Establishing and maintaining a good yard waste program can be a lot like descending into a circle of Dante's Inferno and trying to ascend alive, without frying along the way.

Many cities may simply abandon all hope, giving up on creating a good program and settling for one that will get them by.

On the other hand, some cities bravely proceed through the gate and begin the journey, even if they don't know where it will end up or how much they will have to pay to get there.

Two such cities, Atlanta and Cincinnati, descended into the pits of yard trimmings collection and processing hell, but found their way out into the light of programs that are succeeding.

These are models that can inspire other cities struggling through their own journeys toward a yard trimming's higher ground.

Atlanta Shoots for Greatness The Atlanta Public Works Department had plenty of circles to climb out of four years ago when the state passed a mandate requiring municipalities to separate yard waste from solid waste, which also was supposed to be collected and disposed of in different facilities.

Atlanta had not established a program to comply with the legislation, which, fortunately wasn't being strictly enforced. Two years later, the state passed another mandate, this time banning yard waste from landfills.

Still, many Georgia counties and cities, including Atlanta, had no plans but knew they had to find one fast, before they were fined by the state.

Complicating the problem was the fact that haulers and processors were unprepared for the rush of pickups, leaving yard waste collections few and far between.

Even when the material was collected, illegal dumpings were common because there was no place to deposit yard waste after pickup.

Residents were just as confused: Public education was almost nonexistent, with people receiving muddled information, if anything at all.

"There hadn't been anything geared toward yard waste before, and composting didn't start until September 1996," explains Gloria Hardegree, communications manager for GreenCycle, Atlanta's processing contractor.

Atlanta's current residential yard waste program, which aims to divert 50,000 tons of green material annually to a composting facility, resulted from the September 1996 mandate according to Cedric Maddox, solid waste director for Atlanta's public works department.

Revamped last year, the program consists of separate curbside yard waste collections made by the city that are taken to GreenCycle for processing into wood chips, mulch and compost materials.

GreenCycle, which also works with other Georgia cities, uses Morbark grinders, PowerScreen screens and wheel loaders to process the city's yard waste.

Atlanta's processing contract with GreenCycle requires a certain percentage of composted waste to be distributed to residents free of charge, Maddox says.

Yard trimming's public awareness and education seems to have improved. Last fall, the city began airing TV spots featuring Atlanta's mayor, Bill Campbell, that explained how to separate yard waste and provided a phone number for residents to call with questions.

The public works department also produces newsletters for residents. "We've done everything except go to people's houses and shake their hands," Maddox says, explaining that public education efforts have been put into the city's budget.

And Maddox believes this media blitz is working: "Almost every citizen puts yard waste out at some point during the month."

Still, the promising program isn't without snags. One obstacle is getting residents to consistently use paper bags, which complies with a law that requires that haulers only collect yard waste in paper bags or marked 32-gallon containers.

But funding is a larger concern: The program is "struggling" because it needs increased financial help, Maddox says. The city uses general funds to finance the program, and doesn't charge Atlanta residents. In addition, no federal or state grants are used to collect or process the city's yard waste.

The public works department has petitioned the city council for rate increases, a $40 per household annual fee to fund the program, which Maddox estimates to cost $5 million per year.

Maddox believes that the fee is the only way Atlanta will meet its goal of diverting 50,000 tons of yard waste annually.

"The upcoming budget increase is not a goal; it is a need," he emphasizes. Currently, the program is about halfway to its goal, with 500 to 700 tons processed weekly and 25,000 to 30,000 tons diverted from landfills last year.

For all its improvements, Atlanta's yard waste program has earned an award from the Georgia Clean and Beautiful/Keep Georgia Clean organization. The city was recognized in February with a first-place award for the best composting program in the state in the "community/business" category.

GreenCycle's Hardegree, who nominated Atlanta, says that the city's "financial commitment to public education is what has made the program successful. They did a good job of complying with the state law and taking it to the next step."

Trial and Error in Cincinnati It took three variations in as many years, but Cincinnati finally found the right ingredients for a successful yard trimmings collection and processing program.

In December 1993, House Bill 592, originally passed by the Ohio legislature five years prior, took effect, restricting yard waste from state landfills.

Before then, yard waste, which comprised about 20 percent of the residential solid waste stream, was mixed with solid waste and collected by Cincinnati's sanitation department.

In 1994, a plan divided the city into three yard waste zones with two private haulers operating from April to October. Residents paid $1 for each bag of yard waste.

The city operated free yard waste drop-off sites and offered free six-week leaf collection by city haulers, but the program did not get much participation.

With a second variation a year later, Cincinnati eliminated the zones and contracted one private hauler to collect yard waste.

The revised program got more expensive for residents, who now were charged a $10 registration fee for collection, on top of 75 cents for each bag of yard waste.

Cincinnati had succeeded in wrapping its residents in a cloud of confusion by 1996 when it implemented a third plan that kept collection in the hands of one private hauler and eliminated residential fees, but not the requirement for residents to register for collection.

"It's not that the [previous] programs were bad," says Peggy Sandman, customer support coordinator for the City of Cincinnati's Public Works Department, "they were constantly changing."

Not only did the program change from year to year, but also the intermittent service from season to season created chaos and placed Cincinnati at a crossroads.

Residents were not the only ones dissatisfied; the city itself had become disillusioned with the state's yard waste ban, Sandman says. When House Bill 592 went into effect, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency could not enforce the legislation because it had no authority over waste haulers and homeowners, which meant that no state penalties existed for noncompliance, leaving Cincinnati and other cities on their own.

Although increased costs for collecting and separating yard waste forced many cities and subdivisions to return to collecting yard waste mixed with solid waste, Cincinnati took the high road.

In 1997, the city council enacted a new, stronger $1,023,000 plan to divert yard wastes. Now, the city's sanitation division collects at curbside once a week, all year, then hauls it to local, private composting facilities.

Private haulers stopped separating waste when it became financially impractical, Sandman says. So, the city took over collection, hired 28 employees and purchased four new packer trucks, which are equipped with special lifters to accommodate 90-gallon yard waste carts that residents can purchase from the sanitation department and Keep Cincinnati Beautiful.

The process also became easier for residents, who no longer have to pay fees or registration. Plus, the public works department mailed information on the yard waste program with residential water bills, and promoted the program through newspapers and radio.

The city's department of public works, which has an annual budget of $14.9 million, services 139,000 households, including 12,000 small businesses. Cincinnati's general fund pays for the collection and processing program, Sandman says.

Even though the latest program costs more than the rest, its results have been stellar. During the first two months, 1,780 tons of yard waste were collected, and more than 88,000 tons were collected and processed last year.

By comparison, the 1996 program, which cost $396,000, diverted just 3,752 tons of material from the waste stream that year.

In Hamilton County (comprised of 48 cities, villages and townships, including Cincinnati), 250,000 of 360,000 households have separate yard waste collection, with Cincinnati making up more than 56 percent of the residences separating yard waste.

If Cincinnati reverted to mixing yard waste with solid waste, more than 12,000 tons of material would return to the landfill annually.

So, while these two cities green waste programs initially branched off in the wrong direction, they now both appear to have cleared the path for the daily grind.

As recyclable materials become more diverse, the choice of the most efficient cutting tools and screen combinations gets complicated.

For example, a contractor that chooses a block hammer set-up which works well in grass and leaves, may assume it to be the best choice for grinding bundled paper. Here, conical (coned or pointed) teeth should be used.

Block-type hammers have difficulty grinding tightly packed, bundled material, causing irregular feeding. With the conical tooth, product is partially shredded in the tub and fed more consistently through the grinding chamber.

Screen choices are important, as well. With conventional screens, hammermills beat material until it's small enough to pass through the sizing holes. A knife screen, on the other hand, sheers vines, brush and construction debris, such as sheet rock and papers, by forcing material through evenly-spaced cutter knives. Wear also is reduced because in one motion, product is drawn from the tub, forced through the system and fed onto the discharge belt, resulting in little or no recirculating.

Grinding tips: * Nothing can save you money more than removing dirt from material prior to grinding.

* Plugged screens will drastically accelerate hammer and tooth wear.

* Reducing product size more than necessary results in accelerated hammer and tooth wear and decreased production.

In addition, contractors should consult their dealer or manufacturer when choosing hammers, teeth/ cutter blocks and screens.

The bottom line is that higher productivity and less wear on these items results in increased profitability.