Reduce, Reuse and Recyle

Armed with a better understanding of the value of finished compost and the biological processes that transform excess organic material generated around our home into a usable product, it is easy to see why people compost.  Home composting not only provides a free valuable soil amendment but also eliminates dumping fees, landscape yard waste bags, and the work involved filling them and hauling them to the curb.

Many of the organic materials generated such as lawn clippings, landscape trimmings, kitchen scraps, leaves, and untreated cardboard can be managed through composting.  They can be reused and recycled.  But what about reducing the amounts produced in the first place. Proper landscape plant selection and recycling grass clippings are two ways you can eliminate excess yard waste!

Landscape Plant Selection

Our landscapes frame our homes.  The intent of landscaping is to enhance these structures and their surrounding environment. Landscapes also can generate a lot of yard waste that we have to deal with throughout the growing season.  How can we reduce the excess?  Consider the following points when selecting landscape material:

Maples are beautiful trees that with age generate large amounts of leaves in the fall.  Rather than selecting an eventual 80-foot giant, perhaps a smaller maple will do such as an Amur Maple or a Paperbark Maple, both reaching 20 to 25 feet.  Your fall leaf pile will be much smaller.            

Sycamore trees produce large dinner-plate size leaves.  Honey locust trees produce small leaves. Remember, the greater the exposed leaf surface the faster the decomposition.  Honeylocust leaves break down and blow away in one season while sycamore leaves linger, smothering desirable plant material if not removed. Sycamore leaves will eventually breakdown.

Crabapple trees are beautiful in the spring, but many of the older cultivars are prone to diseases and loose their leaves mid summer only to re-leaf and fall off again in autumn!  You have generated the same amount of yard waste twice in the same season!  Choose a disease resistant variety.

Ash trees can produce huge numbers of seeds every year.  Select a seedless cultivar and eliminate this yard waste.

Evergreen plant material doesn’t annually shed all of its foliage.

When selecting a plant for your yard, find out the mature size.  Take into consideration the eventual location of the plant.  Will the plant get too large?  Will it need excessive pruning to contain it?  With careful consideration of mature size, yard trimmings can be reduced.  Now if you desire to have a bush shaped like an elephant, then you are going to have yard waste!

Recycle Grass Clippings

The Illinois Department of Energy and Natural Resources estimates that lawn care for an average Midwestern residence generates some 750 pounds of grass clippings a year.  Multiply that times the number of lawns in your community, and you can see how quickly the tons of just this one type of excess yard waste adds up.  Landfills no longer accept yard waste.   If a regional composting facility is nearby, you can bag the grass clippings and haul them there.  Or your community may have a yard waste pick-up day.  What can we do to reduce this large amount of material? An easy option is to leave the grass clippings on your lawn. 

This recycling strategy has many different names. “Don't Bag It”, “Just Say Mow,” and “Grasscycling” are three you may have heard of.  Whatever you call it, the idea is the same: clippings left on the lawn will naturally breakdown.  Contrary to what some folks believe, grass clippings will not damage lawns.  In the 1960's, consumers were told that a bagger on their mower was a necessity to slow down thatch development.  If not, a buildup of thatch would occur.  Research has shown that leaving your grass clippings on your lawn does not contribute to thatch.

What is thatch?  It is a tightly intertwined layer of dead and living grass stems and roots that can develop between the soil surface and green vegetation.  This layer develops when dead organic matter accumulates faster than it decomposes.  A thatch layer less than ½ inch is considered beneficial.  It insulates roots, reduces soil compaction and serves as a mulch to prevent excessive water evaporation.  A layer greater than ½ inch increases the disease susceptibility of the turf and reduces tolerance to environmental extremes.  An 11-year study at the USDA research station in Beltsville, Maryland, found that on an annual basis, leaving grass clippings on your lawn contributes only .03 inches to the thatch layer. Grass recycling does not spread lawn disease either.  Disease spores are present whether clippings are left or removed.  Turf grass disease occurs when disease-causing spores contact susceptible grasses under certain environmental conditions. 

Grass clippings are a valuable organic source of nutrients, especially nitrogen.  As clippings decompose, these nutrients become available for use by the grass plant.  Clippings also shade the soil surface and reduce moisture loss due to evaporation.  In addition, leaving your clippings saves time, work, and money.  A recent study was conducted in Fort Worth, Texas, with 147 homeowners who quit bagging their clippings.  The homeowners mowed their lawns 5.4 times per month versus 4.1 times by homeowners who bagged their grass.  However, the grass recyclers spent an average of seven hours less during the grass cutting season on yard work, because they did not have to spend time bagging grass for disposal.  Savings in money can be realized from reduced fertilizer applications.  Leaving your grass clippings can reduce your yearly nitrogen applications by 25 percent.  You also save by not purchasing trash bags and with less wear and tear on mowers by not having a bag attachment full of heavy clippings.  

Mulching mowers and mulching attachments for existing mowers are available. What they do is reduce the grass clipping size, thus increasing the rate at which clippings decompose.  You don't need to purchase special equipment.  A normal rotary mower is fine.  Owners of old rear or side discharge mowers can leave the discharge opening closed, or they can remove the catching bag. Cover the discharge chute with a plate/cover that can be purchased at a local hardware store. Most new mowers are designed for improved grass recycling with decks that are shaped to cut clippings into smaller pieces so they will fall below the tops of the grass blades, helping to prevent clumping. 

  • Keep your mower blade sharp.  A dull mower blade tears grass which increases the chance of disease infestations. 
  • Cut your lawn when the grass is dry. Wet grass is difficult to cut evenly, dulls blades, and tends to form clumps.
  • Clean the mower deck periodically. Wet clippings can become matted on the underside of the mower deck, resulting in clumping of clippings or mechanical failure.
    Proper mowing will insure quick breakdown of grass clippings and overall lawn quality.
  • For best results, do not cut more than one-third of the leaf surface at any one cutting (for example, if grass is three inches tall, only remove one inch). This practice allows you to leave clippings on the lawn without visible clumping and is healthier for the turf than cutting too short.

Grass recycling is not appropriate in every situation.  Prolonged wet weather, mechanical breakdown of mowers, or infrequent mowing are situations where clippings should be bagged or collected. 

Municipal Compost facilities

            Across Illinois, there are Environmental Protection Agency permitted compost facilities that will accept homeowner yard waste.  Using the windrow system where a large machine mechanically turns the rows, compost is made in about 10 to 12 months.  For a minimal fee, homeowners have this valuable soil amendment locally available.  These sites are visited twice a year to insure that they are fulfilling regulated requirements. If you would like more information on compost facilities or other solid waste issues, write to:

Illinois Environmental Protection Agency
            Bureau of Land
            1021 N. Grand Ave. East
            Box 19276
            Springfield, IL  62794-9276e

email - Duane Friend (friend@uiuc.edu) or Martha Smith (smithma@uiuc.edu)