Written by Rob Pressly, NACo Program Manager.
(Image source: Flickr user wickenden)
Whether you bag them, burn them, or form them into piles to jump into, odds are you’ve spent many a fall Sunday over the years raking leaves in the yard. Americans dispose of nearly eight million tons of leaves in landfills each year. In Texas, for example, 10 percent of the solid waste in landfills comes from fallen leaves. Montgomery County, Md., collects enough leaves annually to fill a football field ten stories high. What if there were an alternative to leaf collection that provides cost savings for counties as well as environmental benefits? Much to the delight of homeowners across the county, some counties are suggesting residents should mulch their leaves.
Mowing leaves with a mulching lawnmower shreds the leaves into small pieces, keeping the leaves in place while aiding in their decomposition. As the leaf mulch breaks down, critical nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous are returned to the soil, but the benefits go beyond just a greener lawn. Mulching leaves can aid in improving soil water retention and drainage, balance soil chemistry and fertility, protect soil from erosion, and suppress the growth of weeds. Mulching leaves also means saving time and money on lawn care costs – no need to spend time bagging your leaves, and the cost of leaf bags add up (take for example the case where 120 leaf bags were needed for a half-acre property).
Beyond improving lawn and soil quality, mulching leaves can provide significant savings for counties in operational costs. Westchester County, N.Y., for example, pays a private contractor $40 per ton to haul leaves to commercial composting sites, costing the county around $3.5 million annually. Each fall, nearly 90 percent of yard waste the county disposes of is leaves, some 60,000 tons in total. By reducing landfill tipping fees, labor costs, and fuel and transportation costs through leaf mulching, the county estimates the waste stream diversion could be cut in half, saving millions in dollars.
To promote both the environmental and cost-saving benefits of leaf mulching, the county created its Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em initiative which provides homeowners, landscapers, and county departments information on the benefits of leaf mulching and tips for getting started. They’ve even created a toolkit which includes yard signs, public service announcement videos, bilingual how-to cards and informational letters to expand the program’s outreach.
Has your county considered the operational cost savings and environmental benefits of leaf mulching? How does your county handle leaf collection? Please contact Rob Pressly, Program Manager of NACo’s Green Government Initiative, at email@example.com to share your county’s story, or if this is a topic of interest to you.