Eco-Friendly Ways to Manage Fall Leaves

Last updated on February 27, 2021.

Red and orange leave on ground
Photo by me

“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, hence lots of trees. We rarely rake our leaves because I like the sight of them and my son and I can hunt pretty ones.

But by the end of the season, many people feel the need to remove leaves. Here are some eco-friendly tips about how to manage the fall leaves 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 me

To remove, or not to remove

I am a proponent of letting nature go through its natural process. 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 really 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 me
Leaves bagged in large plastic garbage bags
Leaves bagged in large plastic garbage bags. Photo by me

When I took this photo in my neighborhood, I was trying to figure out why people bag their leaves in plastic (there are multiple neighbors with bagged leaves right now). But then I discovered that the city’s website indicates to residents that they 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 me

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 the 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. This home below, 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 me

A third option is to save them to use as a mulch cover. If your mower has a bagged mulch option, you could mow and mulch them and use them 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 but also which sometimes are carcinogenic.1

Raked leaves in yard with bench
Image by utroja0 from Pixabay

Enjoy Fall!

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 forget raking the leaves and just enjoy the season? Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

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

Footnote:

Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers are Poisoning Your Food, Part 4

Meat wrapped in plastic film on polystyrene trays.
Meat wrapped in plastic film on polystyrene trays. Note that some supermarkets, such as Whole Foods (and Earthfare before it closed) have moved away from most, if not all, polystyrene food packaging. But polystyrene still abounds in other supermarkets including Walmart, ALDI, Publix, Food City, and many others. Image by Karamo from Pixabay

In my last three posts, I’ve explored the various aspects of polystyrene and its harmful effects on human health, wildlife, and the environment. Hopefully by now, you’re no longer reheating your leftovers in those containers. Maybe you’ve even requested that your favorite restaurant stop using them!

It is not practical to recycle polystyrene, although producers of it would have you believe otherwise. Today, I want to look at alternatives to polystyrene food containers and explore other ideas for dealing with this toxic material and waste problem it creates. Unfortunately, the alternatives all fall short.

Photo of a girl eating ice cream out of a polystyrene cup
“First Day of Summer,” photo by Dan Gaken on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Alternatives to polystyrene

There are many alternatives for take-out food packaging including several ideas that have not been put into practice yet. Many alternatives are no better than polystyrene, in fact, many food packaging companies make false or misleading claims often omitting names of chemicals in their products. Let’s look at some of those now.

Plastic film linings

Plastic film lined paperboard, such as the standard paper coffee cups, cannot be recycled because of the mixed materials and they cannot be composted because of the plastic film. Some companies use PLA, which can be – but is not always – a biodegradable plastic film. Cups and containers lined with PLA would have to first be collected and taken to an industrial compost facility, which as you’ll recall from Part 2 of my Packaging Series, these facilities are few and far between. There are a few companies that now advertise these as backyard compostable, which is great if it is true and it is free of toxins. But this would require collecting the PLA lined containers or cups instead of trashing them.

Plastics #1 and #2

Using #1 and #2 plastics are better in that they are much more recyclable than #6 (polystyrene), but this assumes the items make it into the recycling. I know that many fast-food restaurants use recyclable plastics, but do not provide recycling receptacles at their locations. This forces any customer wishing to recycle to take those items home. Also, the volume of throw-away items negates its positive possibilities. We must move away from plastics and our reliance on single-use disposable items.

“Compostable” and “biodegradable” polystyrene

In Part 2 of my Packaging Series, I wrote about “compostable” and “biodegradable” polystyrene and plastics that are really neither, as they do not break down in regular compost, nor in the marine environment. These types of polystyrene require an industrial composting facility which, as mentioned above, is not available in many places. A food service using these types of containers would have to separately collect them and ship them to a facility far away – but realistically, many of these end up in the landfill. And nothing biodegrades in a landfill. Backyard compostable plastic has started appearing on the market, but I don’t know if these are truly biodegradable and toxin-free.

Molded fiber containers

Molded fiber take-out packaging seemed like a great alternative to plastic until it was discovered to contain PFOAs (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances). This chemical causes cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, and immunotoxicity in children. They are the same compounds in some nonstick cookware. Worse, manufacturers advertise many of these containers as compostable. But if PFOAs get into your soil, they will also grow into your plants, as these chemicals do not dissolve or disappear. Stay away from anything containing PFOAs (also PFAs). I’ve linked an article under Additional Resources for more information on this.

Large Scale Changes

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had access to composting through municipal systems and all take-out packaging was made from real compostable products that also did not contain toxic chemicals? This would take a large scale change to our waste management systems, but it would really change the world and make a global difference in our climate, environment, and health. Just think about how much waste we could keep out of landfills by composting food waste and food containers!

Sustainable fast food packaging idea
Sustainable fast food packaging idea by Ian Gilley of IG Design Solutions, made from biodegradable compressed paper. We need more innovations like this!

ReThink Disposable

ReThink Disposable, a program of Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund, tries to prevent waste before it starts. They advocate for reusable food container solutions (I’ve listed their guide under Additional Resources). They work with local jurisdictions, businesses, and consumers of take-out food packaging “to inspire a cultural shift away from the single-use “throwaway” lifestyle.” ReThink Disposable indicates that “the best way to champion our movement is by supporting ReThink Disposable businesses who eliminate and reduce disposable packaging.”1 While this program is only in California right now, we can do this and we all have the power to follow the same guidelines and practices. The organization offers multiple case studies on California businesses, including an entire school district, that switched from disposables to reusables.

Disposable cup infographic poster from ReThink Disposable

Solution

While there are many alternatives to polystyrene, none of them will have as significant an impact as simply not using single-use disposable products. Giving up these products doesn’t mean we have to be inconvenienced, it just means we have to prepare a bit more. Stopping the flow of single-use disposables just takes a little forward-thinking and intentionality, because the best solution will always be to stop using single-use disposable products. Check out my page on “11 Ways to Go Plastic-Free with Food” for ideas! Once you stop using disposables, you’ll be surprised at how little you miss them.

As a society, we’re going to have to think outside of the box on this one. What about take-out places that allow people to bring their own glass or metal containers and drink cups? What about having a standardized exchange system? Restaurants could invest in reusable containers that customers could return for a small deposit, similar to a container deposit system. Once returned they either receive money back, credit, or their next container at no cost.

In my next and final part of this short series, I’ll explore the role of companies and municipal bans on polystyrene. If you have ideas on how to end the use of polystyrene or single-use disposable take-out containers, please let me know in the comments below! As always, thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Compostable plastics: are they PLAying you?” Aubrey Hills, Student Environmental Resource Center, University of California, Berkeley, March 10, 2017.

Article, “The bowls at Chipotle and Sweetgreen are supposed to be compostable. They contain cancer-linked ‘forever chemicals,'” by Joe Fassler, thecounter.org, August 5, 2019.

Guide, “Reusable Food Serviceware Guide,” ReThink Disposable and Clean Water Fund, 2015.

Footnote:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 3

Image of a green earth with green recycling arrows
Image by annca on Pixabay

In my first post, I introduced the topic of packaging – its history, the current problems with packaging, and I introduced greenwashing. In my second post, I wrote about the terms biodegradable and compostable, and how those terms are often misused. Now we will explore bioplastics.

Bioplastics

Bioplastics are used in packaging which is then marketed as sustainable, and even as biodegradable. “Most biodegradable and compostable plastics are bioplastics, made from plants rather than fossil fuels.” Mike Manna of Organic Recycling Solutions explained just that in his appropriately titled essay, The Myth of Biodegradability in “The Future of Packaging: From Linear to Circular.”

But biodegradability hinges on two key factors. First, that raw materials used in bioplastics are more sustainably sourced than petroleum-based plastic. Second, there would be less concern about pollution since these items would naturally degrade. “The latter factor, however, has mobilized a torrent of misinformation, misplaced optimism, consumer confusion, and headaches for recyclers and composters alike,” Manna wrote. They must be sent to an industrial compost facility to break down. As you know from my previous post, these facilities are few and far between. So bioplastics that require industrial composters are far from guaranteed to make it to one.

Green plastic bottle
Image by Foulon Richard from Pixabay

Biodegradable plastics that do make it to an industrial compost facility will not create usable soil. It lacks the macro and micronutrients of regular compost. “It just doesn’t make environmental sense to take a plant, turn that pant into a highly refined petrochemical, only to then use it once and have it turn into something effectively worse than soil,” wrote Manna.

Bioplastics are made of either polylactic acid (PLA) or polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), both of which are #7 plastics. These cannot be recycled and therefore contaminate single-stream recycling systems, making entire loads of recycling unrecyclable. In many ways, bioplastics are worse for single-use disposable items than traditional fossil fuel plastics. 

Plastic bottles floating in water
Bioplastics will not break down in nature or water. Image by Foulon Richard from Pixabay

“Sadly, bioplastics do not present a solution for plastic soup or for reducing plastic litter.” -Michiel Roscam Abbing, author of Plastic Soup: An Atlas of Ocean Pollution

Renewable Sources?

Bioplastics are plastics made from natural, renewable sources, such as corn, sugar cane, or potatoes. “The thought is that plastics made with plants, as opposed to fossil fuels, will sustain the unstoppable trajectory of the world’s consumption with a more sustainable material,” Manna wrote. But bioplastics only have to be composed of as little as 20 percent of renewable material to be marketed (or greenwashed) as such, and can still contain a majority of fossil fuel-based plastic.

Most importantly, renewable sources have to be grown and produced, and agriculture requires a ton of energy. “The corn that is used to make the bio-plastics is not organic,” so there are a lot of pesticides used. “The end result is that valuable agricultural land was used to create something that just gets thrown away,” said Céline Jennison, the founder of Plastic Tides.

“As of now, turning plants into plastic remains more energy-intensive than recycling used plastic.” – drbronner.com

Corn is a crop used to supplement lots of resources such as gasoline (ethanol), agricultural feed, paper goods, and now plastics. While corn is not a fossil fuel, critics of it suggest that corn creates more problems by contributing to global warming, chemical pollution, and energy waste. It demands more nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides than other crops, and which are made from natural gas and oil. “Runoff from these chemicals finds its way into the groundwater and, in the Midwestern corn belt, into the Mississippi River, which carries it to the Gulf of Mexico, where it has already killed off marine life in a 12,000-square-mile area,” wrote author Michael Pollan.

 “America’s corn crop might look like a sustainable, solar-powered system for producing food, but it is actually a huge, inefficient, polluting machine that guzzles fossil fuel—a half a gallon of it for every bushel.” -Michael Pollan

Cornfield
Photo by Jesse Gardner on Unsplash

“Corn is hardly sustainable, not the way it’s grown in this country. Farmed at an industrial scale, corn requires vast amounts of herbicides and fertilizer. With heavy rain, these inputs run into waterways and pollute drinking water.” -Elizabeth Royte, Bottlemania

Example: Coca-Cola Plant Bottle

Coca-Cola plantbottle advertisement

Coca-Cola introduced the PlantBottle in 2009

“We replaced up to 30% of the petroleum used to make PET plastic bottles with material from sugar canes and other plants. The result? You’d have to take nearly 1 million vehicles off the road to achieve the same reduction in CO2 emissions that PlantBottle™ has achieved since 2009.”

These claims are questionable. Supposedly, this particular alternative to traditional PET (#1) plastic can be recycled with regular PET plastics. However, how much petroleum does it take to produce sugarcane? As for the CO2 reduction, how did they come up with this calculation?

Empty Coca-Cola bottle lying on the beach
Photo by Maria Mendiola on Unsplash

The company has vowed to “use at least 50% recycled material in our packaging by 2030.” Why haven’t they been doing this all along? Coca-Cola recently released advertising about a “Coke Bottle Made With Plastic From The Sea,” which was made with plastics picked up by volunteers on beaches on the Mediterranean Sea. Volunteers who used their free time to pick up trash on beaches because it’s the right thing to do. Coca-Cola easily has enough money to pay employees to do the same thing. A true solution would be to stop pollution by eliminating this type of packaging.

What about other real solutions, like reverting back to glass bottles? We know that glass is 100% recyclable and does not leach toxins and chemicals. Glass can also be managed through a container deposit system, and can truly be a part of a circular economy.

Example: Procter & Gamble

Advertisement for Head and Shoulders bottle made from recycled beach plastic

Proctor & Gamble also designed a shampoo bottle using recycled beach plastic. They partnered with TerraCycle and SUEZ, a waste management firm.  Again, it was using volunteer labor for the collection of plastic polluting beaches. “Sourced through partnerships with beach cleanup organizations already picking up litter on the shores of oceans and other waterways, ocean plastic originally headed for landfills was used to establish a new supply chain,” wrote Virginie Helias at Procter & Gamble. ‘Plastic originally headed for landfills’ is misleading, though. Much of this plastic had likely already been sent to the landfill or recycling center before and then ended up in the ocean anyway!

Proctor & Gamble’s goal is to make 100% of their packaging recyclable and reusable by 2030. While this is a respectable goal, it should focus on reusable packaging since recycling is not the answer. If we stop the disposable stream at the source, that would be far more impactful than all of the recycling systems combined.

Are there other solutions?

Plastic substitutes are not the answer, just as synthetic biodegradable materials and recycling are not the answers. We also cannot possibly recycle all the plastic away at this point. We know that only 9% of plastic sent to recycling facilities is recycled.

But there are other packaging innovations out there. We’ll explore those in my next post, Part 4. Please subscribe to get that sent directly to your inbox, and thanks for reading!

For additional articles about bioplastics, read this from National Geographic; this from BBC; and this from Eco Lunch Boxes’ blog.

 

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 2

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

In my last post, I introduced the topic of packaging and the environmental crisis it has created. I left off with an explanation of greenwashing (read here about how to avoid greenwashed products), and in this post, I’m going to describe two terms that are often misused in advertising.

Remember: the answer to packaging is to reduce our reliance on it; to stop using it.

Styrofoam cup floating in water with plantlife
Photo by Jesse Gardner on Unsplash

“Biodegradable” and “Compostable”

If only these words were the solutions to our global packaging problem! Unfortunately, they are two of the most abused terms in greenwashed advertising. Biodegradable refers to any material that decomposes in the environment. Compostable means that the material is organic matter that will break down and turn into soil. These words do not always mean what we think when it comes to sustainable packaging. In fact, if biodegradable and compostable items go into the trash and then a landfill, they do not biodegrade. Nothing in a landfill breaks down. Worse, the contents of landfills release methane gas, a major contributor to global warming.

Biodegradable plastics will only break down under the right conditions, such as in an industrial composting facility, not in a backyard composting system.

Industrial Composting Facilities

There are several types of composting systems. A home compost system is mainly food and yard waste that you can set up yourself. Commercial composting refers to a municipal or city composting facility that accepts food and/or yard waste. An industrial composting facility requires precise processing conditions under a controlled biotechnological process. In order to be effective, these conditions include a certain high temperature, moisture level, aeration, pH, and carbon/nitrogen ratio.

Industrial composting facilities are not available in many places. There are about 200 in the US, serving less than 5% of the population. If there is notince

If there is a facility in your area, it still does not guarantee the items will be composted. The reality is that many facilities cannot tell the difference between compostable plastics from regular plastics other than by carefully reading the label on each item. This is not practical with the number of disposables we currently discard, so these items are often landfilled.

Examples

Let’s look at three examples of greenwashed and problematic products.

Wincup polystyrene disposable cups

I saw this single-use disposable coffee cup on the campus where I work. A colleague had purchased coffee at the cafeteria and the images of green leaves and biodegradable claim drew my interest. The company, called WinCup and based out of Stone Mountain, Georgia, claims to be a leading manufacturer of disposable polystyrene products.

First, these cups will not biodegrade unless they are put into biologically active landfills, which are far and few between. On their website, they claim that their “cups biodegrade 92% over 4 years” and “under conditions that simulate a wetter, biologically active landfill.” What is this type of landfill? My understanding is that it is similar to an industrial composting facility in which moisture is added to assist with breakdown.

Most of these cups are tossed in the regular trash and deposited in landfills. This is the case where I work (I have plans to meet with cafeteria management to come up with better solutions for food and drinkware). These cups will not break down in a landfill. Additionally, if these cups end up in the ocean, they will likely not break down and will also leach toxins. Those toxins are ingested by marine life and make their way up through the food chain into us.

BASF ecovio line

BASF, a major chemical corporation, claims to “combine economic success with environmental protection and social responsibility.” I found some greenwashed marketing on their website about compostable plastic:

BASF website screenshot for "compostable" plastic

Ecovio film applications are used for organic waste bags, fruit and vegetable bags, carrier bags, agricultural films, etc. Their claim is that the product is compostable, but the fine print indicates it is compostable “under the conditions of an industrial composting plant.”

Screenshot from BASF's website about their compostable bags

This picture is misleading, as it shows a person putting a bag of compost into a compost bin. This gives the impression that these bags will break down in any compost collection when that is not the case. BASF’s compostable certification is the ASTM D6400, which is specifically for industrial composting facilities. Those are not available in most municipalities or states. If these products go into a landfill, it makes no environmental impact whatsoever. They also cause the same pollution problems as regular plastic.

Molded fiber take-out packaging

molded fiber take out container

These “compostable” and “plastic alternative” molded fiber take-out containers seemed like a magnificent alternative to plastic until they were discovered to contain PFOAs (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances). This chemical protects the fibers from becoming wet and soggy. They are the same compounds used in some nonstick cookware, known to cause cancers, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, and immunotoxicity in children.

These were marketed as compostable. However, these chemicals do not disappear. They get into the soil from the compost, and potentially into whatever is grown in that soil. Worse, these chemicals make into the waterways and eventually into our drinking water. Read an excellent article here for more information on molded fiber food containers.

My family ate out of these types of containers multiple times. Of course, I had no idea the time that these contained PFOAs. Many major eateries have stopped using these.

Solution

In general, we must consume less. We must end the production and use of single-use disposable items. Most importantly, being aware of these problems is key because we can all make a difference.

For more information on how biodegradable and compostable items break down, read this article in Anthropocene and this one from fastcompany.com.

In my next post about packaging, I’ll explain bioplastics, which are often advertised as biodegradable or compostable. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky