Yard waste: Seeking greener pastures

AS LONG AS AMERICANS LOVE their lawns, yard waste will be generated. In fact, many municipalities have too much of it. In uncertain economic times, some cities and counties have difficulty finding end-markets for green waste, yet it still forms a high percentage of trash disposed of in landfills. For example, up to 60 percent of Phoenix's bulky trash is green waste, according to a recent report. In light of these pressures, however, several states and municipalities are refusing to let their green waste recycling programs go to seed.

Over the past decade, in the face of boom and bust markets, the generation and recovery of yard waste has remained constant. According to the latest municipal solid waste report released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., yard trimmings had one of the highest recovery rates of all recyclable products. About 57 percent, or 15.8 million tons, of yard trimmings were recovered for composting in 2001, representing nearly a quadruple increase since 1990.

Yard waste recovery generally has increased steadily with the growing population and continuing housing boom. More recently, however, legislation banning yard waste from landfills has boosted recovery even further, while recycling of other materials has flattened out. In 1992, 11 states and the District of Columbia — accounting for more than 28 percent of the nation's population — had legislation banning or discouraging yard trimmings disposal in landfills. By the end of the 1990s, the EPA says 23 states and the District of Columbia, representing more than 50 percent of the nation's population, operated under yard waste bans. Moreover, source reduction and backyard composting have reduced the amount of yard waste generated in the United States. In 2001, an estimated 28 million tons of yard trimmings were generated, compared to an estimated 35 million tons in 1992.

Several municipalities are seeking more creative ways to process yard waste and generate marketable end-products. As the economy continues to recover, their programs might offer lessons for other municipalities who are “going green.”

Seeing Green

It's a common scenario: A municipality goes to the trouble of collecting yard waste, grinding it, and converting it to mulch or compost. Then, the municipality piles up the product and gives it away to area residents, netting zero profit. Municipalities then question the viability of their existing yard waste collection and recovery programs, or are intimidated about starting or expanding one. But the first step toward a viable green waste recovery program, some say, is placing more value on the material.

Robin Davidov, executive director of the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority (NMWDA), Baltimore, understands why municipalities give away their processed green waste. “They figure, ‘We're not going to keep track of this, because you have to have cash and keep records,’ and so on,” she says. “The problem is that, if you give something away, it has no value. People think that it must be worthless. If you sell it, people think it has value. Then over time, you can raise the price.”

The authority oversees seven jurisdictions including the city of Baltimore and six nearby counties. Each jurisdiction runs its own curbside collection and processing system for yard waste, although Maryland does not have a legislated yard waste ban. “There is a recycling requirement in Maryland, and yard waste doesn't count toward it,” Davidov says. “But the counties process yard waste because they think it's a good idea.” At the Montgomery County materials recovery facility (MRF) in Dickerson, Md., for example, yard waste is converted to compost and is sold under the Leafgro brand at local home improvement stores and chains such as Home Depot.

Davidov adds that most municipalities can process green waste affordably and easily, with equipment that can be found at home improvement stores. “Collection is the biggest expense,” she says. “Once you've collected it, once you've done the grinding, the composting is very simple. If you're going to go to the trouble of collecting yard waste, you might as well throw in food waste and waxy cardboard that can't be recycled. Yard waste composting is so easy to do. Anyone with a landfill or a piece of land can do it.”

Yet composting is just part of the story; municipalities also have to figure out what to do with it. The NMWDA now is overseeing several pilot programs that test combining yard waste with other organics to increase recovery rates and broaden potential end-uses. In Carroll and Hartford counties, for example, pilot programs tested co-composting yard waste with sewage sludge. “Until we started the pilot, a lot of sewage sludge was being buried in the landfill, and you had yard waste being ground up at the same facility. It doesn't make sense to use the landfill for organic waste,” Davidov says. “We co-composted the two, and it was very easily done.”

The authority now is taking these efforts one step further by co-composting yard waste and food waste, which already has been done in San Francisco and elsewhere. “It's a little bit trickier to do, and you have to have permits and meet federal and state regulations,” Davidov explains. “But we have a couple small cities in Maryland where garbage disposals aren't allowed because the sewage systems are so old they can't handle it. All this food waste was just going to a landfill.”

Another option is to not compost yard waste at all. In subtropical Gainesville, Fla., organic material breaks down quickly, which is used to the municipality's advantage. “We have taken processing down to a minimum,” says Gainesville Recycling Coordinator Regina Hawkins. “We debag our yard waste at the curb, into the trucks, and the material is taken to a local farm where we land-apply it as a mulching operation. They run over the yard trash with a chopper.”

Keeping it Simple

Getting a municipality to value green waste recycling is one thing; getting residents to value it is another. Residential education continues to be a major challenge with yard waste recovery. In Mililani, Hawaii, a new curbside recycling program is causing some confusion. Residents typically separate trash from their recyclables fairly well, but they have more problems keeping plastic bags, bottles and cans out of the yard trimmings, local officials say. The Honolulu Advertiser says dealing with this contamination has doubled the city's green waste recovery costs.

An easy, yet more costly, way to avoid confusion is to offer residents separate trash, recycling and green waste containers — a method that has worked successfully for San Francisco. Other cities are jumping on the bandwagon, such as Mesa, Ariz., which recovers about 14,000 tons of green waste per year.

Once collected, the material is sent to the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian landfill, where it is converted into mulch. Although there is often more mulch than can be sold, Mesa officials say the benefit comes from extending the landfill's capacity. Smaller Arizona towns avoid confusion among residents by designating a specific green waste collection day. Residents then determine whether they will have a load or not, allowing municipalities to organize their collection routes in the most efficient way, says David Janke, recycling research analyst for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in Phoenix.

Increasingly, the Internet is helping residents to understand municipal green waste collection and recovery programs. Like many other cities, Raleigh, N.C., began weekly curbside collection of yard waste in response to a legislated landfill ban. The city recycles its yard waste at a dedicated Yard Waste Center, producing wood chips, mulch and compost that are then sold to customers at a modest fee. The city also has created a public compost demonstration garden to educate residents about backyard composting and different bins that are available.

Sales and Marketing

Municipalities promote backyard composting and grass recycling because of the environmental benefits, as well as to save money on collection and processing, especially when markets are tight and yard waste is plentiful. “The biggest problem is the glut of green waste,” says Arizona DEQ's Janke. “There's so much green waste that you can't sell it all.”

The DEQ has helped to fund new green waste programs throughout Arizona using grants and other programs that allow municipalities to purchase waste reduction equipment such as grinders. However, Janke says he has seen cities make the mistake of starting yard waste collection programs precisely because they are cheap and plentiful, but without thinking through potential end-markets. They learn the hard way that the material is often contaminated and costly to sort. Janke adds that, in recent years, green waste processing companies have come and gone with the economic wind, moving from wood waste to yard waste and back again, depending on what's selling.

In Alameda County, Calif., municipalities have successfully contracted out with private entities. “Our dominant model is exclusive franchising with private entities,” says Tom Padia, recycling director for the Alameda County Waste Management Authority, San Leandro, Calif., which oversees 14 cities, the county and two sanitary districts. “All of our local service providers feel comfortable about finding markets that qualify for diversion credits under state law, so it's not a problem from a market standpoint. There's also a fairly high level of awareness and commitment among the citizenry here. People have come to expect yard waste collection as a basic service.”

Although the authority does promote countywide backyard composting — notably with its “Do the Rot Thing!” campaign — generally it simply oversees various county yard waste collection programs, which range from weekly to biweekly collection and include both curbside and drop-off programs. Yard waste programs have benefited from several things, Padia says. First, voters have agreed to pay a self-imposed surcharge of $7.06 per ton of trash taken to the landfill, which is dedicated to recycling programs. Second, the county continues to operate under California's far-reaching statewide diversion goals.

Padia also sees a trend in adding food waste and contaminated paper to green waste as a way to seek greater diversion rates and a higher-quality end-product. In the future, he sees municipalities becoming even more creative in collecting and processing green waste. “It is important to first assess an outlet for green waste materials and what the specifications are for those outlets so you can design an appropriate processing and collection system,” he says. “You need to know what markets you have and what they can tolerate.”

Kim A. O'Connell is a contributing editor.


Although it may seem like discarded Christmas trees offer special holiday gifts for yard waste recovery programs, sometimes the excess trees are more like lumps of coal. In a down economy, some municipalities find that collecting and mulching old trees is more costly than their budgets can handle. Yet environmentally concerned residents have increasingly expected that tree recycling will be available come January.

This year, budget cuts forced King County, Wash., to saw its Christmas tree recycling program in half, running six tree recycling sites instead of its normal 12. Next year, the program will be eliminated entirely. County officials stated that, among other reasons, many county residents could still recycle their trees through programs operated by individual cities or nonprofit organizations. This year, eight local cities split a $14,800 county grant to help run their own tree recycling events.

Similarly, for the first time since the program began in 1990, Florida's Highlands County did not offer tree recycling this year, citing budgetary concerns and a lack of participation. However, county officials stated that the trees would not simply be disposed of in the local landfill. Instead, trees were chipped along with other yard waste and used for landfill daily cover.

Elsewhere, however, municipalities are using tree recovery programs as the springboard to promote recycling in general. This year, the city of Chicago extended its program to include two tree drop-off days instead of one. After bringing their trees to designated local parks, residents could watch foresters convert the trees into mulch. Residents could then take a bag of mulch home, along with a live blue spruce sapling and a packet of blue recycling bags.

Finally, although most tree recycling is offered for free, municipalities may want to take a lesson from Rowland's Nursery in Albuquerque, N.M. This year, the company started charging $5 per tree to participate in its Christmas recycling program, although it has offered the service for free for the past 15 years. The fees will help cover the cost of mulching the trees, but part of the proceeds will go toward restoring the nearby bosque forest, which was heavily damaged by 2003's wildfires. Residents benefited as well; they could still take home free bags of mulch.