‘Smashing Pumpkins’: Not the band, but a climate-friendly way to get rid of jack-o-lanterns

Wondering what to do with your wilting jack-o-lantern? Smash it to pieces (for the planet)!

Halloween pumpkin smashing
A pumpkin smasher using a sledge hammer to keep a Halloween gourd out of a landfill last year. Courtesy of Plant Chicago
Halloween pumpkin smashing
A pumpkin smasher using a sledge hammer to keep a Halloween gourd out of a landfill last year. Courtesy of Plant Chicago

‘Smashing Pumpkins’: Not the band, but a climate-friendly way to get rid of jack-o-lanterns

Wondering what to do with your wilting jack-o-lantern? Smash it to pieces (for the planet)!

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This Halloween season has come to an end. The trick-or-treaters had their fun and jack-o-lanterns across Chicagoland are getting cleared from stoops.

While throwing these past perfect pumpkins into the trash might seem like a good option, it’s not the best for our planet.

When tossed, pumpkins end up in landfills as food waste. Buried under heaps of trash, they rot and release methane — one of the most potent greenhouse gasses. Food waste makes up 37% of Cook County’s landfill material, according to the University of Illinois Extension.

But there is a very cathartic and environmentally friendly way to dispose of Halloween gourds: a pumpkin smash!

These events are exactly what they sound like — a chance for people to smash their beloved jack-o-lanterns into a compostable mess using a baseball bat or other creative methods. Once smashed, the chunks are transferred to composting sites across Illinois.

Most composting relies largely on aerobic processes, in which exposure to oxygen in decomposition reduces methane creation as compared to landfills. And through composting over time, Halloween pumpkins get turned into useful organic material such as nutrients for soil or mulch.

Kathryn Pereira is a local foods systems and small farms educator with the U of I Extension. It is hosting several pumpkin smashes in the Chicago area.

“Honestly, I think it is the most fun way to educate people on composting,” she said. “They get into it more than you can possibly imagine.”

Some sites create games around smashing — like pumpkin basketball, baseball and cornhole. Pereira said that last year, a group of Chicago high schoolers even built a giant catapult to launch pumpkins across a parking lot into a dumpster.

Beyond the fun and games, she said the smashes are also important public engagement events: “We’re building community… and developing community resilience by reducing the waste in our environment.”

Halloween pumpkin smashing
Former jack-o-lanterns at a pumpkin-smashing event last year. Courtesy of Plant Chicago

Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation will be responsible for transporting the smashed pumpkins to compost sites.

“Keeping those pumpkins … out of landfills is going to help reduce greenhouse gasses overall,” said Chris Sauve, deputy commissioner of policy and sustainability for the department. “For us, reducing the amount of refuse, the amount that goes into our garbage system and our garbage carts is really going to help improve what we do on our recycling side.”

U of I is partnering with five sites to host smashes this Saturday:

  • Gary Comer Youth Center, 7200 S. Ingleside Ave., Chicago

  • Lake View High School, 4015 N. Ashland Ave., Chicago

  • Morton School of Excellence, 431 N. Troy St., Chicago

  • Plant Chicago, 4459 S. Marshfield Ave., Chicago

  • First Presbyterian Church of Arlington Heights, 302 N. Dunton Ave., Arlington Heights

Pereira said activities at the U of I smashings will vary from site to site, but include composting demonstrations, musical performances and games.

A map of all pumpkin smashes in Chicagoland can be found on the website of SCARCE, a recycling and composting organization.

If you go to a smash-up, make sure your pumpkins are free of glitter, candles, stickers, yarn or synthetic decorations. Water-based paint is okay.

Pereira recommends this U of I article to learn more about common myths involving pumpkin disposal.

Happy smashing!

Indira Khera is a Metro Reporter for WBEZ. Follow @KheraIndira