fertilizer.jpg With gardens going in and lawns beginning to grow again, now is the time of year that many people are investing in fertilizer. After all, you want your vegetables to be big and delicious, and you want your lawn to look as great as your neighbor’s. Fertilizer is a great resource when used correctly around your home. But it can also be a big detriment to the environment, especially if it contains toxic pesticides. When it comes time to recycle any leftover fertilizer, make sure you do it with great caution. While fertilizer cannot really be recycled, there are several options for disposing of it properly. Every county should have a government-run facility that can take it. You may be able to find someone in your network or your community who can put it to good use if you no longer need it. We also have a couple of tips for reducing the amount of fertilizer you need to buy, which should also cut down on the need to get rid of any leftovers.

What is fertilizer?

Fertilizer delivers nutrients to plants to help them grow and stay healthy. A good general fertilizer will deliver the three most important nutrients – nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium – plus some micronutrients such as zinc, sulfur and calcium. You can also buy fertilizers geared toward specific plants and applications. There is rose fertilizer, acid fertilizer for berries, tree fertilizer, fertilizer that contains fish or manure, citrus fertilizer and much more. Fertilizer comes in solid and liquid form. Some also contain pesticides and some do not. You can buy organic fertilizer and non-organic fertilizer, almost always at the same store. A common question these days is whether compost is a form of fertilizer. The answer is no. This simple explanation from Bonnie Plants sums up the reason why: “Compost feeds the soil and fertilizer feeds the plants.”

Why should you recycle fertilizer?

There are several reasons it is extremely important to recycle fertilizer. By design, many types of fertilizer are high in phosphorous and nitrogen. While that is good for plants, it is not so good for local water sources. High levels of nitrogen and phosphorous can cause algae blooms and other environmental problems in high quantities. If your fertilizer leaks out of a garbage truck and into storm drains, you could be contaminating rivers and lakes (for more on the problem of nutrient pollution, check out this helpful website maintained by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). Some types of fertilizer contain pesticides, which can be quite toxic. You definitely do not want poisons leaching into soil and drinking water. Finally, even if you no longer need your fertilizer, chances are someone else can put it to good use. Why waste this potentially precious resource or require more to be manufactured? All you have to do is find someone to reuse it instead. More on this after we discuss recycling.

How to recycle fertilizer

Fertilizer cannot really be recycled (as in, turned into another usable product). However, it is important to dispose of it safely. In most communities, fertilizer that does not contain pesticides or high levels of phosphorous can be placed in your trash can. It is worth checking with your local solid waste department to make sure this is the case in your town so you do not run into trouble. If your old fertilizer contains pesticides or high levels of phosphorous, plan to dispose of it through your local government’s household hazardous waste (HHW) facility. According to Rethink Recycling, a website managed by Minnesota’s Solid Waste Management Coordinator Board, you can tell if a fertilizer contains pesticides if it contains words like “pre-emergent,” “weed preventer,” “weed and feed,” “plus 2,” “insect control” and “disease control.” Hours and locations of HHW facilities vary widely from place to place. Your city or county should have a website that will provide you with more details about how HHW collection works in your area. Fargo has a HHW facility that is open six days of the week. Fertilizer and other special waste is accepted whenever they are open. In Charlottesville, Virginia, residents have to wait for twice-yearly special collection events to dispose of HHW.

How to reuse fertilizer

If you have fertilizer that you know you are not going to use, you might be able to find someone who can take it off your hands for free. This is a far better alternative than placing it in your trash can or taking it to a HHW facility. Ask neighbors and friends who garden if they need it. If your child’s school has a garden or your local parks department rents community garden plots, see if someone there can put it to use. A nonprofit or church with extensive landscaping might appreciate some free fertilizer. So might your local Master Gardener program.

Tips for reducing fertilizer use

The best way to avoid throwing away fertilizer is to buy only what you need, or to find alternatives to using it at all. We shared at the beginning that compost is not fertilizer. However, compost and other natural products can go a long way toward meeting the same goals of getting big, healthy plants. Use compost on your garden, and leave your grass clippings on your lawn for a natural fertilizer. You can even use compost to keep houseplants looking great. Fertilizer will be most effective if applied in the correct amounts and at the proper time. Make sure you fertilize in the most efficient manner so you can use as little as possible. Review the seed packet or a reputable gardening book to determine how much fertilizer to apply to fruits and vegetables, and the best time to do it. Check with your local Extension office to determine the prime season to fertilize lawns in your area.