Banned in Boston (and a few thousand other places)

Between 1989 and 1998, a total of 24 states banned the disposal of yard trimmings in their landfills. Most of these bans occurred in the early 1990s, in response to federal government policies demanding a reduction in solid waste flows. Composters generally credit these bans for boosting their feedstocks. However, others say the bans work unevenly and could produce even better results with stronger enforcement and improved state programs to increase compost markets.

Tallying the Waste

According to a recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, yard trimmings accounted for 21.2 million tons or nearly half of the total municipal solid waste (MSW) source-reduced in 2000. And solid waste tonnages for recycling and composting operations grew quite a bit faster than the waste stream, the report, “Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2000 Facts and Figures,” says.

States that have monitored their diversion trends seem to agree that the decreasing amount of yard trimmings flowing into landfills can be attributed, in part, to state bans. Florida, for example, instituted a ban on yard wastes from lined landfills in 1992 and has noted yard waste volumes being recycled or composted have doubled. According to Richard Tedder, program administrator for solid waste, Florida was composting 848,000 tons of yard wastes in 1992. By 1999, that number had grown to 1.9 million tons, a more than 50 percent increase.

Minnesota, too, banned yard trimmings from all state landfills between 1990 and 1992, and then found that yard waste composed 2.7 percent of the state's waste stream, a significant decline from the pre-ban estimate of 18 percent.

According to Ginny Black, state organics recycling coordinator, Minnesota's bans began in the metropolitan areas and eventually extended statewide. After estimating the effectiveness of the regulations through two waste composition studies, the state has concluded that yard waste making its way to landfills declined by more than 80 percent as soon as the ban went into effect. The second study conducted in 1999 found a nominal decrease in yard waste to 2.3 percent of the waste stream and shows no evidence of backsliding.

Yet these numbers do not tell the entire story. Bans may be easy to institute, but where do yard trimmings really go?

Measuring the Effects

Two years after Massachusetts banned yard trimmings from its landfill in 1992, it conducted a Residential Organics Management study to answer that very question. “While this is only a survey and probably not the complete story, our study found that 925,000 tons of yard waste was generated in Massachusetts in 1998,” says Greg Cooper, director of consumer programs with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

Of that total, the study estimated that 475,000 tons of yard wastes remained at home in residential composting facilities. Approximately 405,000 tons went to public and private composting sites, by way of curbside pickups or consumer drop-off stations. And about 5 percent of the total yard waste accounted for in the study made its way to state landfills — despite the ban.

Other states have not been as diligent about tracking their bans' effectiveness. In 1994, for example, Nebraska banned the disposal of yard wastes from its landfills from April through November of every year, but has never measured the effect of this action. “We don't track the types or amount of waste diverted from landfills,” says Dave Haldeman, division administrator of the waste management division of Nebraska's Department of Environmental Quality. “Overall, I think the ban was fairly easy to institute, and I think it has operated pretty well since 1994.”

The amount of yard waste flowing into Barnes Nursery's composting facility in Huron, Ohio, generally has increased over the years, according to Sharon Barnes, vice president. “I will tell you that the yard waste bans of the early 1990s spurred on the entire composting industry. The fact that states diverted this material gave us the ability to start a business,” she says. “But yard waste still goes to landfills. Our landfill has a ban, but the people there tell me that they continue to see lots of material coming in.”

Barnes says her facility gets most of its material from cities that bring in their own leaf and grass trimmings.

So if states allow significant amounts of material to slip through into landfills despite the bans, are these rules as effective as they could be?

What Comes Next?

The EPA report says approximately 3,800 yard trimming composting programs operated in the United States during 2000. Approximately 3,400 of these programs operate in the Northeast, Midwest and South — areas of the country where states have instituted yard waste bans. In the West, where no statewide yard waste bans exist, there are only about 400 composting programs, according to the EPA report.

Industry observers suggest that the West has relied more on yard waste bans instituted by local city and county governments, but those bans may be few and far between. As an indication of this, Matt Cotton, a principal with Integrated Waste Management Consulting in Nevada City, Calif., says only two California counties have instituted yard waste bans: San Diego and Sonoma.

“That's not many for a state with 54 counties,” Cotton says. “Then again, California has almost a de facto ban in that we require each local government to divert 50 percent of its wastes. There is no way to get to that point without significantly diverting organics. So while we don't ban yard wastes from landfills, the effect of our diversion law is similar to the effect of a ban.”

On to Diversion

To be sure, the rallying cry today is for diversion. After a decade of use, the solid waste industry may be moving beyond state yard waste bans with questionable, though generally positive, effects.

The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), Silver Spring, Md., has established a policy discouraging landfill bans of all kinds, including those directed at yard wastes. “We are opposed to bans designed to force options,” says John Skinner, association executive director. “Saying that you can no longer dispose of your lawn wastes in a landfill and that it is up to you to put in place separate collection and composting programs places an unfair burden on a community. It is incumbent upon a state that bans yard wastes to put an infrastructure in place that enables wastes to be managed.”

Susan Antler, executive director of Toronto-based The Composting Council of Canada calls ban a loaded term. “It sets you up for failure because, inevitably, you're not going to catch that last leaf. Instead of bans, we encourage high diversion targets. Leaf and yard trimmings are the low hanging fruit when it comes to diversion, and this creates a focus on organics.

“Our message today is to create products of value in the marketplace,” Antler continues. “Our second decade as an industry should be focused on understanding end-markets and moving our composting facilities into product manufacturing and marketing.

So instead of giving compost products away, which undercuts the value perception of the product in the marketplace, the industry should be doing more to emphasize product value, Antler says. Cotton agrees, suggesting that the nation should perhaps develop specifications for organic products to be used increasingly on state jobs.

“Cities and states buy recycled products such as paper. They also need to specify recycled organic products for appropriate jobs,” he suggests. “The majority of these kinds of jobs will come from departments of transportation, public works departments, and park and recreation agencies. There is a lot that cities and states can do to help develop markets for recycled organics.

Ultimately, everyone seems to win if organics are kept out of the landfill. “Not only will that save a lot of space, it will also help solve landfill problems … [because] organics generate methane and other gases, and produce leachate, which includes methane and could get into groundwater,” Cotton says. “If you get organics out of landfills, you will have more stable, longer-lasting landfills.”

And wasn't that what bans originally were intended to do?

Michael Fickes is Waste Age's business editor.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., report, “Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2000 Facts and Figures,” states that during the 1990s, total municipal sold waste (MSW) grew dramatically nationwide. The United States generated 205.2 million tons of solid waste in 1990. MSW tonnage continued to increase steadily throughout the decade and reached 231.9 million tons in 2000, a 10 percent overall increase.

The EPA report attributes the growth to the booming economy of the 1990s. Meanwhile, solid waste tonnages recovered for both recycling and composting have grown quite a bit faster than the waste stream.

Between 1990 and 2000, for example, recovery of yard trimmings for composting rose from 4.2 million tons to 16.5 million tons, a fourfold increase that compares well with the 10 percent overall MSW increase. Additionally, the report notes that a substantial amount of yard waste dropped out of the waste stream altogether during the 1990s, thanks to source-reduction programs.

In 1992, approximately 0.6 million tons of all categories of MSW never made it into the waste stream. By 1999, that number had increased to 42.8 million tons. In the year 2000, source-reduction programs diverted 55.1 million tons of MSW from the waste stream.

Significantly, the EPA says that yard trimmings account for 21.2 million tons or nearly half of the total of source-reduced MSW logged in 2000.

For more information, view the report at
Michael Fickes