Trash Pumpkin: Making Seasonal Decor Out of Literal Garbage

I’ve never been too big on decorating for the holidays. Sometimes I’m into it, but I mostly get tired of the tchotchkes and want my home to be clutter-free again. Partly I don’t like the look, but I also just don’t like buying decor that’s cheap and will ultimately end up the trash. BUT! Enter trash pumpkin. The decor that literally takes rubbish out of the bin and keeps it out of the waste stream.

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I wasn’t planning to do much decor this season, nor was I planning to do any DIY projects, but then one of my favorite people on Instagram made a trash pumpkin and I was smitten. You have GOT to follow Ellen (@common_earth) because she’s hysterical and shares really great information on living zero waste. Seriously. Do it.

Ok, here’s how you make a trash pumpkin. It’s super easy - a project perfect for kids or adults!

1. Collect trash in a plastic bag

Put a bunch of trash in a plastic grocery bag. I opted for things that wouldn’t go in the compost and wouldn’t go in the recycling. I used non-recyclable plastics, torn rubber gloves, single-use luggage tags, little pieces of plastic, the plastic piece that held on a garment tag, thermal receipt paper (they aren’t recyclable!), dryer lint, etc. You get the picture. Don’t put anything in there that can rot!

I compost at home, so basically everything in my trash bin was fair game. I just reached in and grabbed handfuls of things. I also had been storing a bunch of miscellaneous plastic bags in my Monica Geller closet because I hadn’t yet found a use for them. Voila. Trash pumpkin.

If you aren’t composting at home and you can’t just stick your hand in your slimy trash can, perhaps sit a grocery bag next to your can to toss in any garbage that won’t get gross.

You can also make miniature pumpkins using smaller pieces of plastic instead of a full-size grocery bag. Any kind of plastic you can tie up will work - Ellen made mini trash pumpkins with packing pillows.

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2. Tie up a grocery bag

Once your grocery bag is full, tie it up and ensure it’s plump. You might need to find more trash to shove in there if it isn’t nice and full.

3. Create pumpkin ridges

To make your ball of garbage look kinda like a pumpkin, you’ll want to create those pumpkin-y ridges in it. You can use rubber bands, string, old electronic cables you don’t have a use for, the elastic from ratty underwear, or anything thin and strong. I used the twist ties from my produce.

Wrap four (or more!) around your pumpkin like you were tying a ribbon on a present. The tighter you pull, the more pronounced the pumpkin ridges become.

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4. Make a stem

I used a toilet paper tube cut at an angle for the stem of the pumpkin. You could even use a branch or real stem if you were going for a more authentic look. I also used the twist tie wires to make some curlicue viney things.

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5. Papier maché the pumpkin

Now that you have a weird looking pile of trash, it’s time to cover it all up with paper so it looks a little less like trash and a little more like a pumpkin.

There are a bunch of different techniques and materials for making papier maché. I wanted to use the matte medium from my old art supply bin but simply couldn’t find it. So, I made my own “glue” with flour and water. Super simple. Just put roughly equal parts white flour and water in a bowl and mix with your fingers until it’s a thick soupy consistency. Too watery and it won’t thicken up. Too thick and it will make a chunky pumpkin.

For the paper, I used some packing filler that I saved from my exterior lighting delivery. It was pretty so I saved it to use as gift wrap. But, I have more than I’ll need so I used the purple-hued packing paper. Other papers I considered were newspaper or spare architectural drawings from my kitchen permitting process. You could also dig through your recycling and use scrap envelopes and junk mail. The thinner the paper, the easier it is to work with.

Dunk small pieces of paper in the “glue” mixture then coat it on the pumpkin. It doesn’t need to be perfect. Make a mess, enjoy it the sliminess of it. Oh, and put a drop cloth down underneath or you’ll make a mess of your table. I used a plastic bag.

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6. Let dry and do multiple coats

I let the main part of the pumpkin dry, then coated the bottom of it a day later. You could get creative and do the whole thing then prop it up on a stand or something. But, I chose to just break the process up with some dry time. This worked well because when I was doing the first coat on the bottom, I could assess the dried portions and apply a second coat anywhere that needed more support.

We aren’t making a boat here, people. So it doesn’t need to be super thick or sturdy. It’s just a trash pumpkin!

7. Color the pumpkin

You can do whatever your heart desires at this stage. Maybe you like the look of the papier maché and you just leave it as is. Maybe you decide to paint it orange and add a jack-o-lantern face. Perhaps paint it solid white or black or a spooky green. Maybe paint spiders or a design on it. Or, paint it teal and display it on Halloween night to tell trick-or-treaters you have allergen-free treats. You could also continue the papier maché and add layers or colored tissue paper on it to give it a hue. Whatever you please!

I decided to paint mine because I had lots of left over whites and creamy grey colors from painting my house. Namely from painting the mural in my home office. Since I was making a pumpkin out of trash, it seemed silly to purchase anything new, so opting for paints I already had on hand was the most zero waste approach. #usewhatyouhave

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8. Display and admire your pumpkin

She’s all done! Now you can admire her. The flour and water glue isn’t going to withstand the elements. But if you used exterior paint on your pumpkin or if you used matte medium or another kind of modge-podge, it will be somewhat water resistant. You could put it on the porch if you like. Be careful though, people are going to want to steal that beautiful trash pumpkin.

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9. Create more trash items

Keep the trash out of the landfill and keep making more trash pumpkins. Or maybe a trash turkey. Or a trash snow(wo)man. Or a trash St. Valentine. You could even go wild by making a giant trash pumpkin using a big garbage bag.

If you want to see my progress with the trash pumpkin in video, check it out here in my Instagram Stories!

Happy trash pumpkin-ing! Don’t forget to follow @common_earth for great zero waste tips!