Leafing Through the Options

When a crippling ice storm took Memphis, Tenn., by surprise in 1994 and buried its residents under 2 million cubic yards of tree trunks and limbs, city officials never guessed it would be the catalyst for a permanent green and wood waste program. Yet the trial by fire awoke city officials to the need for a comprehensive yard waste program.

"When the ice storm hit us in 1994, we learned a lot about managing yard waste," recalls Andy Ashford, the city's recycling and compost administrator. Using federal disaster funds to manage the deluge of waste, Ashford says once the cleanup was completed, he and his peers took steps to handle yard waste collected curbside and from businesses.

Today, the city diverts approximately 60,000 tons per year (tpy) of leaves, wood and other garden waste to its Earth Complex Compost and Mulch Facility, where it's distributed to area parks and neighborhoods, reducing landfill disposal costs in the process.

The Memphis Bureau of Solid Waste Management collects approximately 380,000 tpy of solid waste from single-family homes and multi-family dwellings of eight families or less. Private companies service the rest of the city. Ashford estimates one-third of the city's collectibles consist of organic yard waste.

The city chose a two-pronged approach to divert green and wood waste from area landfills. "We have a large volume of yard waste year-round because of our long growing season," Ashford says. "We have a fleet of 100 vehicles to service residents."

Pure loads of brush and yard waste are taken to one of three staging areas where they are stockpiled until the volume warrants the use of a mobile tub grinder owned and operated by a private contractor. On-site personnel monitor the grinding process for trash and other debris. "We're trying to get as pure of a material as we can," Ashford says.

The result is a non-landscape quality, single-ground mulch product sold to the same private contractor for $2.55 per cubic yard. The contractor is required to remove at least 1,000 cubic yards of mulch per week.

Three years ago, in conjunction with its wood waste mulch program, the city began to produce quality compost from leaves bagged at the curb and collected by city trucks. Since then, leaf volumes have almost doubled. But Ashford says start-up wasn't easy.

"The problem was getting the leaves out of the bag," he says. "We tried everything from prison labor to prototype equipment." Prison labor wasn't effective because the city had to keep tabs on prisoners' whereabouts and their productivity was low.

Debagging leaves on the route slowed collection crews' efforts, and the equipment to do it proved to be costly and cumbersome.

"Ultimately, we selected a custom-designed trommel screen with knives," Ashford says of the equipment built by Power Screen, an Irish manufacturer. "The trommel turns the leaves and the plastic shoots out onto a separate conveyor. It's a long process, and we still are trying to keep the wind from blowing the bags back into the mix."

Leaves are windrowed, or put in long rows, on an 8-acre asphalt pad until they reach compost quality. Then, they're offered free of charge to area neighborhoods, sod fields and pumpkin patches as an agricultural supplement.

"We're still trying to find a happy medium of marrying the two processes - composting the leaves and grinding the wood waste," Ashford admits. Currently, they are two separate processes, however the city wants to combine them to make them more efficient.

"We're managing the programs strictly as a public service," he continues. "There may come a time when we sell the compost, but right now we're just concerned about educating the public and maybe launching a backyard composting program for residents next year."

The Iceman Cometh A similar freeze to the one that paralyzed Memphis in the mid-1990s had comparable repercussions for the Indian River County Solid Waste Disposal District (IRCSWD), Vero Beach, Fla.

Unfortunately, a large stockpile of wood and yard debris already on site at the county's landfill contributed to a 25,000-ton backlog.

"We'd been grinding the material ourselves and we just weren't able to keep up with it," recalls Ron Brooks, solid waste manager. "We didn't have a sufficient amount of equipment, nor was it large enough. We were just changing the material's condition from big logs to little pieces."

Area waste volumes also vary, which makes managing yard and wood waste a challenge. IRCSWD must handle waste from the county's part-time winter residents and from area citrus growers. Waste volumes, including yard and wood waste, jump a whopping 10,000 tons per month (tpm) during the four- to five-month period of early winter and late spring when Northern and Midwestern residents occupy their winter homes in Vero Beach.

"The snowbirds clean up their yards when they get here and they do the same thing when they leave," Brooks says.

Another 7,000 tpy of whole oranges and pulp waste are landfilled.

Minimizing the amount of waste coming in from tourists and citrus growers wasn't the answer. However, Brooks and his staff recognized an opportunity to improve the efficiency of the county's wood and yard waste program.

"We started looking at the dollar figures and the staff needed to manage it," Brooks says. "It just made sense to privatize the operation, particularly with someone who could economically process it and market the end product."

Today, some 40,000 tpy of land-cleared debris, yard waste and wood pallets are sold to organic farmers as ground fertilizer or to industry as wood fuel.

Yes, In My Backyard While most residents say they don't want a solid waste facility in their backyard, officials with the Bi-State Regional Commission (BSRC), Rock Island, Ill., are hoping that a potential 500,000 residents in an eight-county, two-state region will embrace backyard composting operations for their own green and wood waste.

A ban on landfilling landscape waste in Illinois and Iowa has required cities to develop composting programs or to encourage residents to land apply, according to BSRC's Senior Planner Gena McCullough.

"What we're trying to do with the backyard composting program is to save communities' collection costs by encouraging people to keep this waste in their own backyards," she says.

Partially funded by a $78,000 grant from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the goal of the pilot program is to make round plastic composting bins permanent fixtures in backyards across the Quad City area. The grant will defray bin costs. Although the grant only covers the six Iowa counties in the bi-state region, the pilot program covers all eight counties, including the two Illinois counties.

"We also are encouraging people to add selective food scraps," McCullough says. "But, we want to start small so we don't confuse people into adding too many things."

"Train the Trainer" programs recently began to introduce solid waste coordinators and agricultural extension agents to backyard composting. They, in turn, will hold composting workshops for residents in their counties.

"We thought this would be a good way to get the word out about composting and to encourage people to make a difference in their community," McCullough says.

Looking Good, Feeling Light Ellis Bingham, solid waste manager of Fauquier County's Department of Environmental Services, Warrenton, Va., says his community's green and wood waste program is designed primarily to garner good public relations.

Yet, what began as a means of promoting public awareness ended up producing a nursery-quality mulch and almost doubling national averages for recycling yard and wood waste. National averages hover around 7 percent to 8 percent of the yard and wood waste stream, and Fauquier County is recycling about 12 percent.

Four years ago, the county's Corral Farm Landfill was accepting approximately 1,000 tpm of residents' green and wood waste, which was stockpiled until the volume warranted the services of the county's private contractor.

"We use a private contractor to shred the waste because it's more cost effective," Bingham explains. "Because we're such a small operation, it was cheaper than buying equipment and paying for maintenance." The contractor charges the county $450 per hour and comes to the site quarterly.

After shredding, waste is windrowed for approximately 30 days on a 1-acre pad.

Residents pay nothing for disposal or for mulch. "We take anything that's clean, including grass, yard waste, tree trimmings and stumps," Bingham says. "The residents love it for their gardens. They come in the winter and get it by the truck load. It's our way of giving back to the community."

Rags To Riches As a homeowner on 3 acres adjacent to the North Wake Landfill, Raleigh, N.C., Keith Caruthers knew a golden opportunity awaited him. He just did not know it would be brown.

"It was 1992 and I knew I wanted to make a career change in my life," recalls the former electric company lineman. "I bought a book about starting my own business, but I saw nothing but a landfill."

Then he learned about proposed state legislation that eventually would ban yard and wood waste disposal from North Carolina landfills. After some research about the yard and wood waste industry, he moved his family out of their home, rezoned his land to commercial status and he launched The Mulch Masters.

"I felt that the upcoming legislation would have customers lined up at my gates," he says. "I knew if I could be competitive with the landfill's tipping fee, the waste naturally would be diverted to me."

However, Caruthers' predictions fell flat. "Nothing came in," he says. "Basically, I was wet behind the ears, and I didn't know what I was doing."

His dreams were revived when the Wake County Solid Waste Manage-ment Division decided to contract out its yard and wood waste grinding. Being the lowest bidder on a two-year contract was a victory, but because of Caruthers' limited experience, the county awarded him a 60-day tentative agreement with no guarantees for an extension.

"County officials gave me a chance because I had an operation right there at the front gate of the landfill," he concedes. "I was young with no track record."

Caruthers purchased an 8-foot tub grinder and The Mulch Masters was in business. After shredding, he stockpiled wood waste for its "cook down" period.

"I'd make deliveries to compost and mulch markets in the evenings after working with the power company," Caruthers says. "I didn't want to give up my $40,000 per year job because I had two kids in diapers. My wife and my brother were running the ske-steer loader, and my mother was the bookkeeper."

A year and a half later, Caruthers had enough money to purchase a larger delivery truck. When his contract with the county expired, his line of 16 mulch products was in high demand. Caruthers decided to discontinue his organic compost line and focus primarily on mulch.

His market was homeowners in the affluent Raleigh-Durham area and young, urban professionals working in the Research Triangle area. "They didn't like the pine straw native to the south and were demanding a higher quality product," he says.

The triple shredded mulch product became The Mulch Masters' claim to fame. Procuring bark from saw mills processing red and white oak - trees with a higher quality pigmentation - Caruthers installed smaller screens on his tub grinder to grind it finer than his competition.

"I looked at the competition and saw everyone selling double shredded hardwood that they bought already processed from saw mills," he says. "By processing my own wood waste, I had the ability to control quality through the grinding process."

Now in his sixth year of business, Caruthers is processing and marketing about 37,500 tpy of mulch. He estimates volume will increase to 50,000 tons by the year 2000. He also plans to open a second location to meet customers' increasing demands.