If you’re an avid yard worker, then you know that yard waste accumulates fast. Whether you're mowing the lawn, pruning hedges, or raking leaves, green waste adds up quickly, and then you have to ask, now what?
Can I just throw this away or do I have to take it somewhere specific? Will the garbage company pick it up? If I want to reuse it, what are my first steps?
These are great questions to ask. We'll walk you through the four most popular uses for yard waste, what can be included as yard waste, and some do-nots of yard waste to keep your garden healthy and eco-friendly.
What Is Yard Waste?
Let's start with a quick definition. Federal Law (per 40 CFR § 62.15370) says that yard waste consists of the following:
Clippings from bushes and shrubs
This legal definition isn’t a comprehensive list though, anything you find in your yard that appears naturally can be considered yard waste, including leaves, twigs and branches.
Yard waste is compostable, meaning it doesn't have to take up space in a landfill — we have lots of options of disposing it without resorting to the trash heap.
Since yard waste sitting in a landfill generates methane, a greenhouse gas responsible for 25% of global warming today, keeping yard waste out of the landfill is an invaluable step in reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
As wildfires rage on the west coast and tornados and floods devastate the southwest and east, we need to do everything we can to stop climate change in its tracks. To stop climate change we need to reduce the greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. An easy way to do that is to dispose of your yard waste sustainably! Waste reduction is pivotal in reducing the greenhouse gasses emitted into the atmosphere. We’ve created a what’s what of yard waste removal for you to easily reference when disposing of your yard waste.
Four Ways To Reuse Yard Waste
We’ve compiled a comprehensive list of sustainable yard waste removal options that work for every homeowner and every yard situation.
Start A Backyard Compost Pile
Composting is the decomposition of organic material to make a nutrient-rich fertilizer. It’s the most environmentally friendly way to dispose of yard waste and it promotes healthy plant and garden growth.
Compost is like recycling where your yard waste is broken down and reused as fertilizer. We've written an easy guide to help get you started with four of the easiest methods for repurposing your garden waste, including:
Vermicomposting, or worm bin composting,
Pit composting, and
Following any of these methods will allow the organic material to decompose. Place it around your plants and in your garden and watch them flourish!
Approved items for your backyard compost pile:
Dead plants and flowers
Animal bedding (if it is natural like straw, hay, or shredded materials)
WARNING: if you have pets, keep them away from the compost pile because it can cause illness if a pet ingests compost materials.
Curbside Composting AKA The Big Green Bin
If you’ve seen big green bins around your neighborhood, then your city probably has a curbside composting option. You can call your city’s waste management or sustainability office to find out how to sign up for curbside composting. The city will deliver you a green bin. As a homeowner, you’ll need to place approved yard debris in your green bin and then place the green bin on the curb according to the city’s curbside composting pick-up schedule.
Always check with your city waste department if you aren’t sure whether something in your yard qualifies as yard debris. Even if your city doesn’t offer curbside composting, there may be several non-profits in your area that offer curbside composting.
If you’re interested in curbside composting, we suggest conducting a search using the following search terms: “curbside composting near me” and “urban composting [City Name].” These searches should bring up plenty of options to get you started with your local curbside composting service.
Important note: approved items for a backyard compost bin don’t necessarily translate to the green bin. Items that can go in your backyard compost pile but cannot go in your green bin include:
Animal bedding (like straw and chicken manure)
Large branches that exceed 4 inches of thickness or exceed 36 inches in length
Make mulch, fast.
Mulch is simply organic material that is spread over the soil to protect plants; it is nutrient dense and supports plant growth and health. Applying mulch to a plant bed offers a whole host of benefits:
Prevents water loss
Reduces weed growth
Reduces water-splashing: a reduction in water splashing promotes healthy plant growth because water splashing can spread soil-borne disease to your plants.
Improves soil structure
Much, much more!
With this three-step process, you can reduce your yard waste quickly and make mulch fast instead of waiting days or weeks for yard debris to break down in your compost bin.
Tools you’ll need to make mulch:
Weeds, tree branches, leaves, and grass clippings.
Follow this easy three-step process to make mulch:
Make wood chips: send the tree branches through the woodchipper. Leave the wood chips in a pile; we’ll come back to them later.
Pile up the other yard debris: Gather the rest of your yard debris (weed, leaves, grass clippings) and put them in a pile, and run them over with your lawnmower. Leafy yard debris needs to be shredded to make a good mulch.
Grab your shovel: combine the woodchip pile and the leafy yard debris pile. Now, you have mulch!
Hot Tip: For newly planted seeds or trees, don’t place the mulch on top of the soil; this can suffocate your plant or tree. Dig down into the soil and bury the mulch near the roots. Mulch beneath the soil’s surface is much more effective, and your plant or tree will thank you for it!
Even if you don’t have many branches or leafy yard debris, as long as you use a lawn mower, you can grasscycle. It’s super easy!
To grasscycle, all you need is a bagless lawnmower. After you mow, leave the grass clippings on your lawn. The grass clippings will decompose after 7 to 14 days. You’ll have a happy, healthy nutrient rich lawn while reducing the amount of yard waste you send to the landfill!
There are a lot of advantages to grasscycling:
Boosts lawn tolerance to drought
Cuts down on the yard debris that goes to landfills
Promotes grass growth
Adds nutrients back into the lawn
If you decide to grass cycle, remember these important tips:
Remove clumps – don’t let heavy clumps of grass sit on your lawn
Mow once a week for best results
Sharpen your blades – sharp blades help cut and distribute the grass clippings more effectively across your lawn.
The Other Side: The Do-Not-Includes Of Yard Waste
A quick reminder: just because it’s in your backyard, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to put it in your compost pile or in your green bin. Non yard-waste items can cause serious issues.
If your green bin contains any of these items, everything inside will go to the landfill instead of your city’s compost pile; if you toss these items into your backyard compost pile, they could leak dangerous chemicals as they break down. These are the do not includes of yard waste:
Construction, renovation, and demolition waste: bricks, stones, and siding.
Plastic: bags, all kinds of bags, including soil and fertilizer bags, cannot be disposed of as yard waste.
Gardening tools: pots, hoses, rakes, and tools.
Treated wood: treated wood is resistant to rot and decay; harmful chemicals could leak into your compost or soil.
Animal waste: There is a particular method (hot composting) used to compost animal waste. It is relatively advanced. Most sustainability experts recommend throwing animal waste in the trash to prevent accidental contamination of your compost pile or risk the contents of your green bin going to the landfill.
It is essential to check with your local waste and garbage municipality for a complete list of what is and is not yard waste in your jurisdiction.
There are a lot of great options out there to dispose of your yard waste sustainably. From your own backyard compost bin to grasscycling, there is an option for everyone. If you don't need fertilizer, or you simply don't have the time, desire, or space for a composting corner in your garden then curbside composting is an excellent option. It's an easy, eco-friendly solution -- you don’t have to think about The Big Green Bin or monitor it. Just toss your yard debris in and wheel it to the curb!
Pick the option that works best for you and your yard’s needs, or try a few! Remember, the more methane causing yard debris we keep out of the landfill the better chance we have at combating future climate change. Happy yard working!
Dakota is an experienced content and copywriter living in Portland, Oregon. She enjoys learning, reading, and writing about sustainable solutions to life’s everyday problems.