Determining what can and cannot go in the yard waste bin can be a tricky proposition. To shed some light on the issue, 1-800-RECYCLING turned to an expert: Jack Hoeck, Vice President of Environmental Services for Rexius Forest By-Products in Eugene, OR. For the past 80 years, Rexius has been a leader in turning organic materials such as wood chips and grass clippings into compost and other garden products. Part of Rexius’ stream comes from a contract with Lane County (OR) Waste Management to accept green waste from the curbside program. In his many years with the company, Hoeck has seen the good and the bad, the beneficial to the downright dangerous. He shared some advice on how to pack the yard waste bin for maximum benefit to the recycler.

Remember the goal

composting yard wasteWhen green waste gets recycled it becomes compost. That is why it is important that everything that ends up in the collection bin will break down easily and create a healthy soil supplement. “We charge less than the landfill, but our business model is predicated on making a product we can sell,” Hoeck says. “If we end up with too much contamination, we can’t sell our compost, so we end up throwing it away. All that time, energy, transportation cost — everything gets wasted and the product ends up where we didn’t want it in the first place.”

Keep plastic and other common contaminants out

Contaminants from yard waste bins are one of the biggest problems for commercial composters. Of all the problem materials, film plastic is number one. When green waste first comes to Rexius’ plant, it is shredded, mixed and placed in large windrows. Workers do their best to remove plastic bags, but if they miss one, it gets torn up and mixed into the product. Plastic won’t hurt the soil, Hoeck says, but compost laced with tiny bits of plastic isn’t very appealing to customers. Think compostable bags are better? Not so much. Hoeck says that even if it is obvious a bag is compostable, his staff still rips it open to make sure all the contents can safely go in the pile. Plus, he says, not all manufacturers are as scrupulous as others. “Some companies make claims that things are compostable when they’re not, or sometimes their bags will pass a portion of the test but not others,” Hoeck reveals. Other problem materials he sees include metal, glass, pet waste, dead animals, diapers and treated or painted wood.

Hold the burgers and fries (and peas and carrots)

Some communities accept food waste in curbside bins, but that is not the case in Lane County. Food items such as lettuce, potato peelings and small amounts of bread should be composted in a container in the back yard; wastes such as meat, oil and fat still need to go in the trash.

Compostable dishware isn’t always what it seems

Rexius discourages people from placing compostable dishware in their curbside bins. “Just by itself, it isn’t that beneficial,” Hoeck says. “If we got a load made up entirely of compostable cups, we could grind them up and they wouldn’t compost. They must have organics to go with them. “It’s hard to tell non-compostable from compostable material unless it’s clearly identified,” Hoeck adds. “If we hold two cups right next to each other, it’s hard to tell the difference. They’re often made from the same molds. We’re not going to go through each cup and read what’s written on the bottom, so unless a cup has some marking or other unique feature that makes it clearly identifiable, it usually gets pulled out and thrown away.” And, like compostable bags, not all compostable dishware is created equal. “This industry is relatively new,” Hoeck admits, and there are still some shady claims being made. If you are going to use compostable dishware and deliver it to your local recycler, look for a brand that has been verified by third party and will break down completely in 90 days, which is a typical length of time for a commercial composting process.

What’s the deal with turf?

Grass is plenty compostable, but if you are digging up turf, is it OK to put in all the roots and soil clinging to it? “A certain amount of soil is OK, but limit it as much as possible,” Hoeck says. Dirt is not compostable, and it is heavier than most waste materials, so it can be difficult for the hauling truck to pick it up and dump it. Hoeck says people are better off hauling turf into one of their facilities.

When in doubt, leave it out

“All these nuances are very difficult to communicate to people,” Hoeck says. “Education is difficult when you’re trying to educate a massive population of people who are participation in a system.” The bottom line? If you aren’t sure if a product can go in the yard waste bin, leave it out, or better yet, contact your local provider and ask them what is acceptable and what is not. “It’s very important that people are aware of what the inputs are,” Hoeck says. “If we can keep problem items out, we have a clean material that’s great for amending your soil. It gives us a lot of peace of mind to know we’ve done a really thorough job.”