Eco-Friendly Ways to Manage Fall Leaves

Last updated on June 16, 2024.

Red and orange leave on ground
Photo by Marie Cullis.

“Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fall is my favorite season! I love the drop in temperature, the changing hues, the sight of leaves floating down, and the sound of leaves crunching under my feet. We have a big backyard with a wooded area and many trees. We rarely rake our leaves because I like the sight of them and my son and I can look for pretty ones.

But by the end of the season, many people feel the need to remove leaves. You can simply leave the leaves! But if you must do something about your fall leaves, here are some eco-friendly tips about how to manage them in your yard.

“Autumn leaves are falling, filling up the streets; golden colors on the lawn, nature’s trick or treat!”–Rusty Fischer

Three colorful leaves lined up together
Photo by Marie Cullis.

To remove, or not to remove

I am a proponent of letting nature go through its natural processes. We leave our leaves in the fall and by spring we either mow them and let the bits settle into the ground, or we rake them and put them in our compost bin. Leave your leaves if you can! Let your kids or dogs play in them. This is the most natural and Earth-friendly option.

But leaves can sometimes cause problems and in those situations must be removed. Leaves left on some types of grass will smother grass growth come spring. Leaves left in your yard can also allow a certain type of outdoor mold to grow on your lawn. Leaf dander can affect people with allergies (I’m one of them, so no argument there). Also, leaves cannot be left on roofs and in gutters for obvious reasons.

Ways NOT to Dispose of Leaves

Whether you rake, blow, shovel, or mow your leaves, there are several natural and healthy ways to dispose of them. But whatever you do, please don’t bag them in plastic! Placing 100% biodegradable contents into a sealed plastic bag that goes to a landfill where they will never biodegrade is the worst practice for the environment.

Leaves bagged in large plastic garbage bags
Leaves bagged in large plastic garbage bags. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Leaves bagged in large plastic garbage bags
Leaves bagged in large plastic garbage bags. Photo by Marie Cullis.

When I took this photo in my neighborhood, I was trying to figure out why people bag their leaves in plastic (multiple neighbors have bagged leaves right now). But then I discovered that the city’s website indicates that residents may bag up leaves and yard waste and request separate pick up from the regular garbage pick up. The website says you can also put them loose on your curb for Loose Leaf collection (where they use the giant vacuum truck). But what the website does not say is what happens to those leaves after they are picked up. I’m sure many don’t give it a second thought – out of sight, out of mind – so the homeowner probably believes they were doing the right thing.

I emailed the City of Chattanooga to find out what happens to the bagged leaves, but it took 4 email exchanges to obtain a thorough answer. It turns out that paper or plastic bagged leaves are picked up by the city’s waste contractor (WestRock) and taken to the landfill. Only the unbagged loose leaves that are left on the curb are picked up by the city and taken to the city’s wood composting facility. I don’t think many residents know this because if they did, I think people would change their practice or request the city change its protocol. There is a lack of clarity on the website and through their email service, and maybe people don’t think or have time to ask for additional information.

Unfortunately, I doubt we are the only city that handles leaves this way. So please, always check with your municipality before bagging your leaves!

Another neighbor takes his yard debris, including leaves, and puts them unbagged into his city garbage can. He may believe that they will decompose and not know that nothing decomposes in a standard landfill. So it is very important to refrain from this practice as well.

Yellow leaf on the ground
Photo by Marie Cullis.

Ways to Dispose of Leaves

If you must have your leaves removed, you’ll need to check with your local municipality about leaf collection and how they dispose of the leaves. Do they send them to a compost facility? Are they sent to the incinerator? Or are they landfilled? Try to find an option that allows the leaves to decompose, such as the option to put them on the curb and have them vacuumed up by city services. Keep asking questions if you don’t get a thorough response the first time.

The best option is to put leaves in your compost. Compost thrives from having a variety of materials, especially dead leaf matter mixed with food waste. So rake them and put them in your compost. And if you don’t have a compost bin, maybe this is a good time to start one!

If you have woods around your yard, you can easily find a place to dump your leaves. The home above, as you can see, has a wooded area adjacent to their land where they could’ve dumped these leaves and let nature take its course. You will want to avoid dumping them in ditches or waterways to prevent flooding.

Yard with leaves
Photo by Marie Cullis.

A third option is to save them to use as a mulch cover. If your mower has a bagged mulch option, you could use the mulch in the spring for your garden.

Last, some like to burn leaves. Besides the obvious safety and fire hazards, it turns out that the practice can have health hazards too. According to Purdue University, the smoke from burning leaves contains tiny particles and gases that can accumulate in the lungs over time. Additionally, the smoke from moist leaves gives off hydrocarbons, an irritant to the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs and are sometimes carcinogenic.1

Raked leaves in yard with bench
Image by utroja0 from Pixabay.

Avoid Leaf Blowers

I do not like leaf blowers because they blow all the leaf dander and mold and mildew spores into the air. Since I am allergic to all of those, it really irritates my sinuses. In fact, in the Fall on the campus where I work, maintenance workers blow leaves every morning when I arrive (I go in quite early) and I have to walk through the dust and blown air. Needless to say, I start feeling bad during the workday.

I thought it was just me who had these issues. But then I read that leaf blowers can cause legitimate problems. Leaf blowers, made to replace raking or sweeping, add “more pollution to the air than a car or truck. The gas emitted is harmful to human health and to the person operating the blower. Along with the noise pollution and CO2 emissions, leaf blowers also lift hazardous substances (dirt, mold, pollen, pesticides) into the air we breathe.” wasteful and outdated practice.”

Enjoy Fall!

If you can, leave the leaves! The Xerces Society, the National Wildlife Federation, and even the U.S. Department of Agriculture say to leave the leaves.

Regardless of how you deal with your leaves, enjoy fall! It’s a beautiful season that’s the beginning of a renewal. It features a few of the most fun holidays, the weather is cooler for outdoor activities, and it’s gorgeous. Maybe don’t clear the leaves and just enjoy the season? Thanks for reading, and please share and subscribe!

“Aprils have never meant much to me, autumns seem that season of beginning, spring.”– Truman Capote

Footnote:

  1. Article, “Please Don’t Burn Your Leaves,” by Rosie Lerner, Purdue University, accessed December 3, 2020
  2. Book, Imagine It!: A Handbook for a Happier Planet,
  3. Website, leaveleavesalone.org, accessed June 16, 2024.
  4. Blog post, “This Fall, Leave the Leaves!” by Brooke Franklin,

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