Whether you’re raking the yard or putting the finishing touches on late summer landscaping, don’t toss out those twigs and leaves just yet. While it may not seem like much to toss yard waste in with the rest of your household trash, it could take a huge toll on Mother Nature.
“When ‘organic’ material ends up in a landfill, it creates greenhouse gas emissions which is bad for the environment,” says Belinda Mager, a spokesperson for the New York City Department of Sanitation. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, these methane emissions are far more potent than carbon dioxide. “However, when this same material is turned into compost or renewable energy, we can create a product to help our gardens grow, or create power.”
It’s also important to remember that you should never burn your yard waste or dump it in an empty lot or property, as this can not only be dangerous—and illegal in many states—but will likely face you hefty fines.
Instead, here are a few smart and sustainable ways to ensure your yard waste is disposed of properly and can get put to good use.
IF YOU HAVE GRASS CLIPPINGS
According to Nancy Hessler-Spruill, a spokesperson from the American Disposal Services Inc., the best way to handle your waste post-mowing is to actually leave it on the lawn. “This process is called grasscycling,” she tells us. These clippings will quickly biodegrade (saving you the trouble from cleaning them up!) and also add valuable nutrients back into your lawn.
IF YOU HAVE PILES OF LEAVES
The quickest (and completely bag-free) method to getting rid of your leaf pile is to mow them into your grass using the “mulch” setting on your lawn mower if it has one. You’ll create a nutrient-rich mixture that will help feed your lawn come spring. If you have a compost system (here’s how to start one), you can add your leaves in, too. “Leaves provide a good source of nitrogen for beneficial bacteria that break down your compost,” says Hessler-Spruill. “Although we may not think of it, composting is still, very much, a form of recycling. In fact, it is possibly the most organic form of recycling, since all material is returned directly to the earth through various applications to aid in new growth.”
IF YOU HAVE LARGER SHRUBS, STICKS, BRANCHES
Because, these bigger items will not break down as well as leaves and grass in your compost pile, Hessler-Spruill recommends burying them, if you can. Like any organic matter, these items will eventually break down completely. You can also contact your local sanitation department about special drop-off events, collection sites, or available pick-up services if you are not able to transport the haul on your own. Once collected, these larger yard waste items are often taken to composting facilities so they can be broken down properly and turned into compost. Many collection sites or events will even collect debris to make mulch that's used in public green spaces.
IF YOU HAVE ROCKS OR LARGE STONES
For these, first see if your community gardens, neighbors, or friends are in need of some extra garden décor. Otherwise, inquire with your local sanitation department about available collection services Hessler-Spruill suggests. And if you're feeling crafty, we've even got you covered with creative rock crafts. #SoMartha
IF YOU HAVE SEASONAL DECOR (PUMPKINS, HAY STACKS, FLOWERS)
When swapping out your front door décor—dried flowers, wreaths, jack-o’-lanterns that have started to shrivel up—see what can be added to your home compost system, if you have one, or what can be dropped off at a local compost collection site in your neighborhood.
“In New York, residents may drop off certain ‘autumn organics’ like cut or dried flowers, houseplants, and potting soil at their local Greenmarket,” Mager tells us. She suggests seeing what seasonal collection events—like the city’s annual “pumpkin smash” event where residents smash pumpkins into compost—may take place at your local farmers’ markets, gardens, or farms. “So much of what we throw away does not actually 'go away'. It can actually be put to good use.”