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Cities compost autumn leaves and Christmas trees

A TELLTALE hump on the landscape is all that remains of the old Newton landfill, closed and capped a few years ago. But leaves, the colorful harvest of fall that once helped fill the old dump, are again being hauled there by the city's Parks and Recreation Department trucks. This time, however, they are treated in a markedly different fashion. Instead of being buried, they are converted into a black soil conditioner, and the closed dump is an ideal site for the composting windrows. In the process, the city is saving thousands of dollars in landfill disposal costs while turning out a product that the Parks Department and city residents find very useful.

What is happening in this New England community is being repeated in one form or another all across the country. ``Snowballing'' is now an appropriate term, says Jerome Goldstein, publisher of the waste recycling magazine Biocycle. The reason is clear: Particularly in the tree-covered regions of the country, in the fall some 40 percent of a city's garbage may be yard waste. Nationwide, yard waste typically makes up 15 percent of the waste stream year round, while some regions flounder under lawn clippings during summer. In Omaha, Neb., for instance, lawn clippings make up fully half the city's waste by volume during the growing season.

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With landfills running out of space and tipping fees often topping $100 a ton, yard-waste disposal costs are becoming absurdly high in view of the inexpensive composting alternative. ``Its relevance is now obvious to solid waste managements everywhere,'' Mr. Goldstein says, ``even to those committed to waste-to-energy incineration plants.''

Part of this relevance is the simplicity and low capital costs associated with yard waste composting. The waste is dumped in long rows (windrows is the official term) as high as they are wide and any convenient length. A front end loader is used to turn the rows periodically and, if a high-quality end product is required, the fully composted material may ultimately be shredded.

At the old dump site in Newton, two conical piles of black earthlike material, with a volume less than one-quarter that of the original leaves, are ready for use on city landscaping projects, according to Kenneth Nally, one of two people who oversee the composting project.

Mr. Nally, whose career in waste handling spans three decades with the city, admits that composting was a new, almost revolutionary idea to him when he was assigned to the project two years ago. Now, having seen how simple and effective a composting operation can be, he's sold on the idea. ``I was amazed at how the volume [of original leaves] came down,'' he said in a recent interview.

Goldstein notes that newcomers readily support composting once they have been shown the results of a successful project.

Meanwhile, a survey conducted by Biocycle reveals that about 25 states are either planning or expanding composting operations. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Quality Engineering has initiated several composting projects, including the one at Newton. The aim, according to the department, is to gather data on leaf-composting models that other ``cities and towns can easily duplicate.''

In most states, composting is a voluntary option. But New Jersey recently banned all leaves and yard waste from landfills - in effect making composting mandatory, since such waste burns poorly in incinerators. According to Goldstein, enterprising farmers began offering composting services to their local communities. These farmers have the space, the equipment, and the expertise. The end product is used on the farm, and the excess is sold to neighboring farmers or used by the communities' parks departments.

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Increasingly, wood waste - including tree trimmings - is being ground up and used as a mulch. As Newton's Nally puts it, ``It's a lot cheaper than the stuff you buy at a garden center.''

Recycling Christmas trees in this manner has become an annual post-holiday event in Austin, Texas - and a major dump-filler has been removed from the waste stream. It began a few years ago as a joint project by the city and civic associations, along with refuse hauling operators and tree trimming companies.

For three weekends after Christmas, trees are picked up from three drop-off centers and ground into mulch for use by the Parks and Recreation Department. With news media support and public enthusiasm for the project, last winter Austin disposed of more than 20,000 trees in this manner.

A pilot project involving 170 households in Omaha this past summer had residents bag lawn clippings separately for composting. Eventually it is hoped the practice will be citywide. The program was voluntary, but some 60 percent of residences complied.

Seattle emphasizes home composting to keep yard waste out of the landfills. A compost hot line has been established and demonstration projects set up. While cooperation is voluntary, there is a monetary incentive for residents to comply, since trash collection rates are calculated by the number of garbage cans outside the home. ``Reduce your garbage bill. Compost,'' said a flier delivered to all homes. Seattle's aim: to get 75 percent of the city's yard wastes composted at home.

Says Goldstein: ``There's no turning back. With waste disposal costs now so high, composting makes everyone a winner. Especially the environment!''

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