zero-waste halloween.

October 17, 2017

We recycled Faye’s red ladybug in March. Five months post-Halloween and she was ready, so we removed the sparkly ribbon, folded the cardboard shell in two, and popped it into our recycle bin. Over the summer, when murmurings of Halloween started up again, she announced that she wanted to be a ladybug again, only this time, a blue one.

This weekend we went to an art supply shop and bought two colors of blue paint, Faye’s choosing. We used leftover black paint to make the spots. Yesterday I supplemented our weekend paint selections with some blue glitter paint to satisfy a yen for sparkle. Tomorrow we’ll string on some blue ribbon, and because at age three ladybugs become slightly more concerned with anatomical accuracy, we’ll pair the wings with black long johns, last-year’s black hat— snug, but serviceable—and call her finished. (Silas is going as an chartreuse-bodied bug with his own set of wings.)

I’m a holiday enthusiast. And so despite the fact that Halloween isn’t exactly a healthful, zero-waste experience, on this one day a year, we go for it. Yes, there are a lot of individually wrapped candies, but a once yearly transgression doesn’t have to mean a year’s worth of guilt, especially because with a little forethought, Halloween can be a fairly low-impact affair. Less waste, if not zero.

I wrote last year about bringing a bit of fall-ish magic into your home, zero-waste style. Here, a few ideas for sourcing Halloween costume elements, without needing to raid the costume shop or store a shop’s worth of costumes in your home:


+ We tend to start our costume search by rooting through the recycling bin. I especially like going this route because a costume made of recycled materials is a costume that’s easily….recyclable. Sure, Faye’s costume lingered for a few months post-holiday, but it was relatively unobtrusive while it was hanging on a hook in her room and very easy to part with when the time came. Recyclable materials to consider: Cardboard, egg cartons, packing peanuts, aluminum foil, bubble wrap, empty toilet paper rolls… the fun never ends. (Wink.)


+ Thrift stores are filled with costumes or costumes-to-be this time of year. My nephew was a bumble bee a few years ago, and he wore a thrifted bee costume, complete with antennae. When the holiday was over, back to the thrift store it went. If your kid has their heart set on a costume that’s somewhat less homespun than some cardboard ladybug wings, swing by a thrift store—or a friend’s closet—to see if there’s something there that could strike their fancy but that wouldn’t necessarily require buying anything brand new. Once the holiday is over, chat with them about passing it along to someone else.


+ I’m a big fan of costumes that are mostly….not costumes. Faye’s wearing a base of perfectly great pajamas as her ladybug body. She’ll wear them until she out grows them and then they’ll fit Silas, and on and on we’ll go. (If you’re on the hunt, City Threads, Hanna Andersson, Mabo, Petits Vilains, Rudy Jude, Arq, and Primary are a few favorite kids brands that make simple basics in solid colors that are great for costumes and for every single day.) In addition to a solid base, we use all sorts of things that we’d otherwise wear normally: winter hats, bonnets, scarves, tights, etc. Paired in the right combination, and seen with a little imagination, just about anything becomes a costume. For the very littlest trick-or-treaters, a costume that makes good use of a baby wrap (we have this one) is a thing to try. Silas might be too enthusiastic about the evening to be contained, but we’re hoping he’ll decide to be a snug little bug this year.

What about you guys? Genius costume ideas?

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  • Reply Ris October 17, 2017 at 11:31 am

    I bought an adult bee costume in 2008 (yes I still dress up) and have been re-using it ever since. I’ve been a spelling bee, a killer bee, a queen bee, and a quilting bee, all created with items I already own or can easily make with cardboard and markers. It’s become sort of my “thing” now and friends look forward to what iteration the bee costume is going to appear in next!

    • Reply Sarah E October 17, 2017 at 2:05 pm

      That’s pretty clever.

  • Reply Cathy October 17, 2017 at 12:39 pm

    We ordered plain grey and black pants and hoodies for our toddler twins which we’ll add onto with other fabric to create one puppy and one kitty costume. Husband and I will attached our kids stuffed toys (cats and dogs) to a pair of umbrellas, and as a family we’ll be a concept piece: “Raining Cats and Dogs”

    BUT, once Halloween is over: the embellished pants and hoodies can go back to plain old pants and hoodies. And the umbrellas can just be umbrellas. Voila!

  • Reply Anna October 17, 2017 at 12:59 pm

    My daughter wants to be a bat this year. So we went to the thrift store and found a long-sleeved black shirt, black leggings (she needed a new pair of those, anyway, since she was outgrowing the ones she has now), a black skirt (she insisted), and some black costume satin. I used some interfacing and black elastic I already had at home and put those together with the satin to make a set of bat wings, which she periodically wants to wear around the house, even though it isn’t quite Halloween yet.

  • Reply Liz October 17, 2017 at 1:11 pm

    My kids often borrow costumes or pieces of costumes from friends and neighbors. Grandparents attics are also great places to get ideas!

  • Reply Sarah E October 17, 2017 at 2:09 pm

    I like to make costumes out of things I already own, that maybe only need one or two additions. First, I want to be comfortable while I’m wearing it, and second, I don’t want a closet full of plastic-y stuff. In college, I reused my childhood set of fairy wings, put on the pinkest and frilliest things in my and my roommates’ closet, then added a load of glitter and then detached the end of our Swiffer handle and put some ribbon on it. I’ve also seen a green outfit with thrifted Christmas ornaments pinned on used to great effect for a double-holiday combo.

    A serviceable pair of cat ears or a handy cape can make a lot of costumes come to life and are easily reused all the time.

  • Reply MissEm October 17, 2017 at 3:19 pm

    I also make costumes out of what we already have or need. This year my oldest is going as Mary Poppins – wool trench (fall coat), my skirt pinned up, a new blouse that she’ll keep wearing, tights and shoes already owned and we’ll paint her beat up summer straw hat black and make cherries and daisies out of modeling wax, paper, and wire. My youngest is going as a bunny, so same idea – romper, long john top, tights, wool yarn Pom Pom tail, and felt ears on an already owned hat. It’s my favorite way to do costumes!

    • Reply Miss A October 19, 2017 at 5:41 pm

      Already picturing my youngest as a cute little bunny using this same strategy!

  • Reply Juliette October 17, 2017 at 3:22 pm

    Black T-shirt and black leggings plus a pair of cat ears and a tail we’ve had for 4 years, along with a little makeup makes a great little halloween cat (3rd year in a row that my daughter chooses this costume!)

  • Reply Kelly October 17, 2017 at 3:33 pm

    Through our neighborhood Buy Nothing chapter we had a costume swap and last weekend’s farmer’s market. It was amazing – kids brought old costumes and took home a new one.

  • Reply Annaleah October 17, 2017 at 4:22 pm

    We do Halloween just the same at our house. Not only do we save money by not buying costumes, but I love how it encourages our creativity! Last year, with a four month old, he and I were “Jack and the Beanstalk”! I made a vine from felt, wrapped it around me, then put the baby in a carrier with a little pointy felt hat. That was the first time I had incorporated a baby into my costume, and it was so fun!

    • Reply Miss A October 19, 2017 at 5:39 pm

      I love this idea! If my new little one (expected in spring) is a boy I just might use it next year!

      • Reply ERIN BOYLE October 19, 2017 at 5:45 pm

        Girls can be Jacks, too! 😉

  • Reply Jessica October 17, 2017 at 7:48 pm

    One of my mothers greatest joys in life is sending my daughter her (store bought) Halloween costume, so we are pretty much the opposite of this. They do get tons of use throughout the year though (we are big on dress up play) and now that there’s a brother on the scene they are getting handed down to him. Until Grandma wants to send him his own. Oh well, you pick your battles

  • Reply Kim October 17, 2017 at 7:50 pm

    We have a very similar approach to Halloween over here! Last year my now two year old was a cardboard llama. This year we are making cardboard butterfly wings for her and partnering them with her regular clothes. And I’m hoping her baby sister will be content enough to be a caterpillar in her cocoon (i.e. sling).

  • Reply Elizabeth October 18, 2017 at 4:41 pm

    I’ve never commented here before, but felt compelled to on this post, as I share a lot of similar feelings about Halloween and costumes. My 7-year-old daughter is going to be a woolly bear caterpillar, so I bought a plain orange shirt from Primary, and found a women’s fuzzy black vest at the thrift store to go over. She’ll wear black tights and shoes she already has, with orange- and black-striped fuzzy leg warmers to go over. Slap on a pair of black antennae and we’re done. I’m sure the various pieces will be recycled into different iterations in the dress-up drawer over the course of the year.

  • Reply JPB October 19, 2017 at 5:49 am

    The costumes I liked most as a kid where the ones actually made just by using the real thing, which worked best, when dressing in professions. Obviously it’s not always more fun, but when our neighbour, who worked in a hospital brought me proper scrubs (which then were returned), it felt really cool to my 9-year-old-self. My best friend went as the patient (which I know imagine could be a great way to use up expired first aid kids). Lab coats (to be worn as anything from scientist to vet), chefs jackets…might not work every year, but definitely worth consideration…obviously it helps to have friends to borrow from.

  • Reply Erin October 19, 2017 at 1:04 pm

    We use items we have or make simple costumes each year. Our kids think it’s great fun to turn our dress-up clothes into “new” outfits. A couple of years ago my son was a robot made from a box, paint and construction paper. He caught the attention of the local newspaper photographer, who said the costume reminded him of the homemade costumes of his childhood. My son earned a spot in the paper, which he thought was pretty fantastic.

  • Reply Caroline October 24, 2017 at 7:43 am

    My older son hates dressing up, so we have always done costumes that are made from regular clothes (plus a hat usually). He was given a fireman windbreaker for Christmas last year, and I bought some cargo pants and sewed reflective fabric tape around the legs for a fireman. This year he insists he wants to be a (pajama) skeleton with no accessories. We’ve also done train engineer with stripey overalls and a bandana, plus hat from the party store.

  • Reply Amanda K. October 24, 2017 at 11:48 am

    Two years ago my daughter dressed as cinderella and we pulled it off with a sparkly blue hanna andersson dress and a tiara. She was thrilled, and wore the dress until it was thread bare (quite a feat in hanna quality clothes!) Here she is in her outfit:

    And for my son, we made a skeleton costume using black sweats and remnants of one of his dad’s undershirts. He wore it for two years, and his little brother will wear it next year. —

    This year we’re being a bit lazier because I’m 37 weeks pregnant with our fourth child, BUT i like to think we’re building up a cache of halloween options for years to come.

  • Reply Grace October 25, 2018 at 3:05 pm

    What about zero-waste trick-or-treating? I don’t feel good about adding to the sugar high with candy, I don’t want to buy a bunch of plastic trinkets that will get tossed within days, but I also don’t want to be the dud house on the block. What would you do, Erin?

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE October 25, 2018 at 3:14 pm

      You know, we don’t giveaway candy because we don’t get trick or treaters on our block, but in general, I’m more in favor of letting kids have a one-night transgression of sugar and packaging rather than filling their bags with a lot of junk. And as much as it’s lovely to think about handing out acorns and being met with delight, I’m afraid I can’t really get behind that either! I’ve written a bit about this in my newsletter in the past, but I realize not on my blog! Evolving thoughts, will try to include more in my Monday piece!

      • Reply Grace October 25, 2018 at 3:18 pm

        Yeah, I figured this might not be something you’ve had to confront specifically, but I appreciate how you think through things. I’m also conscious of kids with allergies and like some of the suggestions from the Teal Pumpkin Project, but so many of their alternatives are plastic toys.

        • Reply ERIN BOYLE October 25, 2018 at 3:25 pm

          Yes, totally. I’m mostly so mindful of the absolute junk that’s thrown at kids on a regular basis—food, clothing, throwaway toys, etc. I guess part of me wishes we could just keep halloween to some mildly junky candy and get on with it. No need to visit 55 houses. No need to overindulge or eat everything you’ve been given. But for heaven’s sake the world doesn’t need another plastic spider ring!

          • Grace October 25, 2018 at 3:47 pm

            That’s a great perspective! I’m an everything in moderation sort of person anyway, so maybe that’s how to handle it with my own kids: go out for a short time and don’t be greedy. Thanks for thinking through this with me, Erin!

          • Grace October 31, 2018 at 12:30 pm

            Erin, I stumbled across this article today and thought I’d share it! It feels very germane to the conversation we were having about kids and sweets. This seems like a very thoughtful way to approach Halloween candy with the long view in mind:

          • ERIN BOYLE October 31, 2018 at 12:33 pm

            Love this! Thanks so much for sharing!


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