Editorial: Smash Your Pumpkins for Sustainability | AIChE

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Editorial: Smash Your Pumpkins for Sustainability



October brings cooler weather, colorful leaves, and one of my favorite fall activities: apple picking. For the past few years, I’ve visited nearby apple orchards in search of my favorite apple, the Honeycrisp. Last year, I stopped by the apple orchard a bit too late in the season, and many of the best apples were picked through. After harvesting a few of the last apples of the season, my group headed to the farm’s pumpkin patch, where there was no shortage of pumpkins.

There we were, in a field filled with hundreds of pumpkins, only days before Halloween, and I couldn’t help but wonder, “What will happen to all these pumpkins on November 1st?” In most cases, leftover pumpkins do not go to the landfill. Often, farmers let the pumpkins degrade in the field and then plow them into the soil to add nutrients for the next crop. On farms with livestock, unsold pumpkins go directly into animal feed. Some leftover pumpkins will take flight at pumpkin-chucking (often called “punkin chunkin”) competitions, which are held all over the U.S. However, none of these unsold pumpkins will end up in your pumpkin spice latte, which often contains little to no real pumpkin.

If you buy a pumpkin this year, think twice before putting it into the garbage can at the end of the season. Scrape out the seeds, season them, and toast them in the oven for a healthy snack. Or, consider composting it. In New York City, the Hudson River Park celebrates sustainability at its annual Pumpkin Smash. Residents bash and crush their old Halloween pumpkins, the scraps of which are collected into compost bins, generating nutrient-rich soil that is later spread on the park’s plant beds. In 2020, the park collected more than 1,000 lb of pumpkins. Many cities and towns offer community compost programs, which aim to limit the amount of food waste that must be transported to landfills.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, agriculture is the largest consumer of the world’s freshwater resources, and more than a quarter of the energy used globally is expended on food production and supply. Unfortunately, much of the food that is so laboriously produced is wasted — and we aren’t just talking about pumpkins here. In the U.S. alone, 133 billion lb of food per year becomes food waste. Much of that is sent to landfills, where the food generates methane, a greenhouse gas.

The 10th International Congress on Sustainability Science & Engineering (ICOSSE) explored some of these issues in its Food, Energy, Water Nexus session. I had the opportunity to attend this virtual conference from Sept. 13–15. Many of the presenters at ICOSSE emphasized the need for collaboration in driving the changes that will be necessary to support sustainability initiatives. For example, Ben McCall, Executive Director of the Hanley Sustainability Institute (Univ. of Dayton), introduced the Planetary Limits Academic Network (PLAN). PLAN is a multidisciplinary effort that aims to better define sustainability, address systemic challenges to achieving sustainability, and promote research to achieve long-term harmonious existence with our ecosystems. ICOSSE also highlighted how companies and organizations are prioritizing sustainability — and beginning to take more seriously our impact on the Earth.

Just like the leaves, the world is slowly starting to change — something to think about as you carve your Jack-O’-Lantern.

Emily Petruzzelli, Editor-in-Chief


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