Pumpkin patches pop up around the nation each October and fill with people picking their perfect fall decor.
But every year, billions of pounds of gourds bought by consumers are wasted once they’ve served their decorative purpose.
Nearly 66,200 acres of pumpkins were harvested in the U.S. in 2020, amounting to more than 1.5 billion pounds of usable pumpkins and more than 2 billion pounds produced overall, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
The top nine pumpkin-growing states (Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana, Michigan, California, Ohio, North Carolina and Texas) produced nearly 75% of that total.
Gordon Johnson, the University of Delaware’s Cooperative Extension fruit and vegetable specialist, said pumpkins can be used to make things like bread, pie and soup, but around 95% of consumers don’t cook them.
“Up to 40% of our food is wasted,” Mr. Johnson said. “It’s a big environmental issue because a lot of it just goes into landfills, so anything you can do to prevent that would be very much of a benefit.”
One of the simplest solutions is composting, according to Adam Schlachter, an environmental program manager for the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s Division of Waste and Hazardous Substances. He said that though there is no commercial- or industrial-scale composting service in Delaware, backyard composting is just as easy.
“We call it the lazy person’s recycling because you really don’t have to do anything. You can just pile the stuff up, and it will ultimately break down, and Mother Nature does all the work,” he said.
There are a few things to look out for in a compost pile, however. Mr. Schlachter said that grass clippings that are too heavily concentrated, for example, will produce an odor. Taking care to balance the moisture levels and the ratio of “green” and “brown” will speed up the composting process. Most kitchen scraps, grass and plant clippings — and leftover pumpkins — are considered green material. Brown materials include leaves, wood and paper products, and straw.
Mr. Schlachter said that old pumpkins can be used other ways, too.
“As long as you haven’t cut out a funny face in it, you can open up and empty the pumpkin, and you’ve just created a pot plant that you can plant something in for a few weeks and then just take the whole thing and plant it in the ground,” Mr. Schlachter said.
Pumpkins that are bleached, lacquered or painted should not be added to compost nor thrown anywhere other than the trash.
“That’s where the issue comes in, if you try to give those pumpkins to wildlife,” he said. “One of the options for old pumpkins is to just return them to nature but not those treated pumpkins because a lot of that stuff is toxic to animals.”
Any seeds that find their way to yards can easily sprout into a patch of pumpkins the following year, though they may not look like the original.
“Almost all of your jack-o’-lantern types and tabletop types are hybrids, so that means they have two parents that they crossed to produce the seed,” Mr. Johnson said. “If those seeds do germinate, you’re not going to necessarily get what you started off with. They could be a different shape or a different size. It isn’t going to look like what you had on your porch.”
Mr. Johnson and other researchers with Cooperative Extension ran a trial this year, growing different kinds of decorative pumpkins of all shapes, sizes and colors. He said that the standard jack-o’-lantern varieties make up for about half of all pumpkin sales, but other, more unique pumpkins and winter squashes are rising in popularity.
He noted that they aren’t sure how edible some of the gourds — like the “warty” pumpkins — are just yet, but all are acceptable for a compost pile at the end of the season.
Pumpkins and other food scraps that end up in a landfill aren’t completely wasted, however, at least in Delaware.
Mike Parkowski, chief of business and governmental affairs at the Delaware Solid Waste Authority, said that the First State is very advanced in its waste-management strategies.
“We have gas-collection systems, so when organic waste decomposes, it naturally creates methane gas,” he said. “But we have a series of gas wells, sucking the gas straight from the ground, so it never gets out of the landfill. That gas goes to generators that are on-site that make electricity.”
Not all landfills in the United States have gas-collection systems as intricate as Delaware’s, and some don’t have any gas collection at all. Mr. Parkowski said technology here is advanced because of companies in the state that rely on that gas to produce electricity.
He said backyard composting doesn’t produce the reusable energy that is created from landfill waste and actually releases methane gas as the pile decomposes. But it is better for the environment overall and a better option for chucking pumpkins.
“From an emissions standpoint, it’s actually a little bit worse than putting it in a landfill,” Mr. Parkowski said. “But composting is up in the hierarchy because the less (waste) you create, the less we have to manage. There is a cost of managing waste, and there are emissions released from waste collection. If you have a backyard compost, there is no truck that has to come pick it up.”
He added that the biggest surge in waste is seen around the holidays, when people get together and have meals, creating a surplus of food waste. And at Christmas, boxing and wrapping also are added to the waste buildup.