At one point or another, most of us have had to do yard work. If it was one of your chores as a kid, you probably developed a strong aversion to it, but as some of us get older, get married, and move to the suburbs, something interesting happens. Taking care of the yard becomes important, but is there an environmental impact? As part of an ongoing series, called “Your Choice; Your Planet,” the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Hammond takes a closer look at his own back yard:
At one point or another, most of us have had to do yard work. If it was one of your chores as a kid,
you probably developed a strong aversion to it. But as we get older, get married, and move to the
suburbs, something interesting happens. Taking care of the yard becomes important. But is there
an environmental impact? As part of an ongoing series, called “Your Choice; Your Planet,” the
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Hammond examines his own backyard.
To bag or not to bag? That is the question. Well, at least that’s my question… on most Saturdays
say about 10am.
(lawnmower sound up far away distance)
That’s when the men of my neighborhood head outside for their weekly call to arms. It’s yard day.
And once the first mower starts, like fruit flies to a banana, everyone heads outside to do their
mowing, edging, and weeding. It’s a procession that lasts all weekend.
(lawnmower sound up close distance, up and under)
This is a new neighborhood… only a couple of years old. Everybody has put in new landscaping,
and everybody spends a lot of time taking care of their lawns. Brian Van Netta is one of my
“It’s the showpiece of the house. It’s the first thing that people see when they drive by and it sets the tone for the rest of the house.”
Around here, that means bagging your lawn clippings. You know the routine. Mow a couple of
strips across the yard. Stop the mower. Take the grass bag and dump it into the compost bag.
Put the grass bag back on the mower. Mow a couple more strips then dump again. Then repeat
I think it’s lunacy… a waste of the weekend. Something keeping me from solving really important
issues like: Does my beer taste great or is it less filling? I’ve also have a vague notion that not
bagging is better environmentally, but I can’t back it up with facts. So I decide to investigate.
(lawnmower sound out)
First stop – Wade Martingdale. He’s a neighbor who’s worked in the landscape business. Around
here, his word carries weight. Unfortunately for me, he recommends bagging.
“If you have a real full turf grass, you know, real thick and full, that when you cut your grass, the
grass clippings are so thick that actually strangles out your grass, its doesn’t let the water get to the
roots, the air, and then what water does get to the roots, it won’t dry so it can promote disease.”
He also says bagging makes a yard look better… usually as he’s looking at my yard.
“You can’t really tell from a distance, but you can tell up close. Just like your grass has a lot of
clumps in it…” (pause… laughter)
I was getting worried. If bagging was really the best environmental and the best neighborly thing to
do, I might actually have to start. No sense getting kicked out of poker night on account of some
grass clippings, but as I looked down my street at all the 30-gallon bags waiting to be picked up, I wondered where all that waste was going.
(sound of trucks picking up waste – up and under)
Canton Waste Recycling handles all of the recycling pickups in my town. Each week, they pick up
yard waste from nearly 20,000 homes, and then haul it to a regional processing center. There it’s
turned into compost and sold to landscapers and fertilizer companies. The only caveat is that the
yard waste collected from the neighborhoods can’t have any debris in it. If there are stumps or
rocks or concrete in the compost bags, then an entire truckload can be wasted. When that
happens, it gets sent to the landfill.
(begin fading truck sound)
So assuming that folks in my neighborhood are not sneaking any dead cats into their yard waste…
bagging seems like a decent bet environmentally. Sure, there is energy used to pick up and
process the yard waste, but the program employs a dozen local people. I had to give it thumbs up.
(truck sound out)
But now, my worry had turned to panic. I could see the rest of my summer out in front of me. No
more pool. No more picnics. No more Sea Breezes at high tea. No, what I saw was a sweat-stained, fat guy lugging 30-gallon compost bags to the curb. That was going to be my summer.
Hell, it was going to be the rest of my summers.
My last hope was The Huron River Watershed Council. They’re a local environmental group and
have developed a lawn care tip sheet. As I read through it, I started to feel the ol’ fun quotient
starting to rise. That’s because the tip sheet recommended not bagging your clippings. That is, if
you mulched them well when you cut them. Laura Rubin is the Executive Director.
“By leaving them there, they are sort of leaching those nutrients right back into the soil. So when
you mulch them, and you leave them, they just naturally put those nutrients back into the ground
and that’s what the soil needs.”
Rubin says that those added nutrients would allow me to save money because I wouldn’t have to
buy as much fertilizer. I also wouldn’t have to buy the composting bags. Rubin added that she’s
not against community compost programs. Just that leaving the clippings was a simpler
“Community-wide composting programs are great and if you have a good one, you can’t go wrong.
It’s just changing the waste stream to a different area, but I don’t want to stress that there’s sort of
a ‘good way’ and a ‘bad way.’ If you send it to a composting program, you are still recycling and composting
that up rather than bagging it, and sending it to the landfill is the worst.”
So in the great bagging debate, it seems that both sides can claim the environmental high ground.
As long as I mulch my lawn clippings well, I can continue not bagging in good conscience. And for
the hardy souls who do bag? You’re good too. In fact, next Saturday, as I watch you schlepping
all those bags to the curb, I’ll tip a glass to you.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m David Hammond.