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Yard Waste Goes Into The Trash And Back To The Land

Pixabay/Creative Commons

When you take out your trash, you typically divide it into household waste and recyclables. But oftentimes, there's a third category: yard waste.

Yard waste can vary greatly, from lawn clippings to portions of trees. But the most common waste people gather up this time of year is piles of leaves. Municipalities have different schedules for picking up leaves. Andy Raih is DeKalb Interim Street Superintendent. He says they collect from the end of October through the end of November.

"That's just due to staffing levels and the amount of personnel we can dedicate, so we do a five week program for leaf collection at curbside," he said.

DeKalb has a contract with Lakeshore Recycling Systems, which took over waste services in the city this year. Raih says the company is taking the masses of leaves so they can be used at nearby farms.

"They have the ability to till a certain amount of organic material into their farm, which helps with the soil. So we're actually hauling to different farm fields. That's where we're disposing of leaves this year," he said.

Katie Neary is the Municipal Manager for Lakeshore. She says the company gives the leaves to farmers who are along the leaf collection route and willing to make use of them. She says farmers tilling the ground-up leaves is a sustainable way to address the waste.

"This process, used long term, requires less tillage. The fertilizer input is decreased, and the risk of crop loss due to flooding, drought, disease -- all of these are decreased," she said.

Another source of waste is trees. Raih says Lakeshore normally handles the tree waste, but the City of DeKalb will sometimes step in.

"There are times where we do curbside collection as the City of DeKalb, but that's in terms of a severe storm comes through and does severe damage to a lot of the trees in town," he said.

The affected trees will usually go into a wood chipper. Christmas trees may be treated a bit differently. City of Rockford Neighborhood Standards official Robert Wilhelmi says they partner with the organization Keep Northern Illinois Beautiful in January.

"They set up several locations, most of them at community parks, where people can bring Christmas trees that are free of all material, and those trees end up getting chipped up into mulch, and that mulch is available for residents as well," he said.

Lakeshore Recycling also handles large tree waste. For Christmas trees, it uses a special truck that collects the trees, takes them to a compost facility, and then breaks them down into mulch. Neary says they also work with local parks and arboretums, whose landscape contractors can chip the trees and use the mulch directly on site.  

Trees can also be part of debris from construction and demolition work.  Lakeshore takes this combined waste to a "Construction and Demolition" facility.   Neary says one of these is in West Chicago, and it uses various bits of machinery, like magnets, to separate the wood from other products like metal and rebar. Once the wood is isolated, Neary says it's sent through a screening and chipping process that creates three different sizes and types of mulch.  

But all waste collection has its limits. Wilhelmi says for Rockford, composting can only run from March through November.

"The actual compost site that all the yard waste goes to, there's limitations on that. Obviously when you get in the winter months, stuff doesn't break down, so you have to stop the composting at that point in time," he said.

And large scale composting is only allowed on specific sites in compliance with local and state environmental laws. This is why Lakeshore Recycling owns specific sites that carry out composting operations on their own.

Despite these limitations, cities and companies are still looking for new ways to handle yard waste. In the case of Lakeshore, Neary says they're working with a South Korea-made "aerobic digester" to handle food scraps.

"The digester produces a very nutrient-rich soil amendment, which we hope to package and sell at some point, as we do with the mulch we create at our West Chicago facilities," she said.

And Wilhelmi says Rockford is working to make its collection more efficient by picking up yard waste separately and making adjustments to its trash fleet.

"Where a garbage truck has a hopper on the front and it has a divider on it and half of it is for garbage and half of it is for recycling, so they can make more pickups," he said.

And all of this is working toward the same goal: taking the "remnants of nature" back to nature.

Editor's note: The non-profit Keep Northern Illinois Beautiful (KNIB) was mentioned in this story. KNIB is an underwriter of WNIJ.