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Recycling the urban forest.


There is an ancient philosophical conundrum about the nature of knowledge that poses the question, "When a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it fall, how do we know whether it still makes a sound?"

Whatever the answer to the philosopher's riddle, we do know that when a tree falls in a forest, it enters a natural cycle of plant regeneration. As it decays, it returns nutrients to the soil, and the open space created by its fall is filled by young seedlings. In a natural forest, the death of one tree is merely a step toward the life of another.

But in an urban forest, this is rarely the case. Far too often the products of the urban forest - fallen limbs and leaves from the trees that shade our city streets and grass clippings from suburban yards - end up dumped in the local landfill. They enter the municipal waste stream rather than being viewed as resources that could be turned into woodchips, mulch, or compost - products that could be reintroduced into the soil.

"The waste is incredible," says Charles Stewart, an urban forestry consultant from Wheeling, Illinois. "We have the technology to process these materials into a usable product, but there are political boundaries and management problems in the way. Cities need to look at waste disposal as a regional problem requiring cooperation between local jurisdictions."

That sort of cooperation is rare in a country that prides itself on individualism and local self-reliance, but if our current waste-management practices continue, over half the nation's 9,300 landfills will face closure in 10 years, according to figures from the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Since space for new landfills is becoming more scarce and expensive, market forces are pressing waste-management officials into taking a hard look at what goes into landfills - and what can be left out.

The closing of landfills has a potential indirect impact on our nation's forests. Rural residents who are responsible for their own trash disposal and perhaps even some (particularly reckless) trash-collection companies may decide that their only alternative when landfills are shut down is to dump in the woods. What they leave behind will no doubt include yard wastes - but also less biodegradable and less sightly garbage.

Faced with the closure of many of its municipal landfills, one state has gone so far as to ban all yard wastes from its landfills. Illinois has set this year as the date for compliance with the new law.

In a 1988 study conducted for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by Franklin Associates, it was estimated that yard wastes alone account for an average of 18 percent of our national waste stream. During peak growing periods, they account for up to 35 percent of the residential waste in many communities.


In 1986 the city of Urbana, Illinois, recognizing the potential of such "waste" as a resource, opened a regional yard-waste reclamation facility. The site occupies 20 acres atop the recently closed Urbana municipal landfill. Created through an intergovernmental agreement with the nearby community of Champaign and the surrounding county, this facility represents a cooperative solution to a regional problem.

"There are risks involved with starting anything - capital expenditures and things like that," says James Darling, director of Urbana's Department of Public Works. "And like any business, you've got the economies of scale. With this facility, you have three governments absorbing the risk, and at the same time their constituencies provide the needed amount of resource."

In 1988, the regional reclamation center recycled some 30,000 cubic yards of privately and publicly generated yard waste collected from a service population of 172,000. Materials are dumped at the site by landscape contractors from the region, by the urban forestry departments of both cities, and by the independent trash haulers who service the Urbana-Champaign area. Regardless of the source, the facility charges a "tipping fee" of $3 per cubic yard for all materials received. (The term originates from the dump trucks that tip their loads into landfills.)

In the fall of 1988, officials with the facility initiated a curbside collection program in residential areas to increase the volume of materials processed at the site. Homeowners can purchase specially marked, "degradable" plastic bags for grass and leaves, or six-foot-long natural-fiber tie strings for bundling brush cuttings. (Nationwide, a controversy exists over whether biodegradable plastic bags will actually degrade under the conditions found in landfills, and if so, whether the degraded material itself may pose a problem.)

The bags cost 50 cents each, the tie strings $2.40. This cost is roughly equivalent to the tipping fee levied at the site. Some of the area's trash haulers are now refusing to pick up yard wastes, so the recycling services are becoming an attractive alternative for local homeowners. The clippings and brush cuttings are picked up once a week on the same day as other recyclable items.

At the processing site, the yard wastes are separated into succulents (leaves and grass), brush, and woods over six inches in diameter. The succulents are composted and sold to landscapers for $2.50 a cubic yard. Leaves and grass are mixed together in roughly equal proportions and piled into windrows that are 300 feet long by six feet high by 12 feet wide. The windrows are periodically shredded and turned by a wildcat compost turner. The more often they are turned, the faster the leaves and grass decompose. The processing time is kept to less than a year to ensure complete replacement of materials between growing seasons.

The brush and branches are ground in bulk in a tub grinder, which is fed by a 90-horsepower loading tractor fitted with logging grapples. The woodchips are then sold to landscapers for $3.50 a cubic yard for use as ornamental mulch.

Heavy woods over six inches in diameter are stockpiled for curing and future cutting into firewood. Local operators and the general public are permitted to cut and split the wood on-site free of charge. When the processing facility is able to obtain state or federally funded labor, the wood is split and sold at or below market rates.

The facility is operated as a division of the public works department and has a budget of $155,000 for fiscal 1989-90. The sale of materials is expected to bring in $15,000 during that period, and tipping fees should add $81,000. The remaining $59,000 subsidy will be shared equally by the communities of Champaign and Urbana and Champaign County.

Prices next year will be increased so that the facility is self-supporting. The initial subsidy period was designed to give the facility time to become well established in the area, particularly among local landscaping contractors. Considering that the above figures do not reflect the $66,000 in landfilling fees that are avoided, the operation is an astounding financial success.

"This project would never have worked if the municipalities hadn't combined resources," says Rodney Fletcher, solid waste manager for the Urbana Department of Public Works. "The higher the volume we get," he adds, "the lower the price per cubic yard."



In Portland, Oregon, the regional approach to solving the landfill problem has also met with success. In 1979, a Metropolitan Service District (Metro) was formed to handle various planning and administrative services for Washington, Multnomah, and Clarkamas counties. One of the tasks of this regional government is to provide planning and coordination for a tri-county recycling program. The Metro region has been recycling tree trimmings and yard debris since the early 1980s.

"We focus on reducing landfill waste any way we can," says Charlott Becker, Metro's recycling coordinator. "And yard wastes take up a big part of the space in there," Becker adds. The region's landfill is scheduled to close in 1991.

Metro's function is to serve as an information clearing-house to supply residents with booklets about composting and dollars-off coupons to purchase compost and mulch from the recycling companies. One pamphlet is titled, "Our Biggest Waste Problem is Right in Your Own Backyard."

The actual recycling is handled by two family businesses that receive no subsidies from Metro. One of the companies, Grimm's Fuel, opened shop in the 1920s as a firewood supplier and in 1982 began accepting yard-waste materials for composting or grinding for resale.

"People thought we were crazy when we first started this," says Jeff Grimm, grandson of the company founder. "Now it makes up about half our business."

In 1988, Grimm's processed approximately 225,000 cubic yards of tree trimmings and yard waste. About half of this material came from local homeowners, the other half from landscape and tree contractors. Occasionally, city governments in the area will contract with Grimm's to receive waste from municipal landscape maintenance departments. The company has also recently agreed to take in yard debris that makes its way to the regional landfill.

Grimm's charges a tipping fee of $3.50 a cubic yard at the site. Wastes are ground by an industrial-sized "hammerhog" grinder into a coarse material, which is then mixed with manure from a local mushroom farm and stockpiled for "a long time," according to Jeff Grimm.

As the material sits, it begins to decompose and shrink in volume. From the stockpile, it is bulldozed back to the grinder and reshredded into a finer mixture. After a third trip through the grinder and a final screening of foreign materials, the finished compost is sold to local homeowners, landscapers, and nurserymen for about $8.50 a cubic yard.


One commonly overlooked item in the urban forest is the Christmas tree. Every year people across the country dress up their trees as a symbol of Christmas love and joy, yet every year most of those trees end up as garbage in the local landfill.

John Giedraitis, city forester for Austin, Texas, has started a Christmas-tree recycling program that is rapidly becoming a tradition among local citizens. During the three weekends following Christmas of 1988, Austin residents took more than 23,000 trees to 13 area collection sites. The trees were chipped into mulch for use on the city's parks and pathways. The tree donors also contributed over $4,000 to the tree-recycling program. The donations are used to buy a pine seedling for each tree donor who wants one. Residents can walk through their parks, smell the rich pine fragrance of the newly ground trees, and remember their part in the after-Christmas tree-chipping tradition.

"You figure that here in the United States there must be at least 100 million or so Christmas trees every year," says Giedraitis. "But most of those trees end up in a landfill. What we're doing here in Austin is taking trees that people would normally throw away and using them to meet a public need."

Giedraitis adds that the city saves money and landfill space to boot. "This is a low-cost, low-tech, high-savings kind of program - we had no budget for this," he notes.

In 1988 local waste-disposal companies transported excess trees from overloaded collection sites to a central chipping location, and tree-care companies donated chippers to grind the trees into mulch - sometimes at the collection sites while on-lookers watched, sometimes at the central chipping location. In all, private businesses chipped in about $15,000 worth of services.

The success of the program is due at least in part to the willing participation of the press and the community. The week between Christmas and New Year's is a slack time for news in Austin, as in other communities, so local newspapers and television stations are eager to cover the annual grinding of the Christmas trees.

Austin's citizens, already participating in a strong curbside recycling program, have responded to the tree program with surprising enthusiasm. More than 450 volunteers from local scout troops, Lions Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, and other nonprofit organization staff the collection centers.

The city's Parks and Recreation Department figures that by avoiding the costs of picking up trees, landfilling fees, and the costs of purchasing mulch for municipal parks, the city of Austin saved about $20,000 last year - and about 10,000 cubic yards of landfill space.


Austin's program has created spinoffs in other cities across the nation. In Portland, Oregon, Metro picked up the idea of Christmas tree recycling and applied the same free-market approach that has worked so well with yard-waste recycling. As an annual fundraising drive, local nonprofit groups charge anywhere from 50 cents to $5 to receive or pick up Christmas trees from area residents. In 1988, over 39,000 trees were recycled or reused for useful purposes. Most were chipped into mulch, which was used for landscaping parks and playgrounds or sold to raise additional funds.

As with yard-waste recycling, Metro acts as an information clearinghouse to provide advertising, media coordination, and directories of participating nonprofit groups. If tree owners complain about having to pay $5 to have their tree recycled, Metro officials on the recycling hotline refer them to other groups that solicit smaller donations.

In Chicago, where the municipal landfill is expected to close by 1991, the idea of Christmas tree recycling was taken up by Edith Makra, urban forester for the Chicago Open Lands Project.

"I got the idea from a news clipping about the project in Austin," says Makra. "That was about five weeks before Christmas of 1988, so I really had to rush to get everything set up." Makra coordinated the efforts of several nonprofit groups that staffed the pickup sites and provided publicity, refreshments, and general public support for the event.

After Christmas, Chicago residents and city sanitation trucks took in more than 10,000 Yuletide trees to be chipped into mulch at several dropoff sites throughout the city. Many people who took in trees to be recycled left the site with a bag of woodchips. Leftover chips were used to landscape the city's parks.

The Chicago-area park district also recycles trees and branches from its regular maintenance operations. Using five "Eager Beaver" chipping machines, workers grind everything from small branches to 10-inch trees into one-inch woodchips for use as a mulch around the district's trees and shrubs.

The park district is also cooperating with the city's forestry service, sharing a machine with a 27-inch capacity. The chips from this machine are used as a soft surface on area playgrounds. In 1988 the park district produced about 60,000 cubic yards of chips from trees that would have filled approximately 300,000 cubic yards in the area's landfill.

"There's an educational benefit to all of this," says Giedraitis. "Recycling reminds people that everything we do has consequences. If each of us put our dead tree to good use and planted another tree to take its place, we could do a lot right in our own backyard to solve the world's problems."

Recycling urban-forest products is an idea still in its infancy. But as landfills reach closure across the country and as the cost of waste disposal increases dramatically, local government agencies, civic organizations, and concerned citizens are beginning to see the benefits of converting erstwhile "waste" into useful products.

Recycling the urban forest may be an idea in its infancy - but it also seems to be an idea whose time has come.

PHOTO : At an environmental center in Oregon City, Nan Hage composts yard debris.

PHOTO : In Austin, Texas, the Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) has started a new holiday tradition: recycling Christmas trees into mulch for the city's parks.

Rob Dyke is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Virginia, and recently served as an editorial intern with AMERICAN FORESTS. Phillip Rodbell, managing editor of Urban Forests Forum, contributed to the development of this article.
COPYRIGHT 1990 American Forests
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Dyke, Robert
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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