Halloween has arrived. Storefronts are lined with costumes, pumpkins, cider, and of course, tons and tons of candy available for purchase. Consumers can get anything from massive sized variety bags with small pieces of candy to king sized chocolate bars in preparation for gaggles of trick or treaters or even just a festive snack for themselves. These treats come with a pretty unsustainable trick, though—candy wrappers are not typically accepted by municipal recycling programs, and can end up as litter or in landfills.
Candy wrapper producers use a mix of plastics and aluminum to house their sweets and protect goodies from spoiling. But, the combo is difficult to separate in order to recycle. There are some options, like through recycling company Terracycle, that include a recycling box you can purchase and ship back to the company to painstakingly separate wrappers, but just one small snack and candy wrapper recycling box costs $118. Like other single use packaging that cannot be recycled, candy wrappers that do not reach a landfill end up in ecosystems, getting tangled in habitats, potentially leaking toxins, or clogging up waterways.
“Once it’s in the environment, it’s going to stay out there,” says Laurie Eberhardt, a researcher in behavioral ecology and biology at Valparaiso University who researches the prevalence of birds using bits of plastic in their nests. “If it shows up in the environment at Halloween, it’s still going to be there in the spring.” The strength and makeup of plastics like candy wrappers allows them to stay circulating without breaking down for not just the few months between Halloween and nest building season, but for years.
We don’t know the full impact of a wrapper-lined nest on the fluttery creatures’ health and livelihood, but birds are far from the only animals to interact with plastic waste. Either in large chunks or tiny pieces called microplastics most plastic waste makes its way to the ocean as it travels through rivers and streams.
“Where they have the greatest concern is in the intertidal regions of our oceans,” says Leah Bendell, a researcher in ecotoxicology at Simon Fraser University. A piece of plastic that ends up in the environment has a typical life cycle, she explains. After a morsel of chocolate or candy corn is eaten, , a wrapper tossed into the street has a chance at finding its way to dirt and being buried in sediment. It is more likely, however, that wind, animals, or rain water might bring it on a journey until it reaches a waterway. A stream or river acts as conduit, and eventually, the wrapper makes its way to the ocean’s intertidal regions.
“They’ll sort of exist in the semi state of being floating in the ocean, and then going on land, and then floating in the ocean, and going on land, and becoming smaller and smaller.” says Bendell. This process disintegrates the larger wrapper into smaller pieces, called microplastics, which researchers are just beginning to understand the effects of.
While it’s upsetting to think about a favorite Halloween tradition could be detrimental to the environment, Bendell says it’s important to not be discouraged by this information. There are ways to mitigate this plastic usage.
Bendell suggests healthy treats like oranges or apples, but any treat that requires little to no wrapping would reduce waste. “It doesn’t have to be one of those little candies that are all wrapped up in polyethylene and tin foil,” she says. Candy company Alter Eco creates chocolates that come in compostable or recyclable packaging and have been available for purchase in the US since 2005. Even items like Junior Mints that come in cardboard packaging or soda in aluminum cans make for simpler recycling options compared to candy wrapped up in mixed-material packaging. Getting creative in the kitchen with candy and snacks yourself is also a good option for controlling how your sweets end up being packaged.
Some large candy companies are taking matters into their own hands by removing consumer pressure to be responsible for this waste. Nestle released a version of their Yes! snack bars that come in recyclable packaging in 2019 across Europe, a move that is just one step towards their goal of having entirely recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025. Mars Wrigley has also outlined their efforts in partnership with biotechnology company Danimer Scientific to have biodegradable candy wrappers for their products on store shelves by the end of 2021 or 2022. The familiar Skittles bag, among other products, will be swapped with one that will break down easily in landfills, consisting of Nodax polyhydroxyalkanoate, a packaging created by naturally fermenting plant oils . Ideally, after a Halloween candy binge session, candy wrappers can be tossed away with the rest of your trash worry free.
While the potential environmental effects of a beloved holiday tradition might be even scarier than your favorite Halloween movie, adjusting Halloween treats to be less wasteful doesn’t have to be a fright. Just swapping out your typical favorites for a low-waste option can make a dent in the amount of waste in a single night of costumed comradery.