Yard Waste Management in Massachusetts
The fall season brings the beautiful colors associated with fall foliage and the onset of yard waste removal associated with fall garden clean up and fallen leaves on the ground. The focus of most gardeners and landscapers shifts to yard waste removal and management at this time. Yard waste includes leaves, grass, non-woody organic garden waste, and brush (landscape trimmings). Brush includes sticks, twigs, and branches that are less than 4 inches in diameter. Yard waste does not include sod, soil, sand, gravel or rocks.
Regulations for yard waste disposal
Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (Mass DEP) regulations 310 CMR 19.017 ban landfill, transfer, or combustion facilities from accepting yard waste except for recycling or composting. The only exception to this ban is for material that is contaminated and not acceptable for recycling or composting. For this kind of material, with proper prior notification and approval, the DEP will provide a temporary permit to allow the facility to dispose of the contaminated material provided that the person who contaminated the material takes action to prevent the recurrence of the conditions that caused the contamination.
The DEP 310 CMR 16.03c regulations allow residential composting of organic material generated at the residence. The regulations also allow small composting operations not at a residence provided that less than 20 cubic yards or less than 10 tons of organic materials are generated per week and the owner/operator notifies DEP and the local Board of Health in writing using a form provided by the department. The owner/operator should complete the notification form, file it with DEP and with the local Board of Health 30 days prior to commencing activities, and follow the guidelines outlined in the leaf and yard waste composting guidance document. See the MassDEP links at the end of this fact sheet for more information.
Options for managing yard waste
1. Recycling grass clippings into turf canopy
Grass clippings can contribute large amounts of material to yard waste. To reduce the amount of yard waste, grass clippings can be returned into the turf. Returned grass clippings do not contribute to increased thatch formation, and have the added benefit of returning nutrients to the system. Recycled clippings break down quickly and do not accumulate. To recycle grass clippings into the turf, use mulching mowers or rotary mowers that cut the clippings into small, fine pieces, allowing them to fall down into the turf canopy more easily and to decompose more quickly. For clippings to break down quickly, the lawn should be mowed frequently so that large amounts of leaf residue do not remain on the surface of the turf. Weekly mowing may not be frequent enough, especially during the period when grass is growing rapidly. Always mow when the lawn is dry and at a proper frequency to prevent unsightly clumping of the clippings.
2. Onsite composting
Mass DEP promotes residential and commercial composting in order to increase the amount of organic material diverted from disposal statewide. Homeowners can compost onsite materials generated at the residence. Landscapers can operate a small composting facility not at a residence as permitted by DEP regulations as noted above.
Composting is a controlled process of breaking down organic material. It is a beneficial and inexpensive way of handling yard waste. During the composting process, microorganisms feed on organic material and reduce the bulky material into a beneficial material that contains nutrients and humus. Adding compost to the soil improves the soil structure and adds nutrients. Before adding compost to the soil, get it analyzed for total N, P2O5, and K2O content.
Organic material such as yard waste contains varying amounts of carbon and nitrogen. The microorganisms involved in the composting process require oxygen and moisture as well as carbon and nitrogen in adequate proportions. The ideal carbon to nitrogen (C: N) ratio is 30:1 (30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen by weight). Ratios higher than 30:1 slow down the rate of decomposition and ratios lower than 25:1 create anaerobic conditions (lack of oxygen) which can cause odor problems because excess nitrogen may be given off as ammonia gas. The C: N ratio of brown material such as leaves ranges between 40:1 and 80:1. Grass and other green material have a C: N ration of about 19:1. By mixing green material with brown material, the C:N ratio is lowered to about 30:1. Use approximately three parts brown material to one part green material to optimize the composting process. When green materials are scarce, add manure, cottonseed meal, or blood meal as organic sources of nitrogen. You can also add a fertilizer high in nitrogen to supply nitrogen nutrition to the microbes. Avoid composting diseased plant material. The composting process may not kill some disease pathogens.
The composting process should be managed so that there is optimal moisture content of 40% to 60% by weight. This may be achieved by making sure that leaves are damp before adding them into the compost pile. If the compost pile is too dry, turning during periods of precipitation will help to provide the needed moisture. Moisture can also be added during turning if there is no precipitation. Turning to exchange the material at the center with that outside helps to provide the oxygen needed for aerobic decomposition.
Compost from the onsite compost pile can be used as a soil amendment or as landscape mulch. Compost can also be used for topdressing when making repairs, over seeding or patching turf. Adding compost as a soil amendment in planting beds improves the soil structure and adds organic matter, beneficial organisms and plant nutrients. Spread a 1-2 inch even layer of compost on beds and incorporate it into the top 6-8 inches of soil manually or mechanically by a rototiller until the compost is uniformly mixed, taking care not to over till the soil. Compost applied as mulch will function both as a mulch and will also provide plant nutrients. When used as mulch, compost may not control weeds, especially in windy areas where weed seeds can blow onto compost and grow. Composts should be analyzed for their available N, P2O5, and K2O content before applying them as a soil amendment or mulch. Before applying compost as mulch, use a rake or shovel to break up the layer of last year's mulch to ensure a crust has not formed before applying new mulch. Apply compost and spread it to an even 1-3 inch layer on beds or around trees and shrubs.
3. Onsite shredding and leaf mulching
Shredding: A shredder can be used to turn brush into mulch. Shredded brush mulch can be used in planting beds and on bare areas on the landscape to control weeds, conserve moisture, moderate soil temperature, and reduce dust and mud problems. Shredded brush mulch contains pieces of varying sizes and is not ideal as a decorative mulch. For decorative mulch, use other mulches such as bark mulch. To use shredded brush mulch, spread an even 3-4 inch layer in garden beds. Shredded brush can be used fresh-chipped and will age to an attractive silvery natural color. It can also be piled and allowed to age before use.
Leaf mulching: When there is only a moderate amount of leaves on the ground, a mower can be used to mulch them into the turf. Research at Purdue University demonstrated that mulching maple leaves into the turf does not have any detrimental effect on the soil or turf and usually results in improvement of soil structure. The research also showed that mulching maple leaves does not increase thatch and disease on turf and has no effect on soil pH and nutrient availability. Research at Michigan State University suggests that leaf mulching can also reduce dandelion populations in turf. The research showed that mulched red and sugar maple leaves initially reduced dandelion populations on very low maintenance and moderately maintained (fertilized and properly mown but not irrigated) lawns under some conditions. The mulched leaves provided some pre-emergence dandelion control in the first year, but did not provide any post-emergence control or sustained effects once dandelions had become established.
For best results, leaves should be mowed when dry. A mulching mower works best because it has a special deck and blade design for mulching grass clippings. Mulching mowers are designed to cut, suspend and recut vegetative material until it is finely divided. A rotary mower that pulverizes the leaves well can be used with good results. A regular mower with a covering over the discharge can also be used for mulching leaves into the turf. For best results, sharpen the mower blades and make as many as 3-4 passes over the area to finely grind the leaves.
Mow leaves regularly and do not allow them to lie on the turf for more than 3-4 days before mowing. The pulverized leaves should settle into the turf within 1-2 days, especially if the leaf mulching is followed by rain. Since the research does not provide answers to all possible questions on leaf mulching, such as the effects of leaves from different tree species, maturity or condition of the turf, or the effects of other site conditions, landscape professionals should use their own judgement or try the practice on a small area before embarking on full scale leaf mulching.
4. Recycling offsite
Most municipalities in Massachusetts have developed recycling facilities to collect yard waste for recycling. The solid waste divisions of some of these municipalities provide curbside collection of yard waste during spring and fall for their residents. Residents should check with their local authority for particulars of how this is handled in their own community. The yard waste is typically composted and used as a soil amendment for city use and may also be offered to residents.
Many municipalities do not accept yard waste from landscapers or commercial sources. Some do accept yard waste from landscapers after they have purchased a commercial disposal sticker from the town. Landscapers should check with their town to find out if the town's recycling center accepts yard waste from commercial sources. If the town recycling center does not accept yard waste from commercial sources, check the yellow pages or other business listings for private companies that provide legal disposal of yard waste at reasonable prices. These companies compost the yard waste and offer it at a price to landscapers and homeowners.
5. Disposing of invasive plants
Invasive plants can be removed by hand pulling or by mechanical removal. Plants must be removed with the entire root system since new plants may sprout from root segments. There are no designated areas in the state for disposal of invasive plants. Some municipalities have DEP permits to accept invasive plants from their residents at their recycling site for proper disposal. Invasive plants can be disposed of by composting, but it is important to insure that every part of the plant material is completely dead before adding them into the compost pile. Put all parts of the plant, including roots, into black plastic bags and place the bags in a hot well-lit area and wait for about a week until the plants are completely brown and dead. Do not compost invasive plants with seeds since some of the seeds are able to survive the composting process. The other options for disposal of invasive plants are deep burial or burning if possible. In both cases, DEP permitting is required. Contact DEP for permitting information.
For more information on yard waste disposal, see the links below.
- Mass DEP: 310 CMR 16.00 and 310 CMR 19.000. Regulations for solid waste management
310 CMR 16.00: Site Assignment Regulations for Solid Waste Facilities
310 CMR 19.000: Solid Waste Facility Regulations
- Mass DEP. Leaf and Yard Waste composting guidance document
Download Notification form
- Mass DEP. Shredded brush: methods of utilization
- UMass Extension. Best Management Practices for Nursery Crops, Organic waste management
- Reicher Z. and Hardebeck G. 1999. Effects of leaf mulching on turf performance. Annual report Purdue University Turf Program
- Kowaleski A.R., Calhoun R.N., Hathaway A.D. and Rogers J.N. lll. 2010. Using cultural practices and leaf mulch to control weeds in established turfgrass. Online. Applied Turfgrass Science doi; 10.1094/ATS-2010-0416-01-RS
- Massachusetts Prohibited Plant List
- Mass DEP. Home composting Tips. A guide to composting yard and food waste
Landschoot P., Penn State Extension fact sheet. Recycling turfgrass clippings.
Bennet K., UNH Extension fact sheet. Methods for disposing non-native invasive plants.