HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, FLA., knows a thing or two about growing a yard waste program. In 1992, the state of Florida decided it was OK if residents got rid of their weeds, grass, shrubs and trees, but it didn't want the yard waste disposed of in landfills. Faced with the yard waste disposal ban, the county began a composting program that would help it meet the regulations, as well as turn yard waste into saleable mulch.

Within five years, the county was processing 50,000 tons of yard waste annually. Plus, by working with an experienced contractor, debagging yard waste at the curb and not allowing plastic into its facilities, and having well-located sites large enough to manage the incoming material, Hillsborough now processes more than 170,000 tons of compost each year. The program also is one of the country's most successful, according to Chris Snow, principal planner for the Hillsborough County Solid Waste Management Department (HCSWMD).

Cutting Out Contaminants

HCSWMD manages the solid waste collection, transportation and disposal services for the county's 220,000 residential and 20,000 commercial customers. Weekly collection service consists of two garbage pickups, one recycling collection pickup and one yard waste pickup. The county's Integrated Yard Waste Management Program includes source-reduction education, mandatory separation and collection of yard waste for residences and businesses. The county also operates three yard waste processing facilities under a public/private partnership and is a leader in the statewide organics recycling industry.

According to Snow, when the county began its yard waste program in 1992, it did not require residents to separate green materials. In looking at other successful yard waste composting programs, however, the county realized that removing plastics and other contaminants from yard waste would help it more effectively market end-products. So in 1997, Hillsborough began requiring residences and businesses to separate their yard waste from solid waste for curbside collection.

Now, residents are required to place their green waste in plastic bags at the curb on collection day. The county contracts with three separate collection companies to pickup solid waste, yard waste and recyclables. Each hauler collects in a specific area of the county and uses separate trucks for each material type. Snow says all three haulers use rear-loading trucks to pickup the materials on different days of the week, depending on the area they serve.

When picking up yard waste, the haulers tear open the bags of materials to ensure the contents are not contaminated before putting the green waste into the truck. Haulers then place the plastic bags into a container on their truck to be disposed of later.

“We [took] the alternative of debagging at the curb and not allowing anything to come into our site that isn't clean yard waste,” Snow says. “There are communities out there that have plastic bags and other things. It's very difficult, once you put that through a tub grinder, to get those pieces of plastic back out.”

Once collected, the green waste is taken to one of the county's three yard waste processing facilities — Northwest County, Falkenburg and South County — which are county-owned and privately operated by Consolidated Resource Recovery, Sarasota, Fla. The sites are co-located with transfer stations, a waste-to-energy (WTE) facility and county-operated scalehouses. Consolidated Resource Recovery is responsible for receiving, processing and marketing Hillsborough County's yard waste.

According to Snow, Hillsborough County contracts out the management of its yard waste collection and composting operations because of the cost of the equipment. “Large tub grinders are very costly and require a lot of maintenance and real expertise to run,” he says. “I've seen that very few municipalities own and operate their own equipment because of that type of operation.”

Growing a Program

Some may think the county's program is labor-intensive and time-consuming. But including a debagging requirement in the initial procurement process helped to alleviate potential roadblocks.

“We really didn't have a lot of obstacles or objections from the collectors when we went into the contract,” Snow says. “The contractor came back with favorable rates.”

However, Snow admits that if he were negotiating debagging as an add-on service, any contractor might charge quite a bit. “Anytime you try to add something to a collection contract, they always try to get a good price out of you,” he says.

By working with Consolidated early on, Hillsborough has been able to build a successful curbside collection and composting program. When the county began its curbside collection program in 1992, it was collecting 50,000 tons of yard waste annually. The switch to source-separation allowed the county to collect and process 138,000 tons in 2002. By 2003, the figure increased to 152,000. And last year, with the help of two hurricanes, the county handled more than 173,000 tons.

To keep up with this tremendous growth, Snow says Consolidated has had to increase its staff, as well as the amount of time that its equipment is on the county's processing facilities.

“[In 1992], we were still in the 10,000 to 20,000 tons a year, and it was fairly easy to process that and market it. But as you start to get that greater tonnage, your biggest challenges are always in the marketing end of it,” he says.

To Market

Marketing responsibilities fall on Consolidated because it's “very difficult to account for the marketing costs and the costs to haul the material offsite,” Snow explains. The county does not receive any revenue from the sale of the end-materials. Instead, Consolidated receives the profit from the sale of materials while the county receives a lower cost per ton tipping fee.

“We're currently paying our contractor $13.33 per ton, which is one of the lowest costs per ton that anybody I know has in the state of Florida,” Snow says. “[Consolidated] manages and receives the material, processes it and then markets it. We basically have our tipping fee of $18.76 a ton so that it covers our program cost, both the cost of the contractor and the cost of creating these sites … It also covers the scalehouse operations.”

Because Hillsborough does not receive monies from the sale of the compostable products, the county does not dictate what products the contractor should produce. “When we're talking 173,000 tons, it's a lot to move, so I don't want to in any way hold up the operation,” Snow says.

Consolidated develops and processes the products that it needs to successfully move the products off the county's three sites. The only requirement is that Consolidated recycle everything produced — nothing that can be disposed of in a landfill.

Snow says a variety of materials and varying grades of mulch and soil products are produced. Yard waste end-product markets include:

  • Soil blending and bagging;
  • Boiler fuel;
  • Mulch and colored mulch;
  • Pasture and crop land;
  • Charcoal production; and
  • Erosion control.

Lower grades of mulch go to farmers and large landowners who apply it to improve their soil's organic content. Some materials go to a WTE facility that burns yard waste and tires. A large portion goes toward different agricultural uses. Some is returned to the county landfill for use as an alternative daily cover. Much of the fines go to different bagging operations that make soil operations. The county also works with Consolidated to promote its products statewide, Snow says.

Marketing each and every ton to a reuse and recycling outlet helps Hillsborough County meet Florida's goal for counties to recycle 30 percent of their solid waste. Hillsborough County is currently recycling 31 percent of its total solid waste, and 100 percent of its yard waste, Snow says.

Knowledgeable Customers

Key to the county's high diversion rate and market success is source-reduction education. HCSWMD has funded a Cooperative Extension Service (CES) since 1991 to develop educational programs, newsletters and promotional materials about trash and recycling, including the “Let the Clippings Lay” program, “Yard Trash to Garden Treasures” training manual and program, “Compost Happens” workshops and demonstrations, and Master Composter training manual and training program. The county and CES also hold public workshops on backyard composting and yard waste recycling, and have a funded environmental technician position. [See “Planting the Seeds” on page 64.] Since the partnership began, CES has held 183 “Compost Happens” workshops, with attendance topping 4,400.

“We work extensively with our cooperative extension service to get information out about backyard composting and managing yard waste onsite as much as possible,” Snow says. “If a homeowner or someone is able to handle it onsite, through either backyard composting or ‘Let the Clippings Lay,’ then that isn't solid waste in our estimation and doesn't come to us to be managed.”

The county also is actively involved in Recycle Florida Today (Organics Committee), Florida Organic Recycling Center of Excellence (FORCE) Technical Advisory Group and the State Yard Waste Rule Technical Advisory Group.

The Recycle Florida Today Organics Committee has developed the “Erosion and Sediment Control Using Organics” manual, the “Organic Recycling Facilities in Florida” handbook, and reports on food waste diversion in Florida and beneficial use of organics in Florida Department of Transportation road projects. These efforts get the word out about organics and encourage markets and industries to look at the possibilities of recycled materials. “There's a lot of sharing of organics recycling in the state, and we've been very much involved in that,” Snow says.

The county also is starting to think about adding a new composting site, but it believes its existing facilities are successfully managing its solid waste streams. “So as long as we're able to have facilities and contractors to process it and move it on out without causing problems somewhere along the line, that's successful to us,” he says.

Nikki Swartz is a contributing editor based in Kansas City, Mo.


Hillsborough County's Cooperative Extension Service (CES) and Department of Solid Waste Management sponsor the “Master Composter” program, which turns interested volunteers into composting experts.

The Master Composter program leads volunteers through a training program that provides valuable knowledge about yard waste composting. Through a Master Composter training manual and an 8- to 12-week class featuring hands-on and classroom lessons, participants learn about all aspects of composting. Lessons include turning yard wastes into fertilizer, mulch and garden soil, as well as creating compost piles and studying the effects of using different materials to make the piles.

Participants are trained in presenting the materials they learn during the course so that they can share the information with the community. Master Composters commit to 40 hours annually of community service.

CES has trained 77 Master Composters since program began in 1994.

For more information, visit


Snow offers the following tips for counties that may be trying to start or improve a yard waste composting program:


  1. Eliminate plastics from the waste going to your processing facilities.

  2. Work with state recycling programs and associations to develop statewide markets for organic materials.

  3. Write good procurement documents from the start so you are sure to get a good, experienced contractor or operator to manage the waste.


  1. Don't locate too close to residences.

  2. Don't go with a contractor that can't market the material that will be coming in because that almost ensures you will have problems.