Instead of bagging leaves, grass clippings, and other lawn debris that will end up in a landfill, consider these earth-conscious alternatives.

By Nancy Mattia
Updated April 13, 2021
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To keep the environment healthy, everyone has to do their part. Thankfully, you can start in your own backyard. If you have grass or leafy trees on your property, put that waste to good use instead of dumping it into a landfill. It can easily be converted into nutritious organic matter to feed your soil, for example. Ahead, more ways to take an eco-friendly approach to all kinds of yard cleanup.

two boys carrying reusable bag full of leaves
Credit: Imgorthand / Getty Images

Turn grass clippings into fertilizer.

You know the thousands of grass clippings that accumulate every time you mow the lawn? Instead of dumping them into the trash, turn them into a nutritious treat. "This is often called grass cycling," says Dustin Dalton, a certified master arborist at Monster Tree Service of North Atlanta. "The cut grass will biodegrade, acting as a food source for beneficial microbes and add nutrients back to the soil." The clippings will break down within a few weeks and fertilize your entire lawn.

Compost garden leftovers.

You may be used to composting foods like eggshells and vegetables, but did you know leaves, grass clippings, and pruning leftovers can also be thrown into the heap? Use the compost to give soil in flower beds and vegetable gardens an extra nutritional boost. Lauren Olson, a sustainability, composting, and zero-waste expert at World Centric, a compostable tableware company, recommends this recipe: Mix three parts of brown leaves, branches, and other dead yard waste with one part of green materials such as food waste. If you don't want to compost at home, find out if your community offers program for local residents.

Make some mulch.

When spread over your garden bed, mulch—often made from leaves, pine needles, and other natural ingredients—offers excellent protection from weeds; on a slope, it helps reduce soil erosion. "If you shred the leaves first, you'll get an even finer texture," says Olson. Mulch also comes in handy if you live in an area where temperatures start to drop in the fall. "Use it to protect tender plants from the cold," she says. "Mulch extends your garden's harvest season by insulating cold-hardy plants like kale and root crops like carrots." Many tree-service companies repurpose fallen branches and logs into mulch that gets used around shrubs and trees, says Dalton. "Wood-chip mulch placed around the critical root zone of a tree to a depth of one to three inches, [maintains a more even] soil temperature, retains soil moisture, reduces soil compaction, and provides a food source for beneficial microbes."

Create biofuel.

What do you get when you mix food and yard waste? Hopefully a new eco-friendly source of biofuel. Michael Timko, a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Worcester, Massachusetts, is working on a project—which is being funded by the Department of Energy to the tune of almost $2 million—to mix food waste with municipal green waste, such as yard trimmings, leaves, and sticks. By combining the two kinds of waste, Timko is aiming to create even more energy-dense oil that can be upgraded to a liquid biofuel.

Feed the wildlife.

Let leaves stay put for as long as possible, says Olson. "Dead leaves are a habitat for many wild critters including salamanders, wood frogs, box turtles, toads, shrews, chipmunks, earthworms, and many insects." If you have to get rid of dropped leaves early in the fall, use a mulching lawn mower to break down the leaf litter into the lawn. "This supports a healthy soil ecosystem, although not as good for the environment as letting the leaves be for the fall and winter."

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