What are you going to do with that wilting jack-o’-lantern on your doorstep when Halloween is over? If you said dump it in the trash, then Kenzie Jackson of Tucson’s Compost Cats wants you to know you have alternatives that are better for the planet.

“Composting is one the easiest and most effective things that people themselves can do to be sustainable, to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions,” Kenzie said.

Kenzie is 24 and spends much of her time finding ways to help people create a healthier environment in their communities. 

She’s the campus and community outreach coordinator for the Office of Sustainability at the University of Arizona, and serves as the coordinator for the Compost Cats program. In the past three years they have diverted more than 45,000 pounds of food scraps from the landfill, Kenzie said.

Drop-off locations

Spots to drop off your pumpkins, carved or not

Compost Cats drop-off locations

In 2020, the U.S harvested 66,200 acres of pumpkins, according to the 2020 statistics from the U.S Department of Agriculture. Many of those pumpkins were used ornamentally for seasonal decor. Of the estimated 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins produced in 2020, only about one-fifth were used for food, according to the U.S Department of Energy. The remaining gourds were sent to the climate change equivalent of the underworld: the landfill.

The warped faces of jack-o’-lanterns rotting in a trash heap might be a scary sight but not as scary as the consequences that come with leaving them there. Organic material in landfills such as vegetables and fruits, or pumpkins in this case, create harmful climate pollutants as they decompose because they have no access to oxygen when they are buried under all that trash, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

As these organic materials begin to decompose in anaerobic environments (environments without oxygen), bacteria will break down the matter and produce methane, which is a primary contributor to ground-level ozone, a dangerous air pollutant and greenhouse gas. 

“Municipal solid waste landfills are the third largest source of human-related methane emissions in the U.S, accounting for approximately 14% of methane emissions in 2021,” according to the EPA. “Wasted food is responsible for 58% of landfill methane emissions.”

Methane, over a 20 year period, is about 80 times more potent at warming than carbon dioxide, according to the United Nations Environment Programme

Exposure to ozone air pollution contributed to an estimated 1 million premature respiratory deaths globally in 2010, according to a 2017 study published by the Environmental Health Perspectives journal.

Methane accounts for roughly 30% of global warming since pre-industrial times and continues to increase at a faster rate since official recordings began in the 1980s, according to the UN environment program. 

In 2021, the Global Methane Assessment found that more than half of all methane emissions are man-made. Waste accounts for 20% of that number, while fossil fuels and agriculture account for 35% and 40%, respectively.

Local solutions to big problems

There are many local ways to dispose of your creepy pumpkin creations, while not only reducing methane emissions but also contributing to the Earth.

Kenzie helps run the residential composting program known as the University of Arizona Compost Cats Bucket Program. The program currently has about 550 participants, Kenzie said.

The compost they make goes to many different local groups, including Tucson Unified School District gardens and Tucson community gardens like the Blue Moon Community garden, the Tucson Village Farm or the UA community garden. 

The holiday seasons can be some of the most wasteful times of the year as people stock on foods for family meals and traditions. To make it easier for people to curb waste, Kenzie said Compost Cats allows a one-time free drop off for pumpkins. They have drop-off sites around Tucson.

“If you just have carved pumpkins or ones you had sitting out, bring them as they are. Our compost specialists enjoy smashing them,” Kenzie said, chuckling.

They will take any pumpkin except the painted ones because the chemicals taint the compost. 

Kenzie offered alternatives to composting for pumpkins after they’ve served as a holiday decoration.

“Unless your pumpkins (are) bad, we always recommend that people eat it first,” she said. “That is better for the environment.”

She encouraged people to consider joining the composting bucket program year-round.

“Everything we’re doing counts to help the planet and even just a little drive or a little walk down to one of our drop-off sites can make a difference, and if you want to continue dropping off your compost, that will divert so much food waste in just a year,” Kenzie said.

The residential-focused program began in 2020 and serves community members and the campus, including students. To begin, Compost Cats offers either a 2-gallon or 5-gallon bucket. You can purchase it or bring your own bucket. There is a one-time onboarding fee for the buckets that ranges from $20 to $30, after that there is a $12 monthly fee to drop off your food scraps. Residents can fill out an interest form or email or call Kenzie at 520-621-7817 with questions. Fees for students are waived.

“That money really just goes back to our student employees,” Kenzie said. “I have 11 student employees that are out there turning the compost, I’d say, every other day.”

Kelly Sauer, pictured here on Oct. 18, 2023, and her husband have run their pumpkin and Christmas tree business for the past 10 years in Tucson at 5028 E. Broadway Blvd. Credit: Teressa Enriquez

Kelly Sauer and her husband Brian have run the well-known pumpkin patch, Brian and Kelly’s Pumpkins and Christmas Trees, on Broadway Boulevard, in Tucson for the past 10 years. Kelly has sold thousands of pumpkins, all local, coming from Willcox. 

Kelly’s pumpkin season ends around Thanksgiving and she says more people should eat their pumpkin when they’re done displaying it. 

“If you season them up enough, they’re so good,” she said. “I have ladies that come in that make homemade empanadas and they grab the biggest pumpkin they can get.” 

Pumpkins also make a great base for fall soups, pies or syrup for your coffee.

By the end of the season, Kelly often has many fresh pumpkins left over. Her pumpkin patch donates those to local organizations. Some go to the Ironwood Pig Sanctuary in Marana. Others go to the food bank for Thanksgiving and to the Iskashitaa refugee center in Tucson.

While Kelly is familiar with composting, she thinks many people don’t know alternatives to dumping their pumpkin into the trash after Halloween.

“I think people are active in that way, just like recycling your Christmas tree,” she said. “If they knew there was a place they could compost their pumpkin.”

Other things you can do with your Halloween pumpkin

  • Pumpkins for pigs is great way to see what farms would be willing to take your pumpkins
    • Syzygy Farm: 3234 N. Avenida de la Colina, Tucson
      • Phone: 520-720-7393
      • They are willing to pick up or will accept drop offs
      • Please call for more information
  • Cook your pumpkins! Pumpkin-patch owner Kelly Sauer says all her gourds are edible and her kids can’t wait to eat them:
    • “We’ll just slice them in half, the little ones, and scrape out the seeds, which you can also cook. And then a little honey, a little cinnamon, butter and any acorn squash. I mean, they’re really creamy, really sweet,” Kelly said. “Some of my favorites are those blue ones. Those are delicious. They’re called Jarrahdale or Australian blue pumpkins. They’re excellent for cooking. There’s also a blue Hubbard squash.”
  • Here are some pumpkin recipes!
  • Pumpkin smashing in your own garden or organizing a pumpkin smash event
    • Check with community gardens or have people take pumpkin pieces home for their own compost or gardens

This story is supported by an internship from the Resilience Internships and Student Experiences (RISE) Program at the University of Arizona.

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