carved Halloween pumpkin and squashes

Yes, trick-or-treaters standing outside your door want sugary sweets tossed in their sacks. And Americans dole it out: The National Retail Federation estimates shoppers will spend about $3.1 billion on Halloween candy in 2022.

Some of us eco-focused folks are thinking of deviating from that tradition with an approach that’s planet-friendlier; healthier; and, ideally, kid-satisfying.

We’re not trying to take all the fun out of Halloween. And we’re not suggesting ducking into your houses, locking your doors, and switching off all the lights. (No judgment, if you do.) Nor are we recommending you scurry to the kitchen and whip up homemade organic delicacies.

We simply want to offer ideas for those who prefer doling out something other than Skittles, Dum-Dums, Nerds, and other similarly sugary Halloween treats. Our aim is minimizing waste. Or at least not contributing more.

Less candy for Halloween night ideally reduces waste. Less plastic packaging discarded. Fewer empty wrappers littering streets and polluting waterways. Less unwanted candy — either rejected by youngsters or discretely diverted by sugar-policing parents — dumped into garbage cans.

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Food-Free Low-Waste Halloween Handouts

We’re recommending relatively inexpensive Halloween treat alternatives that are low-waste or waste-free; recyclable or easily disposable; and, preferably, plastic-free.

If you’re hesitant about the switch, perhaps stick with sweets and include some non-food items in your stash. Offer trick-or-treaters the opportunity to pick what they prefer.

Depending on their age and personal interests, trick-or-treaters probably would enjoy some non-food handouts. We asked three girls — age 7, age 12, and age 18, and one boy, age 15 — about our ideas, and included their opinions.

1. Seeds

Packets of flower seeds or vegetable seeds. Kid-friendly recommendations from Dan Scott of the American Horticultural Society include sunflower seeds, radish seeds, arugula seeds, and lettuce seeds.

Plantable seed papers are virtually waste-free and offered in such fun shapes and designs as butterflies, bees, and flowers. With these, purchase wisely. Not all seed papers receive rave reviews. “Seed paper, like all seeds, should be purchased from a reputable supplier,” Scott says.

What kids think: All said they would like seeds, especially the 7-year-old, who showed off a sprout from the mango seed her family planted. The 15-year-old boy said, “I would probably like them.” And out of the options we ran by him, seeds would be his second choice. The 12-year-old girl said she would enjoy seeds because she gardens with her family. However, she wasn’t sure seeds would appeal universally.

2. Pencils

For a fun twist on functional items, select pencils with personality, such as emoji pencils, recycled newspaper pencils, or a variety pack featuring assorted designs.

What kids think: The 7-year-old shook her head “No.” The 12-year-old girl suggested fun-shaped erasers instead. The 15-year-old boy said that kids with plenty of pencils would probably just put it somewhere and forget it. But he thought some might appreciate a fresh pencil. The 18-year-old girl appreciated the idea. “I personally would love that. I loved fun pencils when I was little,” she said.

3. Activity Sheets

If you’re an innovative DIYer, design your own sheets featuring kid-friendly riddles, word-searches, and other puzzles. Perhaps devise a few versions tailored to different ages. Ideas and printable worksheets are online, including Print them out on recycled paper. If you’d rather forego a DIY version, browse mini activity books printed on recycled paper.

What kids think: While this is one of our favorites, the kids weren’t particularly impressed with activity sheets as a Halloween treat. The 12-year-old girl said it would seem like the person who was distributing them forgot to purchase candy. The 15-year-old boy thought it would probably just get smushed by other Halloween treats.

4. Play-Doh

Definitely not waste-free; however, it’s probably preferable to some other non-food items, such as inexpensive plastic throw-away toys. Some Play-Doh packages are Halloween-handout-friendly, including 36 3-ounce packs for $24.99, a party pack with 15 for about $8, or 30 for about $30.

What kids think: The older kids said they liked the idea of Play-Doh, especially for younger trick-or-treaters. The 7-year-old said “no” to Doh.

5. Money

Reward costumed characters with coins in denominations and quantities fitting your budget. No packaging involved. Enjoy an eco-friendly bonus if your household coin jar is full. No need to waste fuel on a shopping trip.

What kids think: The 7-year-old girl was enthusiastic at the prospect of money for Halloween. “One hundred million dollars!” she said. What if it’s only a few nickles? “That is fine,” she replied. The 12-year-old girl wasn’t interested in money, especially in small amounts. The 15-year-old boy said he would be satisfied with that. Out of the options provided, “I think the coins would be my favorite thing,” he said. The 18-year-old recalled being delighted when she was about 7 years old and someone — who she thinks ran out of sweets — handed her a quarter.

5. Crayons

Easy to dispense in packs, such as 50 packs of crayons (four crayons per pack) for about $13. Or reduce waste and skip individually packaged products. Buy in bulk, such as 264 for about $16, and drop a few into each trick-or-treat sack. For a fun twist, shop for crayons formed into Legos or other fun shapes.

What kids think: All approved of this idea as OK, especially for younger trick-or-treaters.

Originally published on October 16, 2019, this article was updated in September 2022.

By Patti Roth

Patti began her writing career as a staff writer for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Still based in Florida, Patti serves as editor for Fort Lauderdale on the Cheap. She regularly writes about environmental, home improvement, education, recycling, art, architecture, wildlife, travel and pet topics.