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Halloween poses a challenge to many eco-conscious parents: If we stay true to our values and reject the unhealthy, wasteful trappings of Halloween, we feel like we’re depriving our kids of a rite of childhood. Many of us give in, but the knowledge that we’ve compromised principles dear to our heart -- and that ultimately help protect the future these kids will inherit -- haunts us. To make this Halloween a little greener, try some tips that have worked for other eco-minded parents.

Costumes Needn’t Contain Scary Compounds ... Or Leave a Frightening Trail of Waste

Those getups advertised in newspaper circulars may look cute, but a recent study of Halloween costumes and accessories by found high levels of PVC, lead, and other chemicals hazardous to your little trick-or-treater’s health. The good news is that they also found a number of products without these compounds, evidencing “a market shift in the face of growing consumer and regulatory pressure.”

There are so many other ways to outfit our kids for a fun night of dress-up, minus all the waste and questionable materials.

Man in white with a home-made bucket mask.

Some alternatives to purchasing new costumes every year:

  • Make your own costumes from items you already have around the house. You’ll save money and reuse materials while encouraging your child’s creativity. The things you can make from a cardboard box and other contents of your recycling bin are endless. More fun to see yet another Disney-made Elsa marching around the neighborhood, or a homemade airplane or zebra? Creating a costume with the help of mom or dad may become one of your child’s favorite memories of Halloweens gone by.
  • You can also repurpose items from your dress-up box or closet, or pick up gently-used costumes from garage sales and thrift stores. Mix and match to make new costumes out of old ones. Last year’s butterfly wings can be added to this year’s fairy outfit. A favorite dance dress or athletic jersey can transform kids into ballerinas or sports stars.
  • A mother applying skeleton make-up on her son.

  • Some families host costume swaps with friends. Every participant brings a costume and leaves with one that’s new to them. Endless recycling and no waste! (If you’re organizationally challenged, Green Halloween has tips for hosting your own swap party.)
  • Standard face paint contains some pretty scary stuff. A 2009 report from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found lead in all ten of the face paint brands they tested. Sixty percent contained other heavy metals. Seek out non-toxic options or try making your own.

Waste-Free Decorating

Halloween has it roots in harvest festivals, so play up those pumpkins! Carving your own jack-o’-lanterns is a fun family activity, and when you’re done you can all enjoy the roasted seeds. The smaller decorative pumpkins you don’t carve can eventually be added to soup, muffins, pancakes, and lots more (need some ideas? Blogger Eliza Cross’s new book 101 Things to do with Pumpkin might help.)

What’s left can be used to celebrate the garden’s cycle, winding up in the compost to nourish next year’s vegetables. U.S. farmers grow over a billion pounds of pumpkins each year, which would produce a lot of methane if they all went to the landfill. Buy an organic pumpkin and you help support sustainable farming practices while keeping pesticides out of your pies.

Skip the plastic lawn ornaments, orange plastic leaf bags, and the piles of decor peddled by big box stores at this time of year. If you want more than a jack-o’-lantern, consider making a few decorations from what you already have, like scrap paper bats and ghosts. As with costumes, creativity can go a long way to getting the spooky effects you’re after without adding to the holiday waste stream.

Don't Get Tricked by Treats

The candy part of this holiday can be especially tough to work around. Folks trying to avoid giving kids sugar often suggest inexpensive trinkets of various sorts, which create waste and probably contain compounds better kept out of your house. Finding “treasures” kids would actually use and won’t object to in place of Snickers and Smarties is your best bet if you want to forgo candy. Some trying to buck the candy trend have distributed crayons, polished stones, erasers, coins or even certificates to local businesses. Will some trick-or-treaters be disappointed? Maybe, but they’ll likely get more than enough candy from the other houses they visit.

Boy with wide eyes looking at a chocolate bar.

Green Halloween has some suggestions for better treats and treat alternatives and numerous smart green parents have developed tempting-yet-healthy treats so kids won’t feel deprived.

If you want to keep candy in your Halloween celebration, look for products with minimal packaging and the least harmful ingredients. Organic candy, while not exactly healthy or impact-free, at least means kids won’t get unnecessarily exposed to chemicals and other unsavories. The most affordable and easy-to-find options are organic lollipops, and though your dentist probably won’t be thrilled, they’re one of the better choices out there. If you don’t have many trick-or-treaters to provide for and feel like spending some of the money you saved by not buying costumes and decorations, organic fair trade chocolates in single-serve sizes have also gotten easier to find.

What to do with the sack (reusable, of course) of dentists’ nightmares your kids bring home? Generally full of multiple forms of sugar, artificial colors and flavorings, GMOs, and trans fats, there’s plenty to scare the health-minded parent.

A witch casting a spell on a teapot pouring tea into a cup.

Enter the Switch Witch! A popular relative of the Tooth Fairy and the Elf on the Shelf, this sugar-craving sorceress swaps all that junk food for money, a coveted toy, or even needed sports equipment and other gear. She now has an official program to collect candy and send it – along with plenty of toothbrushes — to soldiers stationed overseas. Kids can keep a few favorite candies if you like, or you can swap them out for healthier alternatives.

You can also join the brave folks daring to skip trick-or-treating completely. Get together with like-minded friends and throw a no-waste party with homemade treats instead. Kids might not object to missing the whole trick-or-treating part of the holiday if they got to enjoy a fun evening of games with friends.

If you do decide to make the rounds, consider redirecting kids’ efforts from gathering sugar to doing good. A number of groups trick-or-treat for nonperishables that go to local food shelves or raise money for Unicef. Now that’s a tradition an eco-parent can get behind.