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Coalition to Oppose Attacks on Recycling In America

Last modified: October 09, 2008
background | press release | letter to governor of Iowa | back

Reasons to Oppose Section 133 of
Senate File 458 Repeal of Yard Waste Ban

The first reason we oppose this provision is based upon Iowa tradition of promoting the beneficial use of organic resources through sustainable agriculture policies. Iowa was one of 22 states that enacted legislation in the early 1990s banning yard debris from landfills.

These laws, now enacted across the nation, have enabled yard debris diversion tonnage to match that of recycling, effectively doubling the quantity of our discards that Iowans have successfully kept out of landfills. This was an important objective because it dramatically reduced the need for new landfills.

Also, biodegradable material like grass clippings and leaves rot in the landfills, creating leachate that ultimately contaminates our community drinking water supplies and creates dangerous volatile hydrocarbons and uncontrolled methane gas, almost all of which are released uncontrolled. In an era of greater concern over air quality, it would be a tragedy to reverse that record of environmental success. We are at a loss to understand the rationale of those who are claiming that there is no justification for the yard waste ban legislation.

Secondly, the Governor has a responsibility to review the facts and science behind environmental legislation, and in this case, the claims made on behalf of the provision are patently false. The assertion has been made that it is preferable to return yard debris to the landfill when the facility has a system intended to capture gas and to utilize that gas for energy.

In fact, almost none of the gases generated by grass decomposing in a landfill will even be captured by the gas collection systems and will never become a source of energy. This is because the grass component of organic material that is landfilled rapidly decomposes in less than two to three years, while the gas collection piping is not even installed and fully functional until five years in most cases (even if piping is installed, without a cap as a seal, the vacuum based system cannot work well). The landfill gases that are captured from those collection systems are primarily from slower decomposing materials like paper. That means the return of grass clippings to the landfill will be a major greenhouse gas-producing machine, almost all of which will be released to the atmosphere uncontrolled.

Even if we put aside the fact that this particular part of the organic stream decomposes so quickly none of it will be captured, the Environmental Protection Agency has done an exhaustive analysis comparing recycling and composting to landfill energy recovery and concluded that diversion reduces greenhouse gases more than landfilling, even when the most wildly favorable assumptions for disposal are used and when the effects of cancer causing other volatile landfill gases are not counted. (Solid Waste Management and Greenhouse Gases, A Life-Cycle Assessment of Emissions and Sinks, May 2002).

The third reason that some have expressed is the view that yard debris should be returned to the landfill in order to reduce the municipal costs of separate collection of yard debris. This is simply not true that eliminating composting reduces costs.

For one thing, due to its greater labor intensivity and rollover effects, composting actually costs less than landfilling when the impact of economic development when a value added natural resource in the marketplace is taken into consideration. In fact, hundreds of jobs generated in the composting, landscape, trucking and horticulture industries would be lost if this resource is taken from their businesses.

Also, beyond the failure of such an approach to count the real costs our children will bear in diminished air quality and new leachate to dispose of in the future, it must be remembered that returning yard debris to landfills does not eliminate the costs of collecting grass and leaves. Rather, because the material still must be collected, the change in policy just shifts the management from one truck to another. We did a cost study of the City of Peoria on the same subject and found that, for this reason, the cost savings are very small if at all. If composting programs are eliminated, as would definitely be the result of this proposed law, organic matter collection and processing costs may go down on one side of the expense ledger, but garbage collection and landfill costs will go up on the other side.
If the state is looking for real cost savings, we suggest that this could come from technical assistance for private composting operations which have shown the ability to add value to compost and reduce costs to the municipality. Better yet, a new policy of not collecting grass clippings at all, educating homeowners instead to practice Grasscycling, a practice designed for householders to simply leave their grass clippings on their lawn. Mulching and composting at home is easier and more practical than centralized composting. If people want to have their yard debris processed, then Iowa should consider the lead of other regions where this minority of citizens who do not mulch or compost at home instead drop their debris off at private composting sites themselves or pay landscapers to collect it and take it to a composting facility. In tough economic times, citizens should not expect the government to manage yard debris as an automatically assumed public service provided by local government in the form of composting or landfilling when these organic resources can be managed right at home or by private enterprise.

A mulching and Master Composter education program offered by the US Composting Council and widely implemented through the County Extension Services would save much more money than the proposed landfilling initiative, which breaks even at best but most certainly reduces jobs while greatly adding to environmental degradation.

We ask you to veto this poorly considered law that was rushed to your desk. But we also ask you to contact us as to how the US Composting Council and our fellow coalition members can work with legislators, public officials and your grant, loan and incentive mechanisms to help address these complex issues in a way that promotes sustainability and economic development while protecting Iowa natural resources

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