What Falls in Fall
Cedar Grove and Verona DPWs dispose of leaves with safety, environment in mind
Raking and leaf blowing are necessary evils in autumn. For homeowners, it's almost a relief when this brightly colored season comes to a close. But what happens to the leaves after they are collected from our curbs?
Nicholas Maddaloni, Solid Waste & Recycling Programs Coordinator for the Essex County Utilities Authority (ECUA), explained that all 21 municipalities of Essex County are required to compost their leaves or to hire contractors to compost them. These are their only two options.
"Each municipality has to come up with their own plan," Maddaloni said. "The leaves can't be land-filled. Piles of leaves have to be taken out of the waste stream."
Composting the leaves is important, because they are, by nature, biodegradable. If the leaves were burned instead, they would release carbon monoxide into the air. Carbon monoxide is a greenhouse gas, meaning that too much of it in the atmosphere can trap the heat of the sun and raise the temperature of the planet. It is also unhealthy to breathe because it reduces the amount of oxygen in our bloodstreams.
Smoke from burning leaves also releases a chemical called benzoapyrene, which is found in cigarette smoke and is thought to be a major factor in causing lung cancer.
If leaves were taken to landfills and dumped in with the rest of the garbage, they would create another greenhouse gas, methane, as they decompose. Large concentrations of organic material mixed with inorganic garbage can create large amounts of methane, which can also trap heat in our atmosphere.
Composting has to be done properly in order to avoid both of those pitfalls, according to Maddaloni. "It takes about a year to break the leaves down," he explained. "Temperatures must be taken and leaves have to be turned. There are machines that turn them and mix them up. Mostly air and heat breaks them down. Piles sometimes smoke because of the heat."
Both Cedar Grove and Verona trust their composting to outside contractors. Alex Palumbo, Director of the Cedar Grove Department of Public Works, explained that maintaining a compost site is hard work. Compost leaves must be maintained in "windrows", long piles that are specifically sized and spaced for optimal compost production. "Contractors have to set [windrows] up in certain dimensions and water them so they don't combust," Palumbo said. "They have to be stored according to state guidelines by the D.E.P. (Department of Environmental Protection)."
Cedar Grove accepts leaves in piles and in biodegradable bags. Verona, however, only accepts leaves that have been pre-bagged by residents. Chuck Molinaro, Supervisor of the Verona Department of Public Works, explained, "We do not allow rake-outs. People can't rake their leaves into the street. In Verona, that's not allowed. All leaves need to be put into biodegradable bags. For eight to ten years we've been doing it that way."
Molinaro said that safety was the primary reason for requiring residents to bag their leaves. "When there are leaves on both sides of the street, there's only one lane. We feel it's unsafe," he said.
Cedar Grove's regulations are not so strict, and according to Palumbo, when residents pile their leaves correctly, leaf collection goes smoothly. "Neatly pile them in a safe location. Don't block driveways or storm drains," he said. "It's very easy to clog an inlet drain with the leaves. Strategically place your leaf pile in the best location possible."
On biodegradable bags versus leaf piles, Palumbo said, "The bags have to be purchased, so there is a cost, and it's a lot more work [for residents]. But it is neater and cleaner to bag them than to pile them along the curb."
No matter which town you live in, your leaves will eventually be composted and turned into rich soil. "Sometimes farmers buy soil produced by composting," Maddaloni said.
High quality soil makes for healthier produce. And healthier produce tends to taste better.
"It's a whole recycling process," Palumbo said. "It's important because you can compost and create mulch. Other than that, if you treat it as waste, it would be expensive and there wouldn't be any benefit to disposing of it that way."
Composting leaves is much more healthy for humans and the environment than other forms of disposal. "We want it done safely and we want [the leaves] to be recycled instead of thrown out," Molinaro added. "This way they disintegrate back into the earth. It's more friendly for the environment," he said.