AM

Black and Orange and Green

Can fun-size candy bars be good for the environment?

Halloween pumpkin
Does Halloween put a scare into the environment?

Photo by Getty Images.

Trick or treat! Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays, and now my son is old enough to be excited about it, too. But lately I've been feeling a little frightened by the environmental impact of all those plastic bats and fun-size candy bars. What's a green Halloween-lover to do?

Halloween may offer the Lantern a chance to dress up as his namesake, but it doesn't provide many other opportunities for the eco-conscious. Any holiday that involves creating a ridiculous costume that you're going to wear exactly once while you gorge on prepackaged junk food is not exactly tailor-made for going green.

Let's start with the reason for the season: all that candy. Diets rich in sugary foods are typically considered less eco-friendly than those with modest amounts; in Sweden, for example, a model diet crafted by a team of environmental scientists suggested consumers cut down on sweets by about 50 percent. A British report (PDF) called that recommendation a "medium" priority for greening our food choices. (One risk, the report noted, was attracting accusations of "nanny state misery-guts spoilsportism"—a pretty good description of how people react if someone tries to take away their candy.)

Do sweets deserve such a bad rap? In total, the National Confectioners Association projects at least $2.2 billion worth of candy will be sold this Halloween season—and that's a low estimate, including only what's specifically marketed for the holiday. That means a lot of extra, nonrecyclable packaging for all those fun-size candy bars. It also means millions of pounds of cocoa and corn syrup that needs to be farmed, processed, and shipped. (Now, if you eat candy instead of dinner on Oct. 31, you may be replacing calories from other sources—so you can subtract that from your Halloween toll. But the Lantern guesses that many Halloween candy binges involve a few extra calories, too.)

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To take a specific example, consider the Cadbury Dairy Milk bar—which received a "carbon audit" by the British-based organization Carbon Trust. According to the analysis, a 49-gram chocolate bar has a carbon footprint of about 169 grams—a ratio of 3.45 grams of CO2 for every gram of chocolate. That ratio stacks up pretty well compared with meat but is a good deal worse than most fruits and vegetables or bread. Digging down, one interesting result is that the milk used in the candy bar turns out to be by far the largest component of its carbon footprint—suggesting that dark chocolate may be an environmentally friendlier choice.

But other ingredients in candy create other concerns. Corn syrup—that now-ubiquitous sweetener that is a major ingredient in many candies—has been criticized as the product of subsidized "monoculture" farming that wreaks havoc on the land. Cocoa presents another problem. Like coffee, cocoa flourishes in many of the world's biodiversity "hot spots"; as a result, cocoa cultivation has resulted in the destruction of millions of acres of environmentally fragile rainforest. Still, there's a flip side: In Brazil, some environmentalists—and chocolate manufacturers—argue that more eco-friendly cocoa cultivation techniques may offer the best hope of encouraging local farmers to save the rainforest. The hope is that as the market for carbon credits expands, cocoa farmers might be paid both for their crops and for the carbon sequestered by the surrounding forest—creating an incentive against deforestation. In general, the big candy manufacturers have begun placing a greater emphasis on sustainable cocoa farming—if for no other reason than to ensure that the world's cocoa supply doesn't disappear due to overproduction.

So, how do you make a greener Halloween? First, buy an organic pumpkin—but make sure it isn't coming from too far away, given how much cargo space your future jack-o'-lantern would take up in a truck. Second, try to make costumes and decorations out of old material rather than spending money on something that may never get another use after Nov. 1. Third, do your very best to hand out snacks that aren't so bad for the planet.

Assuming you don't want to be the only house in the neighborhood offering juice boxes on Halloween, your options for eco-friendly treats are pretty slim. You can't do homemade because of concerns over unwrapped treats. It is possible to purchase organic, bite-size chocolates, lollipops, and gummy bears, but these aren't perfect replacements: If you can even find them, you'll have to pay a hefty markup—and those candies still require a lot of processing and extra packaging. (For an expert's take on greener Halloween candy, check out the ridiculously comprehensive Candy Blog, which did a Green Halloween series two years ago.)

The Lantern's advice? Like your mom probably told you, try moderation: Give out one candy per trick-or-treater instead of three, and don't feel the need to stock up on a whole new set of decorations every year. The orange-and-black holiday is never going to be very green, but if you don't go overboard, the environmental toll doesn't need to be quite so scary.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

Jacob Leibenluft is a writer from Washington, D.C.

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