In late October and early November, you might hear a collective groan from Champaign-Urbana’s homeowners and home renters. That groan is the indication of yard waste collection season, which means an investment of time, labor, and money for those with yards: Yard waste bags need to be purchased; sticks and branches need to be cut down and bundled; leaves need to be raked and bagged. (If you need help with this, you can hire the University of Illinois rowers.)
Maybe you feel like municipal yard waste collection is a saving grace, and a saver of some money. If you happen to miss the municipal collection, your regular waste collection company will probably take the bags for a fee — at upwards of $3 a bag, often with a minimum for pick up. Maybe you’re like us and have some yard waste bags full and ready for municipal collection just sitting on the side of your house or in your garage. Because let’s be honest: most of our yards are full of leaves and sticks and other things that generally need to be managed, that management is needed year-round. In the fall, many leaves are from trees in other people’s yards that find homes in ours. Oftentimes these leaves end up in the street, clogging drains and causing all sorts of other problems. We, like you, want to be good residents and neighbors; we bag that detritus. And while we are proponents of mulching leaves and planting native plants and otherwise making our yards less toxic and more eco-friendly, we know those things take time (and investments of more money and labor) and there are still many practical realities that need to be addressed.
Whenever Smile Politely shares a post about yard waste collection, there are comments on our social media pages about how people wish there was a monthly collection. The cities of Champaign and Urbana collect yard waste in the fall and spring. (Here are the dates and details, if you’re wondering.) Additionally, both cities will coordinate collections after big storms, like this summer’s derecho that made a huge mess. Those one-offs and the impending fall collection had us thinking: Is a monthly or even quarterly program possible? How do our cities deal with yard waste collection anyway? We reached out to folks in both cities with a few questions.
The TL;DR here is that no, a year-round program is not a possibility. Keep reading for more details. Learn more about Champaign’s program here, and Urbana’s program here. You can always recycle your yard waste at the Landscape Recycling Center.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Smile Politely: How are yard waste dates and frequencies determined?
Kris Koester, City of Champaign: There is a City Council policy (CB2019-042) for the collection of yard waste and holiday trees. The current policy currently states there is one pickup for each zone (blue and orange) in the month of April and one pickup for each zone in May. Then there are four pickups for each zone in the fall, which centers around ensuring one pickup for each zone after Thanksgiving. We then move backwards on the calendar, skipping Thanksgiving week, then establishing three pickups for each zone prior to Thanksgiving week. Then the policy allows for one pickup after January 6th for live holiday trees. These pickups toward the latter part of fall also hinge upon potential snowfall as the same personnel and equipment used to pick up yard waste, is used in treating/plowing snow.
Courtney Kwong, City of Urbana: Leaf collection dates are typically set at a certain time seasonally. In the fall, Urbana starts collections usually the last week of October through early December. The city collects leaves (and non-woody plant material) over the course of a three-week period (every other week schedule). Over the years staff has determined that this is the best time to collect leaves as many trees have or have started to shed leaves at this point in the season. The city also collects leaves and plant materials one week in the spring, in mid-April. In total, the City of Urbana collects leaves four weeks per year.
SP: What is the method for processing yard waste? Does everything just go to the Landscape Recycling Center?
Koester: For the past several years, the City of Champaign has not used the Landscape Recycling Center for the majority of yard waste disposal. Instead we have solicited bids for the removal and disposal of yard waste. The current vendor is a farmer in northern Champaign County. We bring the yard waste back to the public works yard. He then comes to pick up the bags of yard waste. He takes them to his farm, where it is used as bedding. Then later the bedding is used to fertilize the field.
Kwong: Residents are asked to bag their leaves in paper lawn and garden bags. Bagged leaves are placed in a packer truck by city crews and then brought to the Urbana Landscape Recycling Center for processing. Bagged leaves are set in windrows to start the composting process. The windrows are turned on occasion to expedite the composting process. Eventually rich organic compost is created; the process is dependent upon weather/seasons but typically takes less than a year. The compost is then sold to the public.
SP: Has the city considered a year-round program, perhaps monthly or quarterly collections?
Koester: There have been no discussions for a year-round program or more frequent than the current schedule. We already schedule 12 weeks of pick ups. Having set schedules also allows us the flexibility to conduct “one-off” pick ups for collecting storm damage, as was done this summer after the July 29th derecho storm. In this instance we collected debris from private trees that had been damaged in addition to public trees.
Kwong: Not at this time, due to financial and staffing constraints.
SP: What are the challenges in coordinating these programs?
Koester: The challenge is that we utilize the same personnel and equipment that is used for taking care of the City’s infrastructure. This means during the times of pickup, there are fewer staff available for tree pruning, responding to sewer backup calls, fixing traffic lights, and completing street maintenance. Also, if there is snowfall, each of the pieces of equipment have to be converted from a yard waste collection setup to a snow plowing equipment setup. This could mean closing up a truck bed and adding pieces of equipment so it could spread salt. Then if it stops snowing and we have more yard waste, we have to convert it back.
Kwong: The importance of a successful leaf collection program for Urbana is promoting/educating the community on what is accepted, set out dates, and proper placement of bagged leaves.
SP: If residents miss the pick up dates, how can they go about disposing of yard waste in a responsible manner?
Koester: If more dates are scheduled, residents should put their bags back in a sheltered place until the next pickup date comes around. Other than that, residents can contact the Landscape Recycling Center.
Kwong: Most local garbage haulers pick up leaves seasonally until December, so residents may contact their garbage service provider for curbside collection. Otherwise, bagged leaves and other yard materials may be brought to the Landscape Recycling Center. They are open year-round.
The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Louise Knight-Gibson, Patrick Singer, and Serenity Stanton Orengo.