Brian Hamm of Middletown steers the mower across the lawn while his two young children, Jack and Austin, walk around picking up any small fallen tree branches. The family makes small piles of grass clippings and tree limbs and then load the piles into their new, bright yellow container for yard waste and organics.
“Now we have to put it all in this container,” said Hamm. “We don’t put it out on the curb anymore.”
Since mid-July, Middletown residents have been following a new yard waste collection system. Mayor Ken Branner announced at the May 5 council meeting that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had mandated that grass clippings could no longer be put on the street.
Improperly discarded yard waste contributes to problems with the area’s water supplies, according to the agency. Failure to comply with the EPA regulations would cost the town a $10,000 fine per day, according to the May 5 town council minutes.
The new rules about collecting yard waste also coincides with a recent ban on placing such waste in landfills, which adds more questions about how the town will handle an issue that other municipalities in New Castle and other states also are facing.
The new yard waste system isn't costing residents any more than before, said Kristen Krenzer, spokesperson for the town. That’s because Waste Management, the company that had the $1.36 million contract to collect trash and recycling, is picking up the yard waste and organics as well. Krenzer couldn’t say how much just the yard waste and organics service is costing the town.
“The yard waste portion was not ‘broken out’ in the bid – it was one price for all three services, trash, recycling and yard waste collection,” Krenzer said.
The change in the yard waste collection process has prompted questions and comments on social media sites.
Before the program kicked off, Middletown residents piled up grass clippings, leaves, and tree branches on the street until street department trucks took them to a municipal facility where they were turned into mulch.
Concerns that some of the grass clippings from the curb ended up in the storm drain were raised by the EPA through the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.
Krenzer said when it was time to renew the town’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit the town was informed that the old system clippings was contributing to a major problem – nutrient pollution, which harms the life and health of the area’s watershed, like the Appoquinimink, River, and the Delaware and Chesapeake bays.
Yard waste such as grass clippings and other plant matter that enter storm drain systems can decompose and leach excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus into the watershed, according to a study done by the University of Delaware and the EPA.
Too many nutrients in the water can cause large amount of algae to grow and hurt a community’s waterways.
Yard waste ban at landfills
Efforts to keep grass clippings out of storm drains in Middletown also coincided with Delaware’s ban on yard waste at state landfills. The state began to decline yard waste at different facilities in 2008 in order to extend the life of landfills and reduce greenhouse emissions.
Yard waste was taking up a lot of space at landfills across the state, according to Mike Parkowski from the Delaware Solid Waste Authority (DSWA).
The problem isn't limited to Delaware; currently about two dozen other states have banned yard waste from state operated landfills, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland.
There is little that can be done with yard waste, according to Parkowski. This is why many towns and cities are contracting trash haulers to dispose of it elsewhere.
“Yard waste such as grass clippings isn't good for mulch either,” Parkowski said. “They increase weed production.”
What happens to the yard waste and food scraps?
Waste Management takes Middletown’s yard waste to Wilmington Organic Recycling Center, a processing plant near the Port of Wilmington so that it can be turned into compost and sold, Krenzer said.
Though there are regulations in place to deal with yard waste, there are none for other organics such as food scraps. Landfills still accept food scraps and they have no negative except on the environment, said Parkowski.
“Organics breakdown and decompose. We get gas methane out of that and sell it,” said Parkowski. “The state keeps that money.”
Middletown, however, has required residents to dispose of food scraps along with yard waste in the same container.
Parkowski said that the town has asked residents to do this in order to make it worth it for Waste Management to take it to the Wilmington Organic Recycling Center.
“Yard waste alone isn’t good for compost,” Parkowski said. “You need to add more nutrients to it so it can be good for compost. Picking up the yard waste alone wouldn’t be enough.”
Comments from residents about new program
Waste Management told the town that Middletown residents have been mostly receptive to the town’s new yard waste and organics recycling system and are using the service, according to Krenzer.
“I don’t have any problems with it,” said Georgeann Short, a 15-year resident of Middletown. “It was more convenient to just dump it on the street before, but I understand why the town is doing it this way now.”
Some residents, however, still don’t know why the new program started or even what to do.
“Some of the people who attend church put their recyclables with the yard waste and the organics,” said L. Swan of Middletown pointing to the church next to her house. “They probably come from out of town and don’t know what the different containers are for.”
Critics of the yard waste and organics collection program have complained that the having a third plastic bin creates space problems. Others say the bins are too small or they complain about the odors produced by the decaying organics.
“I haven’t smelled anything,” said Swan. “I think for the most part people want to help, but they don’t know what they are doing.”
Parkowski believes that the town could do more to educate the public on the new yard waste and organics collection system.
“There are still a lot of people that don’t understand why they have an organics container,” he said. “When we started our recycling program at the DSWA we spent a lot of time educating people through mail and action campaigns.”
Middletown made several efforts to inform the public about the yard waste and organics collection program before it started in July. The town placed ads on the Middletown Transcript as far back as April of this year. In June, the town hosted two town meetings, and information about the program has been posted on the town’s website.
Krenzer said that getting the word out to residents is still a challenge.
“Our biggest obstacle, just as it was in 2011 with mandatory recycling, is educating the public about what can be recycled as yard waste,” Krenzer said.