Halloween Candy Won't Destroy (or Save) the Environment

By Cameron English — Oct 19, 2022
This Halloween, don't be fooled into thinking that your choice of candy will help destroy or save the planet. Environmentalists and reporters will tell you otherwise. They're mistaken.
Image by wonderwoman627 via Pixabay

As Halloween approaches, are you thinking about how you can make “socially conscious” candy choices? The Washington Post says you should be pondering how your treats affect mother earth. “With just weeks until many neighborhood streets are flooded with candy-seeking trick-or-treaters,” the Post reported on October 14, “environmentalists and sustainability experts say you should consider taking a second look at the sweet treats you might be planning to hand out — or eat — this Halloween.”

If you want to have a guilt-ridden Halloween, by all means, take the Post's advice. I'm dressing up as Dr. Evil and taking my son, decked out as Mini-Me, door-to-door to collect any and all sugary treats our neighbors offer. The reason is simple: Halloween candy choices have little impact on the environment.

The plastic myth abides

The Post highlighted plastic waste and deforestation as environmental concerns to have in mind during Halloween. Let's take them in turn.

Halloween should really be called Plasticween,” says Judith Enck, a former senior Environmental Protection Agency official under Barack Obama who now heads the Beyond Plastics advocacy organization. Although costumes and decorations are major sources of plastic, the overabundance of non-recyclable candy wrappers is also cause for concern. Broadly, Enck says, the holiday “is a plastic and solid waste disaster.”

Plastic pollution is a severe problem in developing countries, which lack the infrastructure to properly dispose of or recycle plastic. But this is not true in wealthy nations like the US or members of the European Union. As a rule, plastic emissions from these regions are a fraction of those originating in southeast Asia and Africa. People living in these parts of the world are understandably more concerned with their immediate welfare—feeding and housing their families, most importantly.

Contemplating the ecological impact of candy-wrapper pollution is a hobby for wealthy NPR listeners who drive Volvos. Their hearts are certainly in the right place, but their ideological commitments have blinded them to the facts about plastic waste.

This isn't to say that throwing your candy wrappers on the ground is acceptable. You're a cretin if you leave trash for someone else to clean up. My point is that plastic pollution in the US is less troubling precisely because Americans generally don't discard their waste irresponsibly. We also have enough disposable income to fund research into genetically engineered plants that produce biodegradable plastic and microbes that “eat” empty water bottles. [1] If the West has more to contribute to pollution-control efforts, it will be from these sorts of innovative projects.

The Downside of chocolate

The Post then turned its attention to the production of cocoa and palm oil, both key ingredients in many of the chocolate candies we enjoy:

Producing cocoa and palm oil has led to the deforestation of critical rainforests, which poses problems for climate and biodiversity … West Africa’s Ivory Coast, for instance, has lost 80 percent of its forests since 1970.

Deforestation, like plastic pollution, is a real problem. However, we have to look at it in context. Deforestation is declining around the world and has been for decades. As Our World in Data reported recently:

The world passed ‘peaked deforestation’ in the 1980s and it has been on the decline since then … We lost 150 million hectares – an area half the size of India – during that decade … Since then, deforestation rates have steadily declined, to 78 million hectares in the 1990s; 52 million in the early 2000s; and 47 million in the last decade.

We have discussed the innovations behind these improvements many times. Higher-yielding crop varieties enable us to grow more food without expanding the amount of land we have to farm. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides have had the same effect. Technological improvements in animal agriculture have allowed us to get more milk and meat from the same number of animals, significantly reducing the amount of pasture globally. Not only is deforestation on the decline, but palm-oil production is also responsible for less than one percent of the deforestation that occurs globally.

The problem is more significant in specific regions and nations; Central America and West Africa lost two to three percent of their forest between 1972 and 2015 to oil-palm plantations. Palm oil is also used to produce fuels, solvents, and lubricants in China, India, and Indonesia, but these countries have expressed very little interest in acquiring “sustainably grown” palm oil. Cocoa production poses a similar problem. A handful of countries produce most of the cocoa used to make chocolate bars. Their governments are trying to mitigate the resulting deforestation, though it's a difficult task that could jeopardize the livelihoods of thousands of growers.

I stress again that none of this excuses the problem, though it does mean that checking ingredient labels to avoid candy made with palm oil, as the Post recommended, will do little to reduce deforestation. Fair-trade certified products, another popular solution, aren't nearly as helpful as US consumers have been told.

The uncomfortable reality is that sustainability is a long-term goal we achieve incrementally over decades. There's no one country, industry, or consumer base that can shoulder the blame. The global economy is too interconnected for such a simple-minded solution to make much of a difference. The good news is that economic growth has a documented history of spurring significant environmental protection efforts.

Parenthetically, it appears that many popular candy brands are made with sustainability produced palm oil—or none at all. Enjoy your Halloween festivities guilt-free and recognize that we've made impressive progress toward sustainable living.


[1] These projects have a long way to go before they produce practical waste remediation solutions. See Josh Bloom's excellent piece How Do Bacteria Eat Plastic? for specifics. The point here is that wealthy nations have the resources to invest in these innovative efforts.