Green Dumping Must Stop
By Ann Lovejoy
This year I have received multiple requests to repeat a column I’ve run in some form or other many times now. The good news is that some people who read it are willing to change long-standing habits. The bad news is that others still don’t understand why the rules apply to them.
Like what? Like the social, ecological and legal issues involved with garden waste disposal. The majority of gardeners act like adults. When they learn that a superabundance of grass clippings and leaves can damage natural environments, they make appropriate choices.
Some will compost their garden waste, using it to replenish their garden. Others who lack time or space choose to recycle in green-waste carts for curbside disposal.
So far, so good. What is not good is the strange attitude that allows a misguided few to decide that their grass is somehow different. Often, the presence of a nearby ravine or waterway is just too tempting. It’s so easy to toss stuff, so why not? Who will ever know?
Every one of these scofflaw folks whom I’ve contacted personally invariably explains that they simply do not believe that it does any harm to toss leaves, clippings and garden scraps over the side of ravines, cliffs and slopes or into a nearby stream or pond.
They argue that everything they are dumping is natural, so how can it harm the environment? They often add that they and their families have been doing it for decades, if not generations.
However, no matter how traditional “green dumping” may feel, it is dangerous. It is especially harmful when green wastes end up on a steep slope, in a ditch or near a ravine, beach, pond or stream.
For one thing, there are a lot more of us now. Natural areas of all kinds are negatively affected by human population pressures. Stressed environments are less resilient and are far more easily damaged than undisturbed places (of which there are precious few left).
Sadly, heaped grass clippings and leaves do not just go away or compost naturally. Instead, they can create erosion and sloughing when piled on slopes of any kind.
Slopes can start to slide when even modest amounts of green wastes are repeatedly heaped on them. Such piles can smother native plantings that are holding fragile slopes in place.
Though green wastes will turn to compost in time, heaps of grass clippings can take years to break down. Turn over such a heap and you’ll see that everything beneath the heap is dead.
The fine texture of grass clippings acts as a smother mulch; instead of composting, it chokes out life. This unfortunate effect is especially likely when the dump piles are not turned to get more oxygen into the mix.
Many a beginning composter learns the hard way that anaerobic (low-oxygen) compost piles don’t work well. They decay too slowly and tend to develop pathogen populations that smell dreadful and feed on live plant roots. This is not optimal in the garden and is especially dangerous where you are counting on plant roots to hold a steep slope or bank in place.
Waterways are equally vulnerable. Runoff from chemically treated plant material dumped near water can harm or kill many aquatic creatures. Even organic green waste can cause problems for wildlife. The heat caused by the decomposition of an inch of naturally nurtured lawn clippings can raise temperatures high enough to harm or kill fish and frog eggs, as well as delicate dragonfly larvae.
Garden wastes also degrade water quality, sending pollution downstream. As it happens, we all live downstream from somebody.