Yard Waste, The Issues Of A Natural Pollutant

Leaves are natural and biodegradable. Can they also be pollution? Submitted photo

Have you ever seen your neighbor push a wheelbarrow full of grass clippings to a nearby empty lot and, without hesitation, dump the load over the edge of the streambank? What about seeing someone rake his or her yard clean of fall leaves and then pile them behind some shrubbery along the water’s edge? Or maybe you’ve seen a homeowner or landscaper hose lawn clippings or leaves down a nearby storm drain?

You may have not given any of these practices a second thought. Most people wouldn’t. After all, yard waste is natural. It’s biodegradable. It isn’t a pollutant…..or is it?

When we think of pollution, most of us picture leaking drums of chemicals, oil spills or industrial discharges. However, a pollutant is any material that occurs in a harmful concentration in a particular environment. Pollution does not have to be synthetic. Even natural, biodegradable materials – like yard waste – can cause pollution when present at a concentration and in a location where they cause harm.

When yard waste is dumped on the water’s edge, in a ditch or in a stream, rain eventually washes these materials to a nearby waterway, which leads to the lake. Grass clippings, leaves and other yard waste contain nitrogen and phosphorus, nutrients that act as fertilizer in the lake. Excess nutrients fuel the growth of lake weeds, algae and even harmful algae blooms, which are toxic to humans and animals. Additionally, the decomposition of excess weeds and algae in the lake can use up the oxygen that fish and native plants need.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has already designated Chautauqua Lake as an impaired water body because of high phosphorus concentrations. The addition of more phosphorus and nitrogen from decomposing yard waste further pollutes the lake. Even though yard waste is natural and biodegradable, its decomposition results in even higher concentrations of phosphorus and nitrogen, which further contribute to the lake’s pollution.

If you don’t own lakefront property, you may feel that it doesn’t matter what you do with yard waste.

However, the rainwater flowing from your property carries yard waste to ditches, streams and street drains which then transports these materials to the lake, even if you live far from the lake. You may also feel that the relatively small amount of landscaping waste from your yard won’t make a difference to the health of the lake. Your yard may not seem very big, but together, all of the yards around Chautauqua cover a lot of ground! Your yard care choices, combined with everyone else’s, will make a difference to the lake’s water quality.

So how do you keep your yard from polluting the lake? Keep your yard waste in your yard.

Use a mulching mower, and leave the pulverized grass clippings on the lawn. In the fall, either mow and mulch the leaves where they fall or mow and mulch a whole pile of leaves. If you leave the pile in place until spring, you will have high-quality compost without any additional effort! When leaves and grass clippings remain in your yard, the phosphorus, nitrogen and organic matter are a valuable fertilizer and soil supplement. However, these same materials, if they had reached the lake, would have been a pollutant.

The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. Funding has been provided by the Chautauqua Lake & Watershed Management Alliance.

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