Experts: Leave leaves out of garbage

This story by Claire Potter was published Oct. 26 by the Valley News.

WINDSOR — When Ham Gillett first moved to Windsor, he thought that he had to keep the small stretch of woods behind his house pristine. But his neighbor shook his head, and soon Gillett learned better.

“It’s much better for the environment if you have space to throw your twigs and small brush in the woods. Or if you have a friend who has more property,” Gillett said.

Gillett, the program and outreach coordinator at the Greater Upper Valley Solid Waste District, said his advice for tending to autumn leaves is just as simple: “Throw them in the woods. That’s the best thing to do.” There, leaves enrich the soil and branches become a refuge for birds hiding from prowling neighborhood cats.

The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services also recommends using fallen leaves in gardens as a “natural fertilizer” or mulch. Alternatively, you can simply let them decompose in place. They do not choke out the grass as long as they are not too thick or wet.

Nationwide, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that yard trimmings accounted for 10.5 million tons of landfilled municipal solid waste in 2018, or 7.2% of the total.

New Hampshire and Vermont have both banned yard waste from landfills. As leaves rot in landfills, the bacteria eating them away emit methane — a colorless gas that is 25 times as polluting as carbon. Incinerators are not an environmentally sound solution either; yard waste’s high moisture content keeps them from burning completely, and they emit gases that contribute to smog-causing nitrogen oxides, according to the EPA.

Homeowners can let them decompose in place, compost them, pile them in the woods, or bring them to local transfer stations that connect with compost facilities, as the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services recommends. Brew Hitchcock of Windsor-based Hitchcock Property Services and his crew typically vacuum them into a truck and deliver them to local farmers who use them as bedding and compost.

Leaves don’t have to be thought of as waste. At Gillett’s home in Windsor, they are a resource that he uses for his and his neighbors’ compost. Every portion of nitrogen-dense “wet and green material” — like a kitchen pail full of food scraps — needs to be balanced out with three times as much carbon-dense “brown material” — such as fallen leaves.

But invasive species make disposing of yard waste more complicated. Their seeds might live on in the compost and spread.

“They (invasive plants) should not be taken off of your property,” Gillett said. “Composting operations don’t want them. A last resort is to put them in your trash and take them to your landfill.”

Gillett fights several stubborn invasive plants including dog strangler and lady bells. All summer long, he builds a pile of them in his garage before bringing them to a friend who burns them.

Royalton resident Mike Bald, who owns Got Weeds? and specializes in managing invasive plants without chemicals, prefers to build “weed-drying stations.”

He piles the plants on pallets. Given enough time, the seeds die and the uprooted plants become healthy soil.

“I demonstrate it for people. It can work. It’s efficient. It is not efficient to put stuff in bags and drive them to transfer stations,” he said.

Bald disposes of all of his yard waste on-site. Using vegetation sourced from your own property as mulch is also an effective way to curb the spread of invasive plants.

“I like people to find efficiency on their land,” he said. “Treat vegetation as a resource, use it as much as you can. Don’t automatically throw it away or burn it in these days of climate change.”

But disposing of leaves is the last step in autumnal lawn maintenance — and getting them into piles at all is often the most environmentally unsound step if you rely on a leaf blower rather than a rake.

The California Air Resources Board recently began the formal process to ban the gasoline-powered “small off-road engines” used for lawn, garden and other outdoor power equipment.

“The best-selling commercial leaf blower emits smog-forming pollution comparable to driving a 2016 Toyota Camry about 1,100 miles,” according to CARB.

Margaret Renkl of The New York Times placed the leaf blower in a “category of environmental hell all its own, spewing pollutants — carbon monoxide, smog-forming nitrous oxides, carcinogenic hydrocarbons — into the atmosphere at a literally breathtaking rate.”

“If I don’t ever see another leaf blower, I’ll be happy,” Bald said. “Look, trees have been around a long time, they’ve been dropping leaves a long time, the wind has been blowing them around a long time, and who do we think we are blowing them around? The noise is beyond insane. It’s part of the landscape now.”

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