Recycling yard waste? Yes, you can!

yardwaste.jpg We don’t usually think of our yards as producing waste. As the amazing Robert Larporte with the EcoNest Company told me recently, “When a tree grows, it doesn’t pollute.” Yet our yards produce plenty of things we want to get rid of. Leaves, weeds, tree trimmings, frost-damaged vegetable plants and grass clippings all need to find a home either on or off our property. Yard waste recycling has become very popular in recent years. Green waste, as it is also known, makes up a significant percentage of the total waste stream. Finding a way to divert it is saving a significant amount of landfill space across the country. There is another reason to recycle your yard waste. Strange as it seems, these materials can do real environmental harm if they end up in a landfill. But they can do our planet a world of good if they are recycled. Read on to find out why it is vital to recycle yard waste and how you can do it.

Why is it important to recycle yard waste?

When yard waste is composted, aerobic bacteria (which need oxygen to survive) cooperate with a host of other microorganisms to create a product with many beneficial properties. Compost gives nutrients back to plants, improves soil quality and helps conserve water. On the other hand, if yard waste breaks down in an anaerobic environment (one without oxygen), the by-product is methane. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, methane is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Methane is second only to carbon dioxide in U.S. greenhouse gas production. Landfills are the country’s third-highest producer of methane, after natural gas/other petroleum power plants and agriculture (most notably raising livestock such as cows and sheep). Yard waste can also take up an enormous amount of space in landfills. The EPA estimates that 13.5 percent of all municipal solid waste is yard trimmings. That puts the category third behind paper and food scraps. If all yard trimmings were recycled, the agency says, we could keep over 33 million pounds of materials out of landfills every year.

How to recycle yard waste

Many communities now offer yard waste recycling services. Cities that offer yard waste recycling services as part of their curbside pickup program include Alexandria (Virginia), Seattle, Cedar Rapids, Cary, North Carolina, and many more. You may also be able to take yard waste to your local recycling center or a private company. In my community we can drop yard waste at the county-owned recycling facility, or with one of two businesses: Lane Forest Products and Rexius Forest By-Products. Wherever you dispose of your yard waste, make sure you check their policies before you start piling your unwanted woody materials in your bin or truck. Many programs limit the diameter of branches that can be recycled. Most communities caution against mixing dirt and rocks in with your yard waste, as these things will not compost (and, in the case of rocks, can hurt people and equipment). Lots of communities want you to use paper yard waste bags instead of a recycling bin to store weeds and other materials destined for your green waste recycling program. Some sell the bags, while others ask you to buy them at stores such as Home Depot or Lowes. Even if you plan to compost at home, you might keep that yard waste recycling bin around. Most home compost systems do not get hot enough to kill weed seeds, so you might consider chucking those in your yard waste bin. Also, keep in mind that not every plant can go in a yard waste recycling bin. Super invasive plants like Armenian blackberry (also called Himalayan blackberry) should go in the trash. So should harmful plants like poison ivy or sumac. You might think twice about putting diseased plants in your compost bin, especially if there is an outbreak of a particular fungus or parasite in your region.

How to compost yard waste at home

If your community does not offer a yard waste recycling service, or if you are a serious home gardener, you might want to compost your yard waste at home. That way you get to keep all the resulting compost for yourself. The easiest way to compost your yard waste is to build a pile with a good mix of green (nitrogen-rich) and brown (carbon-rich) materials. Make sure you shred or chop up larger materials like tree limbs. The pile should get some moisture, but if you get a lot of rain, plan on covering it with a tarp so it does not get too wet. Turn the mixture occasionally to redistribute the materials. Over time your yard waste will break down into a crumbly, rich substance that will nourish your garden. If you would like to keep your compost more contained, there are plenty of containers that promise to produce compost. Many people like the black plastic Earth Machines (sometimes called Darth Vaders) for their ease of use. Others build multiple bin systems with pallets or scrap lumber. You can buy large cylinders set on stands that turn with a hand crank, but these can get heavy and hard to turn if the yard waste gets really wet. The system you use doesn’t matter as much as how you build your pile. For details and tips on home composting, check with your local extension service. Many university programs place their reference materials online, so you can also search online.