June 2005

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 state.

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 allow goats.

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 requirements.

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 less.

“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.


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