STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: ESS2.A, ESS3.D

CCSS: Reading Informational Text: 7

TEKS: 6.3A, 7.3A, 8.3A, B.3A, E.9D, E.9J

Rotting Away

There’s a better way to get rid of your jack-o’-lantern than tossing it in the trash

ANDREW HAYES/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

1. SCARY TRUTH: Garbage buries pumpkins tossed in landfills, creating an environment that lacks oxygen. Bacteria feasting on the food scraps under these conditions release methane as waste. This gas is a powerful contributor to climate change.

2. SHRUNKEN HEAD: As a pumpkin rots, water in its tissues slowly turns from a liquid to a gas. The warmer the weather, the faster this evaporation occurs. Hotter temperatures also help microbes grow and attract bugs looking for a meal. These factors speed up jack-o’-lantern decomposition.

3. CRITTER FEAST: Jack-o’-lanterns usually start rotting within 7 to 10 days of carving. Microbes like fungi and bacteria begin to break down the pumpkins. The tiny organisms may appear as white fuzz, black blotches, or other colorful growths. Insects and earthworms also munch on the pumpkins.

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT what happens to all the jack-o’-lanterns decorating people’s homes after Halloween has passed.

Last November, hundreds of people dropped off old pumpkins and shriveled jack-o’-lanterns at the parking lot of Downers Grove South High School in Illinois. Student volunteers tossed the gourds into a trash bin, while others standing inside the container used baseball bats to smash the pumpkins. “It was a little messy,” says 18-year-old Katherine Wilkinson. But it was also a lot of fun—even though she ended up with globs of mashed pumpkin in her hair!

Last November, hundreds of people came to the parking lot of Downers Grove South High School in Illinois. They dropped off old pumpkins and dried-up jack-o’-lanterns. Student volunteers tossed the gourds into a trash bin. Others stood inside the container and smashed the pumpkins with baseball bats. “It was a little messy,” says 18-year-old Katherine Wilkinson. It was also a lot of fun. But she did end up with globs of mashed pumpkin in her hair!

Events similar to this one, called Pumpkin Smash, are held around the country after Halloween. The reason is to protect the environment. Every year, 650,000 tons of pumpkins end up in landfills in the U.S. That’s equal to the weight of about 16,250 semi trucks. When buried in a landfill, pumpkins decompose, or break down, releasing methane. This greenhouse gas traps heat in Earth’s atmosphere, causing the planet’s average temperature to increase.

Last year, students at Downers Grove South High School collected almost 4 tons of pumpkins. Instead of being tossed in the trash, the gourds were composted. This process turns rotting organic matter into nutrients that can help plants grow—without producing harmful methane. It’s a win-win! By keeping your next jack-o’-lantern out of a landfill, you can help the planet too. “We can all be champions of the environment,” says Kay McKeen, the founder of SCARCE, an organization that helps coordinate Pumpkin Smash events throughout Illinois.

The event is called Pumpkin Smash. Ones like it are held around the country after Halloween. The reason is to protect the environment. Every year, 650,000 tons of pumpkins end up in landfills in the U.S. That’s the weight of about 16,250 semitrucks. Pumpkins decompose when buried in a landfill. As they break down, they release methane. This greenhouse gas traps heat in Earth’s atmosphere and causes the planet’s average temperature to increase.

Students at Downers Grove South High School collected almost 4 tons of pumpkins last year. The gourds weren’t tossed in the trash. Instead, they were composted. This process turns rotting organic matter into nutrients to help plants grow. And it doesn’t produce harmful methane. It’s a win-win! You can help the planet too, by keeping your next jack-o’-lantern out of a landfill. Kay McKeen is the founder of SCARCE, an organization that helps plan Pumpkin Smash events across Illinois. She says, “We can all be champions of the environment.” 

COURTESY OF SCARCE

BAT BASH: A Girl Scout smashes pumpkins at a Pumpkin Smash event last year in Illinois.

CONSTRUCTING EXPLANATIONS: Use evidence to support the claim: Discarding food waste in landfills is harmful to the environment.

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