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How you can make more socially conscious Halloween candy choices

Chocolate, a fixture of Halloween, can have serious environmental, climate and social impacts

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

With just weeks until many neighborhood streets are flooded with candy-seeking trick-or-treaters, 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.

While chocolate is a crowd-pleaser, the ubiquitous candy “has some pretty close associations with two of the biggest environmental crises that we face right now, and that’s the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis,” says John Buchanan, vice president of sustainable production for Conservation International.

What’s more, much of the individually wrapped candies plucked from bowls at parties or hauled home at the end of the night contribute to the spooky holiday’s waste problem.

“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.”

The trouble with chocolate

But Enck and other experts emphasize that axing the holiday isn’t the answer. “I would vigorously oppose canceling Halloween,” she says.

“I have very fond memories of trick-or-treating as a child. My kids had wonderful times trick-or-treating,” adds Carolyn Dimitri, an applied economist and associate professor of food studies at New York University. “It’s our culture, our custom — we give candy on Halloween.”

So, if you’re among the roughly two-thirds of Americans planning to pass out candy this year, here’s how experts recommend treating — rather than tricking — the planet with your choices.

Understand the impacts of candy

“It’s important for consumers, with any product that they buy, that they educate themselves about where it comes from and how it’s made and the impact of the product on the environment and the social implications of it,” says Alexander Ferguson, vice president for communications and membership at the nonprofit World Cocoa Foundation.

The environmental, climate and social impacts of popular candy products are largely associated with two common ingredients, experts say: cocoa and palm oil — both of which can be found in chocolate-containing candies.

“In terms of sustainability, the biggest problems in confectionery are in chocolate,” says Etelle Higonnet, an environmental and human rights expert who helped create the first environmental scorecard for chocolate.

Companies typically source cocoa and palm oil from tropical areas often inhabited by people in less economically-developed communities, Dimitri says. According to some estimates, about 70 percent of the world’s cocoa comes from West Africa while around 90 percent of the world’s palm oil trees are grown on a handful of islands in Indonesia and Malaysia.

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

Preserving these rainforests can help the world meet its goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to preindustrial levels, he adds.

“Deforestation and land use change are such huge drivers of emissions globally,” Buchanan says. “Even if we had a 100 percent perfect solution to green energy and … decarbonization, if you decarbonize the economy tomorrow, we still have to take nature into account if we are to stay below 1.5 degrees of warming. The global community must address both fossil fuel emissions and emissions associated with loss of natural areas and land use.”

Cocoa and palm oil are also linked to human rights issues, including forced labor and child labor.

Aside from taking steps to provide living wages to cocoa farmers, many of whom have been paid about $1 a day or less, major chocolate manufacturers such as Mars, Nestlé and Hershey have pledged to stop using cocoa harvested by children. But difficulties tracing cocoa back to farms means companies often can’t guarantee that their chocolate is produced without child labor, The Washington Post’s Peter Whoriskey and Rachel Siegel reported in 2019.

The chocolate industry is working on achieving better rates of traceability, or knowing where a product comes from, Ferguson says. “That sounds like a very simple thing, but actually it’s quite a hard thing to do when you’ve got many smallholder farmers and a long and complicated supply chain.”

The world has pledged to stop deforestation before. But trees are still disappearing at an ‘untenable rate.’

Additionally, poverty underpins many of the labor issues affecting those involved in the production of chocolate. Farmers often have to use their own children, because they can’t afford laborers.

“People tend to draw conclusions about the use of children in agriculture, and I think it’s important to keep in mind that for a lot of families there is not any other option,” Dimitri says.

Cocoa’s child laborers

Avoid palm oil

One of the simplest actions concerned consumers can take is to buy candy that doesn’t use palm oil, Dimitri says.

“Palm oil is really popular because it has really good mouthfeel and it’s really inexpensive,” she says. But it is possible to find products without the troublesome ingredient.

“A lot of candy companies have tried to reformulate their products so that they don’t have palm oil in them because there’s been resistance to it,” she adds.

Make sure to check ingredient labels carefully because some products from the same brand will still contain palm oil, even if other items do not.

Don’t boycott chocolate, buy better

You could buy Halloween candy that doesn’t contain cocoa, but experts caution against boycotting chocolate entirely.

Cocoa is mostly produced by individual farmers running small operations, Buchanan says. “If there isn’t a market for cocoa, they’re going to be even worse off, so you’re certainly not going to deal with challenges like child labor by taking away a key source of income.”

Instead, Ferguson says, “reward companies that are trying to do the right thing and stay engaged.”

Some experts recommend looking for third-party certification labels from groups such as Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance that are intended to help distinguish products that meet certain ethical standards. Though these certifications can be flawed and don’t guarantee a perfect product, they are often better than nothing, experts say.

“Given the complexities and the challenges of what we’ve seen, I think that there’s really a risk of letting perfect be the enemy of the good,” Buchanan says.

Chocolate companies sell ‘certified cocoa.’ But some of those farms use child labor, harm forests.

Still, buying certified chocolate means fewer options — and the candy tends to be more expensive. For example, Tony’s Chocolonely, a company that sells Fairtrade-certified chocolate, offers 100 individually packaged chocolates for $48.69. Alter Eco also offers certified food products, including 60-count boxes of individually wrapped truffles for $49.99.

Higonnet also points consumers to resources such as the Chocolate Scorecard, which surveys major chocolate companies and ranks them based on criteria such as traceability and transparency, living income, child labor, and deforestation and climate, among others. According to the 2022 scorecard, several major brands that sell more affordable candy options are overall “starting to implement good policies.”

“The best thing, regardless of whether you’re buying from a big company or a small company, is to be pushing them and asking them what are they doing to be part of the solution,” Buchanan says. “It’s not as easy as just going to small specialty companies. Those companies have their role and they can do things differently with the way they operate, but they also have a small footprint. We need the big companies as well.”

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Minimize waste

It’s also important to try to reduce the amount of non-recyclable waste and uneaten candy that gets thrown away. Keep in mind that you can donate unopened Halloween candy to organizations that send treats to soldiers and first responders or local community drives. But be sure to check donation requirements. Homemade items, for example, often aren’t accepted.

Many candy wrappers aren’t commonly recyclable, says Enck of Beyond Plastics, which provides a tip sheet for cutting back on plastic during Halloween. If possible, she suggests buying candy in bulk and putting it in paper bags, which can be recycled. Some popular candies, such as Nerds, Dots and Junior Mints, can also come individually packaged in recyclable cardboard boxes.

Although candy doesn’t stay good forever, it can remain safe and edible for longer than you might think, says Gregory Ziegler, a professor of food science at Pennsylvania State University who specializes in chocolate and confectionery.

“From a safety standpoint, candy is pretty safe,” Ziegler says. “It has very little moisture in most of it and a lot of sugar is really what protects it from much microbial growth that might make it unsafe.”

But, he notes, there is a difference between safe and edible. The shelf life for most candy ends because of texture or flavor change, which can affect enjoyment, he says. For example, if chocolate melts and rehardens it can develop a white-ish cast known as bloom, which isn’t harmful but might cause the candy to taste bad.

Ziegler recommends storing Halloween candy in a dry, sealed container. You can also put sweets into the freezer or refrigerator. “Almost all the reactions that cause candy to go bad slow down the lower the temperature is.”

Most candy should last six months, he says. “If you treat it right, maybe longer than that.”