Science·What on Earth?

Sustainable Halloween treats: Better for the planet and just as sweet

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at steps being taken to make chocolate and candy more sustainable, as well as what we can do to prevent birds from crashing into glass.

Also: A toolkit for comparing the federal parties' environmental policies

White text against a semicircle made of lines and blue and green stripes
(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, people! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Sustainable Halloween treats: Better for the planet and just as sweet
  • Election 2019: Tools to help you sift through each party's climate policies
  • Take a look at where carbon is stored
  • Birds and tall buildings: A deadly combination

How to buy sustainable Halloween treats

(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

It's a given that Halloween treats are a little scary when it comes to kids' dental health. But they can also be scary from an environmental perspective: Many contain palm oil, which may be produced in a way that causes deforestation and horrifying outcomes for endangered rainforest animals.

In September, the Toronto Zoo, the largest in Canada, launched a social media campaign asking people to "choose treats that protect rainforests," listing brands that use certified sustainable palm oil.

Those include:

  • Mars (Twix, 3 Musketeers, M&Ms, Snickers, Dove, Skittles)

  • Hershey's (Reese's, Turtles, Whoppers, Twizzlers, Jolly Ranchers)

  • Frito-Lay (Lay's, Ruffles, SunChips, Tostitos, Cheetos)

  • Quaker

  • Ferrero

  • Kraft Heinz

  • Lindt & Sprungli

Kelly Bentley, supervisor of volunteering and engagement at the Toronto Zoo, said the campaign comes out of the zoo's commitment to conservation and education, as well as the fact that it's home to many species from palm oil-producing regions, such as southeast Asia.

"We have orangutans here, we have tigers, we have rhinos — these are all affected by a lot of this destruction of the rainforest in Indonesia, and a lot of this destruction has been for palm oil plantations," she said. In fact, Indonesian officials said more than 80 per cent of the devastating wildfires raging through its rainforests in September were intentionally set to make room for palm plantations.

Toronto Zoo staff members' personal relationships with the animals at the zoo are another motivator, Bentley said. "They have that connection and they want to do everything possible to have an impact in the wild."

According to the World Wildlife Fund, another conservation group that campaigns for environmentally friendly palm oil production, more than half of consumer products in the U.S. contain palm oil, from lipstick to soap to ice cream.

But Bentley said it can be hard to identify, as it goes by many different names, including generic ones such as "vegetable oil." Even brands that use certified sustainable palm oil don't tend to label it. 

"When we started to research the issue, we found it frustrating," Bentley said.

In the end, the zoo used progress reports posted on the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil's (RSPO) website to grade different manufacturers, including producers of Halloween treats. It gives out a broader orangutan-friendly shopping guide that it has since posted online.

The good news is companies dragging their feet on sustainable palm oil could soon be more motivated to change — in November, the RSPO will implement new rules and start to fine members that don't increase the share of sustainable palm oil they buy

In the meantime, consumers can also help, Bentley said.

"People want to do the right thing," she said, acknowledging that it's not always easy to get the right information on complex issues such as this. "What we're trying to do is make it easy for people to make those sustainable choices."

Emily Chung

Your voting toolkit

Last week, we asked you what was the most important environmental issue facing Canadians. Based on the responses we got, it was clearly reducing carbon emissions.

The federal election is on Oct. 21, and we know that climate change is a decisive issue for many Canadian voters this time around. We also know that there are still many undecided voters out there. If you are one of them, we've assembled some of CBC's best climate-related journalism here, in the hopes of helping you make your ballot decision.

Email us at

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

The Big Picture: Where carbon is stored

Much of the talk surrounding the management of carbon emissions focuses on what goes up into the atmosphere. But as the chart below shows, the amount of carbon above ground is only a fraction of all the carbon stored on Earth.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

A simple solution to save birds from windows

(Emily Chung/CBC)

Up to 25 million birds die in Canada each year after flying into windows. 

"When you hear that sickening thud of a bird hitting a window on your house, you just feel really bad," said Bridget Stutchbury, a professor of conservation biology and ecology at York University in Toronto, who studies migratory songbirds in North America. "Even if it flies away, it might not survive."

(FYI, the brown creeper pictured above did in fact survive a collision with a window.)

Birds don't perceive windows the way we do and will instinctively fly toward them when they see trees reflected in them or believe they provide a clear passage. Stutchbury said birds are also attracted by lights at night because they use the stars to navigate.

This fact makes cities problematic, especially if they lie in a migratory corridor — or "bird superhighway" — that these creatures use to fly south. Stutchbury said Toronto is the first major obstacle for many birds migrating from the boreal forest up north.

But the large majority of annual Canadian bird deaths as a result of window collisions — 22 million — actually occur around houses and low-rise buildings, said Kevin Fraser, a professor at the Avian Behaviour and Conservation Lab at the University of Manitoba. 

"We used to think that this was only a downtown, tall-building problem," he said. 

There have been efforts recently to tackle the problem of window collisions, including bird-friendly building designs, landscaping and lighting. Regulations in Toronto, for example, now require bird-friendly glass on new buildings, Stutchbury said. 

A simpler solution is the installation of white dots on windows that signal to birds there is an obstacle in their way. They've recently been installed at York University, the University of British Columbia and at Toronto city hall. You can also buy these dots cheaply online to solve the problem at home if you're in an area prone to bird accidents. 

"Some people may know that a particular window is killing 10 or 15 birds a year, but they don't know what to do about it," Stutchbury said, adding that blinds and paper cutouts of birds don't actually work. 

"I think most people who have a problem at the cottage or at home would want to do something about it if they just knew what to buy." 

Fraser said the solution doesn't have to be anything particularly expensive.  "Homegrown solutions," he said, work just as well. 

"I myself have just taken a bar of soap and drawn on the window during a peak time during migration when the threat is higher, and that breaks up the reflection on the window," he said. "And you can wash it off easily afterwards."

Adam Miller

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


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