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Resolving the Landscape Waste Dilemma

by Phillip R. Yoder

Until five years ago, people handled the disposal of landscape waste as they did any other household garbage: it was hauled to the landfill. Park districts frequently did the same thing. The Illinois Landscape Waste Act, enacted in July of 1990, changed things. The Act prohibited placement of landscape waste in sanitary landfills. Park districts were forced to reevaluate their options for disposal.

The environmental community has been promoting the three R's of waste management for years. Progressive park districts apply the same principals of reduction reuse and recycling to their landscape waste dilemma.

REDUCTION, keeping landscape material from entering the waste stream, is the most efficient means of solving a disposal problem.

This solution is most often applied to mowing operations. By not collecting grass clippings, a disposal problem is eliminated. This sounds like a simple solution; however, to maintain the desired appearance of turf areas, it's often necessary to make other changes in the maintenance regime. During periods of rapid growth it may be necessary to mow every four or five days to prevent accumulation of clippings. Raising the cut height will allow more clippings to "hide" in the grass that remains. Manufacturers of mowing equipment are helping to solve this problem. Mulching mowers cut the grass blades into smaller pieces than non-mulching mowers, so the clippings more easily disappear. Occasionally double-cutting (mowing an area twice) may be necessary to eliminate windrows. Even the best efforts may not result in the same appearance as collecting grass clippings.

In the fall, mowing operations can be continued after the grass stops growing to mulch leaves to reduce, if not eliminate, collection. Mulching attachments for mowers finely chop leaves so they fall into the grass and decompose. The dead plant material from annual and perennial plantings can be mowed right in the landscape bed if the bed design permits. The dead tops can also be scattered on a nearby turf area and mulched with the leaves.

There will always be tree limbs and branches to dispose. Limited waste reduction can be achieved through use of tree species or varieties that produce less waste. Some trees produce large fruit that must be collected; for example, black walnut, honey-locust, osage-orange sweetgum and some crab apples. Planting fruitless or smaller fruited varieties can help. Willows, sycamore, silver maple and some honey-locust varieties have large numbers of branches that die back continually. This results in higher maintenance and disposal costs. These trees are better utilized in natural areas. Some species may have to be eliminated near walkways and from turf areas. Selecting shrub species that will grow only as big as the area you want them to occupy can limit pruning to minor shaping or sanitation. Many shrub species have low growing or dwarf varieties that provide the desired look but won't need heavy pruning to keep them confined.

Eliminating collection of waste can reduce maintenance costs and recycle back into the soil nutrients that otherwise would be lost.

REUSE is the use of unprocessed landscape waste for a secondary purpose.

Grass clippings and leaves can be used as mulches. Their use is limited, however, by their appearance and rate of decomposition. The dead tops of some perennials can be used in dried flower arrangements. If evergreen pruning can wait until late fall, the material may be suitable for wreath-making. Instructors in your recreation department may currently be buying what you pay to throw away. Tree limbs and branches usually require some type of processing to be usable.

RECYCLING uses landscape waste following a process that changes the waste shape or form.

Grass clippings and leaves that must be collected can be seasoned in piles. The resulting material can be used as a soil amendment. This process is not true composting. It generally

Illinois Parks & Recreation July/August 1995 31


will be a slower composition that may require occasional mixing to prevent odors. Composting requires mixing proper portions of fresh green plant material and dry material. This generates enough heat to kill most weed seeds and other pests.

Tree limbs and branches can be chipped to provide wood chips for placement in landscape beds and around trees to provide a beneficial mulch. Not every park district can afford or has the need to own their own chipper. Many districts make arrangements with their local municipality or another park district so they can borrow a chipper when needed. They can also be rented by the day or hour. The biggest problem for some districts is having sufficient space for storing branches where they can accumulate until they can be chipped. Again, it may be possible to arrange temporary storage within the municipality or from another landowner or construct a small confinement area where the landscape dumpster currently sits.

If an entire tree is taken down, the log can be sawed into planking for trailer decking or side boards for dump trucks. Cut logs or large limbs not suitable for lumber to firewood length and use for campfires, hayrides or other recreation activities. Even if the district doesn't have a use for the logs or limbs, cutting them to firewood length will usually eliminate the problem. Firewood left near the street will quickly be collected by local residents. It might even be possible to sell the firewood wholesale to someone who will then resell it. If long-term storage is available, a district can sell the firewood, considering time and delivery problems.


Resolving your park district's landscape waste dilemma may not be easy. You can't accomplish everything at once. But with time and a little effort, you can eliminate costs and your reliance on dumpsters and commercial waste disposal.

In this era of heightened environmental concern, park districts should provide the example, education and promotion necessary to encourage our residents to adopt and maintain an environmentally conscious lifestyle.

Phillip R. Yoder is the Superintendent of Parks for the Fox Valley Park District and a member of the IPRA Environmental Committee.

32 Illinois Parks & Recreation July/August 1995


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