Spring Brought Less-Than-Ideal weather to Salt Lake City this year. But that didn't stop the launch of the city's long-awaited yard waste program, which rolled out in early March.

The cloudy skies have meant fewer people mowing lawns and trimming trees — and less yard waste to be collected. But given the challenges inherent in launching such an ambitious program, that isn't necessarily a drawback. “The slow beginning actually is good,” says Debbie Lyons, health and safety manager for Salt Lake City. “The transition has been very smooth so far.”

Lyons says the city had been considering the yard waste program for a number of years. But it hadn't been implemented before because of concerns surrounding cost and financing. “This year we got together a plan that the City Council would be happy with,” Lyons adds.

Unlike the city's curbside recycling program, which is free for residents, the yard waste program is being paid for through user fees. To encourage residents to sign up, the city allows customers to choose a 40-, 60-, or 90-gallon container for their regular trash collection, with the monthly rate based upon the size. Previously, only a 90-gallon container was available. Subscribers who are able to downsize to a 40-gallon container would offset all but 50 cents of the $3.50 monthly yard waste collection fee.

“We decided to offer smaller containers after getting feedback from residents,” Lyons says. “They said they weren't able to fill up their containers every week, and we figured they would have even more room if they participated in the yard waste program.” As of mid-March, 5,000 of 45,000 eligible subscribers had signed up for the service.

In addition to passing collection fees on to residents, the city avoided the costs of building a composting facility because the Salt Lake Valley Solid Waste Management Facility already had composting operations in place. Every year, the city uses the facility to compost the material it collects from a fall leaf pickup and a Christmas tree recycling program. (In 2006, the composting operation received 166 tons of Christmas trees.) The compost — ranging from wood chips to fine mulch — is made available for residents to purchase.

The lack of a nearby composting facility still is a barrier to many municipalities setting up yard waste programs. “There's a chicken-and-the-egg aspect to it,” says Matt Cotton, president of the Ronkonkoma, N.Y.-based U.S. Composting Council. “If you start a program, you build a facility and then you build demand [for the compost].” In 2006, residents and businesses purchased 12,689 tons of compost from the Salt Lake Valley Solid Waste Management Facility.

“They do a good job of selling the compost,” says Rusty Lundberg, branch manager of the Utah Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste. “It's a hot commodity among residents and landscapers.”

Another incentive for the city is that it saves $6 per ton by tipping yard waste at the composting facility rather than the landfill.

To prepare for the program's launch, a process improvement team began meeting once a week beginning in June 2007 to discuss the implementation. They looked at nearby West Jordan City's yard waste program and the obstacles it encountered. For instance, Lyons says contamination was a challenge and that some of the yard waste had to be landfilled.

To reduce the potential for contamination in its program, Salt Lake City is focusing on education and enforcement. Outreach has included press releases, media coverage, mailers sent to every address in the city, as well as information and a video on a government access channel. To make sure residents are putting the proper materials in their yard waste bins, which is limited to weeds, tree branches, leaves and lawn clippings, inspectors will be going around the city and lifting lids.

The Bigger Picture

“We aren't estimating a huge impact on the city's overall recycling rate this year since the program is just getting started,” Lyons says. The long-term goal is to help boost the city's recycling rate, which currently stands at approximately 20 percent. As part of the Salt Lake City Green Initiative, the city's target is to increase the recycling rate to 25 percent by June 2008. Lyons adds that it probably won't reach that number this year.

The recycling program, which was implemented in 1993, currently has 37,273 subscribers. The recycling rate received its largest boost when the city switched to a fully automated, single-stream program in 2001. From 2000 to 2006, the amount of recyclables collected increased 85 percent. The yard waste program also will be fully automated, with weekly collection from March until November. Yard waste will be picked up on the same day as recycling and waste.

For cities looking to prop up their total recovery rates, yard waste is a good place to start. In 2006, yard waste accounted for nearly 13 percent of municipal solid waste generated, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).”

With a 62 percent national recovery rate, yard waste is one of the most recovered materials, easily surpassing paper and paperboard, aluminum cans, plastic bottles and glass containers. The tonnage recovered has remained fairly consistent, with 20.8 million tons in 2006, 20.6 in 2005 and 20.5 in 2004. This trend also was reflected in Utah, where the tonnage was 139,313 tons in 2006, 186,817 tons in 2005 and 183,547 tons in 2004.

Cotton estimates that there are nearly 4,000 composting facilities in the United States and says that the next five years will bring more facilities and yard waste programs online. “I think there's a new awareness of yard waste,” he says. “It's good resource policy. Landfills are filling up, facilities can make compost out of it — which solves environmental problems — and there's the concern over climate change, since yard waste generates methane gas.”

Yard waste programs remain popular in the Northeast, Midwest, California and in metropolitan areas around the country, particularly in states that ban yard waste from landfills. There's a greater incentive to set up programs in areas where tipping fees are higher and landfill space is running out. “Because of the economics in other areas, yard waste programs aren't on their radar screens because landfill conservation isn't a necessity,” Lundberg says. Once the Salt Lake Valley Landfill reaches capacity, another landfill can't be sited in the county, he adds.

New York, one of the few states in the Northeast that doesn't ban yard waste from landfills, currently is considering a ban. Meanwhile, some states, such as Michigan, have introduced legislation that would reverse disposal bans for landfills with methane gas capture. Missouri recently overturned its ban for one landfill, but required that it have methane capture.

The Salt Lake Valley Solid Waste Management Facility has been capturing landfill gas since 2006. Murray City purchases the electricity generated, which powers more than 2,000 homes. In 2007, the EPA named Murray City “Energy Partner of the Year.”

The yard waste program is intended to complement Salt Lake City's other environmental efforts, including encouraging green building and making biking easier for residents. “The broad goal is to increase the diversion rate any way we can,” Lyons says. “Yard waste is an easy problem to solve.”

Jennifer Grzeskowiak, a former managing editor of Waste Age, is a contributing writer based in Laguna Beach, Calif.