We need to talk about Halloween candy.
Public awareness of our plastic pollution crisis is at a high, plastic straws and bags are getting banned in cities and states across the country, and yet there has been almost no discussion about the massive environmental problem that Halloween candy creates.
Americans will buy approximately 600 million pounds of Halloween candy this year, spending $2.6 billion on bite-sized candy bars and bags of candy corn. After the holiday, nearly all the wrappers and packages from these confections will end up in landfills, where they’ll sit around for decades or more.
Candy wrappers are very hard to recycle. Like most food wrappers and packages, candy wrappers are not meant to be mixed with bottles and cans and sent to a sorting facility. “They are too small for our equipment to sort,” said John Hambrose, communications manager at Waste Management Inc., one of the largest sanitation companies in the U.S. Most curbside recycling programs prioritize capturing rigid plastics like bottles, jugs and materials that are at least the size of a credit card.
And it’s not just size that’s a problem. It’s what candy wrappers are made from.
“There are so many varieties of candy out there and equally abundant are the types of wrappers,” Jeremy Walters, sustainability manager for Republic Services, another major waste disposal company, told HuffPost in an email. “Though some wrappers feel like paper, they often have a ‘waxy’ or ‘poly-coating,’ leaving it unfit to be mixed with paper for recycling.”
Recycling systems aren’t designed to capture and sort wrappers “because they have little dollar value,” said Nick McCulloch, senior manager of sustainability at Rubicon Global, a waste reduction tech company.
“Recycling is in part about economics — the value of the raw materials you’re collecting needs to exceed the cost of collecting them. Candy wrappers make that math hard because they’re made from low-value plastics,” he told HuffPost. “You’d have to collect tens of thousands of wrappers to help make those economics work.”
Nevertheless, a few small efforts exist to curb the waste associated with hard-to-recycle materials like candy wrappers.
In September, HuffPost reported on the launch of the first municipal program in the country that encourages residents to throw flexible plastics, including candy wrappers, in the recycling bin. Eight thousand households in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, are participating so far, and nearby communities will join the experiment by the end of the year. The area uses a recycling facility with the advanced technology to deal with flexible plastics. Most facilities around the country would need millions of dollars to upgrade their equipment.
This month, recycling company TerraCycle and tech company Rubicon Global partnered to launched a “Trick or Trash” program for Halloween candy wrappers. Initially, school teachers and students could request a free recycling box before the holiday; and once the box was full, they’d return it to TerraCycle, which cleans and breaks down the wrappers to be made into new items. But due to overwhelming demand in more than 40 states, the companies had to stop sending out free boxes. Schools can still purchase a recycling box for snack and candy wrappers, but they’ll have to pay TerraCycle $81 to cover the costs associated with recycling these items.
Some food manufacturers have begun to experiment with wrappers made from recyclable materials. In the U.K., Nestlé recently launched its first recyclable paper packaging for a snack bar. The company did not respond when HuffPost asked whether it planned to use this new packaging on other products.
Walters told HuffPost that he worries about this so-called recyclable paper packaging.
“In theory it is a step in the right direction, but ultimately the biggest issue with this packaging is going to be contamination,” Walters wrote. “If you love chocolate as much as I do, you probably have experienced the Earth-shattering disappointment of opening up your chocolate bar and realizing it melted in your bag over the course of the day. Think about the sticky, chocolatey mess inside that wrapper. If that new ‘recyclable’ type of wrapper is soiled with chocolate or other food materials it cannot be mixed with paper grades coming out of the modern-day recycling center.”
“It is overwhelming to enter the Halloween aisle this time of year and think about where all of this plastic will end up.”
So what’s an environmentally conscious trick-or-treater to do?
In the zero-waste Facebook group of which I’m a member, I asked if folks had alternatives to Halloween candy wrapper hell. Several members said they went out of their way to hand out plastic-free treats ― like playing cards made from paper, compostable chewing gum from a plastic-free store, or classic Halloween favorites that come in paper containers (like Nerds, Lemonheads and Milkduds).
“If we all make it a point to support companies and brands who are really tackling the problem of disposability and taking steps to find solutions, we can force meaningful change,” said Sue Kauffman, North American public relations manager of TerraCycle.
Waste Management’s Hambrose agreed, saying that people can make a difference “by purchasing products that use less packaging and recycled materials,” and by sharing their concerns with elected officials.
Individual actions won’t get us very far so long as companies keep churning out candy in single-use packaging, according to Greenpeace representative Perry Wheeler. “It’s time to rethink how we are delivering these products while still making it enjoyable for children,” Wheeler said.
“It is overwhelming to enter the Halloween aisle this time of year and think about where all of this plastic will end up — polluting our oceans, waterways, or communities,” he added. “The cost of inaction on our throwaway culture is just too high to ignore.”
One member of the Facebook group said this is not an issue their household bothers to tackle, despite working toward a waste-free lifestyle. “I have no solutions,” they wrote. “We just deal the best we can.” They added that they try to limit the number of houses they visit to collect less candy in the first place.
Another option is extreme action, like banning all unrecyclable food packaging, not just candy wrappers. Such an effort, however, would not only be unpopular, and therefore unlikely to gain political traction; it’d be tough to enact and enforce.
Bans on plastic straws and shopping bags are highly controversial, and there isn’t a consensus yet on how effective they are. Research published earlier this year found that California’s ban on plastic shopping bags might be driving up sales of plastic garbage bags. And bans on plastic straws have proved difficult to implement.
When we asked Hambrose whether a gigantic trash-hauler and recycler like Waste Management would favor a potential ban on candy wrappers, he was aghast.
“Waste Management would never get between a trick-or-treater and a candy bar,” Hambrose said. “We can’t think of anything more horrifying.”
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