Why Compost Yard Trimmings?

We live in a “throw away” society. It’s considered easy to get rid of things we regard as useless or unhealthy by wrapping it up and placing it in the garbage can.

Nationwide, yard materials account for nearly 20% of all garbage generated each year (Environmental Protection Agency).

landfillOnce this “useless” material is taken away to a landfill, it really becomes useless. Enclosed in an oxygen-limited environment, garbage degrades very slowly. Landfills must be monitored to make sure gases such as methane do not build up inside, and to make sure underground water does not become contaminated from landfill liquids. In addition, many landfills are nearing their maximum capacity, and in the near future will need to be closed.

This throw-away attitude is also prevalent with yard materials. Grass is cut, raked, bagged, and put out at the curb. Leaves are raked and bagged as well. Many times a special charge will be made to pick up yard materials. Nutrients present in the materials are removed from the yard. These materials must be taken to landscape composting facilities, where they are composted, screened, and possibly sold back to homeowners!

It’s very easy to turn this into a resource that can be reapplied to a yard. Composting, a biological process that decomposes organic material under aerobic (oxygen required) conditions, is becoming more popular to homeowners. Neighbors see neighbors composting leaves, grass, and some food materials, ask questions, and start making compost themselves. They like the idea of turning a “waste” into something that can be reapplied to the landscape.

Since 1990, landfills in Illinois cannot accept landscape waste. This means communities have had to find alternative disposal methods. Many larger communities have developed composting operations. treesThese operations must be issued a permit by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and must submit yearly reports. Much of the composted material is used in land reclamation, fill material, and as daily or final landfill cover (used as a protective layer over garbage). Medium and smaller communities (under 100,000 population) cannot economically produce compost. These communities must rely on landscape or sanitation businesses to provide services for pickup of yard materials and composting operations. Other alternatives include paying producers to take the yard materials for use on their farmland. Regardless of the size of community, it is a cost that must ultimately be born by the taxpayer.

Composting Benefits

balanceComposting yard materials has many landscape benefits. Nutrients that otherwise are removed when trimmings are bagged can be placed back into the nutrient cycle, lessening the need for fertilizers. When added to the soil, the nutrients present in compost are released slowly, so they are less likely to leach out of the root zone, as compared to regular fertilizer. Soil structure is improved by the addition of organic matter. Structure is how individual soil particles combine. Organic matter, such as that present in compost, aids in creating a structure that allows good water retention and root penetration. This is accomplished by the way organic matter attaches to soil particles.

As yard materials go through the composting process, there is an increase in temperature within the compost pile. High temperatures kill most disease pathogens present. Most weed seeds and pesticides are destroyed as well because of the high temperature.

Materials that may be acidic when added to a compost pile will become almost neutral in pH when the composting process is complete. Soils that are high or low in pH may make some nutrients less available for plant use, or may let plants take in too much. When added to soil that is acidic or alkaline, compost acts as a buffer against high or low pH.

Earthworms thrive in soil amended with compost. Tunnels created by earthworms increases drainage, and the casts they leave behind are a great nutrient supply for plants.

Composting Regulations

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency does not require a permit for garden composting operations (Title 35 of the Illinois Administrative Code, Standards for Compost Facilities). A garden compost operation is defined as an operation that does not have over 25 cubic yards of yard materials or compost present at one time and is not engaged in commercial activity. Permits for composting are also not needed if a landscape waste facility uses landscape waste generated by the facility’s own activities and are stored, treated, or disposed of within the site where the wastes are generated. The term Landscape Waste, according to Illinois Administrative Code, pertains to:

grass, clippings, shrubbery cuttings, leaves, tree limbs, and other materials accumulated as the result of care of lawns, shrubbery, vines and trees. Yard materials, yard trimmings, and landscape waste are terms that can be interchanged.

Applying compost at agronomic rates (20 tons per acre or less) does not require a permit either.

Commercial or larger facilities must either file a yearly report to IEPA or must be permitted to operate.

Individual communities in Illinois may have specific ordinances pertaining to backyard composting operations. Check with your municipal office to see if there are ordinances on home composting for your community.

Other Landscape Options

Some communities are promoting Beneficial Landscaping, also called natural landscaping or environmentally friendly landscaping, to reduce the need for disposing of yard materials. Some of the principles of this method include:

  • Selecting native plants
  • Relying less on turf areas and more on woodland or natural plantings
  • Reducing pesticide use
  • Reducing use of power equipment
  • Enhancing wildlife habitat
  • Discouraging use of invasive exotic plants

Using these principles along with others will help to equalize our needs with those of the environment.