Yard waste; a whole new concept in 25 years
by Art Secor
It started in the early 1990s
when many states began banning open residential burning. For many
older people, the fall season is no longer greeted with the fragrant
wisps of smoke from burning leaves. As an example, the State of
Arkansas, Department of Environmental Quality’s Act 1151
strongly discourages open burning of yard waste and encouraged
local governments to deal with specific applications. This, in
effect, directed yard waste to landfills. According to the California
Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) in Sacramento, organic
materials – yard trimmings, grass, woody debris, etc. –
constitute about 40 percent of the waste being landfilled in the
Because of Florida’s rapidly
increasing in population, it was one of the first states to deal
with the problem of increasing municipal solid waste (MSW). The
state’s Department of Environmental Protection estimates
that population growth will produce 30 million tons of municipal
solid waste by 2010. With half of the states solid waste already
going to landfills, and an increasingly negative public acceptance
regarding landfills, other solutions had to be studied.
This scenario, while not as pressing
as Florida’s, was soon developing in many other cities and
towns. As in California, early studies soon identified that yard
waste accounted for almost half of the materials taken to landfill
sites. By weight, grass is the largest component. So, it seemed
an obvious decision for most communities - grass clippings had
to be cut from curb pickups. Initially, this came as a complete
shock to many property owners. What to do with the grass clippings?
Grass doesn’t make for a good salad. The city probably won’t
It took some adjustment, but
various immediate solutions took root. After all, necessity is
the mother of invention. Many individuals, encouraged by local
educational programs, took up mulching. Mulching mowers soon appeared
on the market as well as replacement mulching mower blades for
retrofitting existing mowers. Mulching requires adequate aeration,
temperature control (132 to 140 degrees F), a moisture content
of 40 to 60 percent and an adequate carbon-to-nitrogen ratio.
In three months this mixture allows naturally occurring microbes
to convert yard waste to a useful mulch that can be mixed into
soil to loosen it and also to cover beds for moisture retention
and weed control.
Finally, a new term was added
to the English language: grasscycling. Grasscycling is very simple.
Just cut 1/3 inch from the top when mowing and leave the cuttings
on the lawn. This actually makes for a healthier lawn because
the cuttings decay and fertilize the grass while providing a cover
to retain ground moisture. The cost savings is the elimination
of one fertilization per year.
Of course, elected officials
cannot be content to let the lowly taxpayers take all of the credit.
Thanks to our great system, some really creative municipal developments
have made yard waste breakthroughs. Many cities like Huntsville,
Alabama pick up yard waste and include this service in a monthly
fee for residential solid waste collection. Columbus, Indiana
provides a yard waste site for residents to take their materials
for composting by the county. The Columbus/Bartholomew Solid Waste
Management District then offers free give-aways of compost. Toronto,
already advanced with its blue box program for recyclables, now
has a green box program for yard waste pickup. Many other cities
like Toledo, Ohio, while not allowing grass cuttings, do allow
curb pickups of branches and limbs if cut to three-foot lengths
and bundled with twine.
Minneapolis, is very advanced,
and is probably the wave of the future. Its Division of Solid
Waste & Recycling is an Enterprise Operation. As such, it
provides city owned disposal carts and charges a monthly fee as
part of its utility bills. There are large carts at $4/month and
small carts $2/month, in addition to a base fee. Unlike other
communities, their program doesn’t stop there.
“In 1995 our collection
equipment and processing equipment was in such poor condition
that our whole system was about to crash” states Susan Young,
director for Solid Waste and Recycling Services. “We had
patches on patches on patches and you could see the pavement through
the floor boards of many vehicles. Like many other cities, we
faced diminishing state support, and we determined that issuing
bonds for new equipment would end up costing twice as much as
outright purchases”, she continued.
The plan Susan and her team came
up with is nothing short of creative and all encompassing. It
addresses the total community and its requirements. From an outsider’s
impression, they seem to have taken a ‘bird’s eye
view’, put it under a microscope and resolved all issues,
including financial issues with one punch. “We started with
our mission ‘Clean City is Job 1’ and worked everything
around that challenge.
Financing was a key and immediate
resolution. We decided to put a major effort into recycling by
creating our Enterprise Operation and generating internal income
to support our services and investments. Bids were submitted to
our specifications for yard waste plus solid and recyclable materials.
In the specifications, we considered the total community’s
In addition to the obvious items
such as metals, plastic, paper and cardboard, we itemized many
other items such as tennis shoes, construction materials from
remolding projects, electronics, appliances and furniture, plus
toxic items such as old paint. We have been commended for our
website, which is not only very extensive but very user friendly.
In addition, our full time service staff of eight prides itself
on making human contact with our customers in thirty seconds or
“We took a risk, but it’s
paying off. So far this year we’ve earned $1.8 million from
22,000 tons of recyclables and mulch, and have had no rate increase
for our services in three years. We are also enjoying some unexpected
benefits. Part of our earnings are supporting city clean up projects
and education programs,” she concluded.