You Asked, We Answered: What Happened To All Those Leaves I Raked Up And Left At The Curb?

Dec 18, 2017

We may have traded our rakes for snow shovels here in New Hampshire, but before that snow began piling up, many residents spent hours (or days) raking and bagging leaves to cart off to the transfer station, or to leave curbside for the city to pick up.

But what happened to all those leaves? That's the basis of this week's story for Only in New Hampshire, the series in which we tackle questions posed by listeners about their communities.


This question comes from inside the building, posed by our very own Ellen Grimm, Senior Producer of NHPR's The Exchange:

"My question is, where do all the leaves go? Because we all spend an awful lot of time raking leaves and putting them in bags and setting them out in front of our homes and then they disappear, and I just wanted to know, where do they go?"

However you get rid of your leaves, grass, sticks and branches, they’re all eventually going to the same place: in a state of decomposition. But let’s start in Manchester, where Ellen lives.

Mark Gomez is the guy in charge of environmental programs in the city of Manchester. He says that in 1992, the state passed a law that prohibited the disposal of yard waste in landfills.

"Yard waste collection in Manchester began back in 1993, it actually had been collected previously but as part of people’s trash," he says.

This seemed like an ideal opportunity to share this gif of a very good boy ruining hours of labor
Credit via Giphy

The primary reason was to save the limited space in New Hampshire dumps for actual garbage. But...

"There has been another benefit to it, in that when yard waste decomposes under anaerobic conditions like in a landfill, it produces methane gas," Mark Gomez says. "And for those concerned about greenhouse gas effects, methane traps about 30 times the amount of heat as carbon dioxide."

But if you take that yard waste out of the mix and put it somewhere else, you can avoid that methane production.

So, where is that yard waste going instead?

Trading Garbage for Yard-bage

Well, it starts with a guy named Bruce.

"Uh, Bruce Allen Pacey Jr., truck driver for Pinard," he clarifies.

Bruce works for the independent company contracted to collect yard waste in Manchester. He pilots the collection truck that drives around the city all day, "more than eight hours regularly," he says.

Bruce does garbage collection, too.

"I might not have a popular opinion, but I personally prefer trash. I don’t know why. I can’t really put my finger on it. It’s just kind of what I’ve dealt with. I feel like it’s a valuable service that provide when I’m picking up the trash. Not that yard waste isn’t. But I’ve seen what happened when a trash route doesn’t get picked up for a week. And to know that I’m the line between that, it feels like I’m doing a service for the towns that I’m in."

Personal preference aside, Bruce takes yard waste collection seriously. I sat in the cab while his coworkers, Jake and Tom, jumped on and off, grabbing bags and flinging them into the truck.

"We do it every day here in Manchester for about a month... maybe two months worth of time. And yeah, they do it twice a year, one for the spring clean-up and one for the fall clean-up."

Manchester will take more off your hands than many cities and towns in the state; leaves, garden trimmings, branches and stumps, provided they’ve been cut to size and bundled. But, Bruce says, there are some things that will gum up the operation.

"Plastic bags is a big one. It doesn’t biodegrade, I guess. Anything that’s not leaves, dirt, anything you’d find on the ground on your backyard, sometimes people try to put construction wood, demolition, we had a guy earlier today put some roof shingles in there."

Assuming your leaves and branches do make it into the truck, though, where does Bruce take them?

He was more than willing to give me directions.

"If you get on 101 East, exit 5, Raymond/Chester, take a left, go straight for like three or four miles, Dump Road, I believe it is, Dump Road, and there’ll be a big sign that says 'Chester Transfer Station.'

The Rumpelstiltskin of Leaves?

You may have actually seen one of these places before, noticed it on the side of the road or at the end of a long dirt road. There's row after row of giant piles of dark soil. Those piles used to be your leaves. And at the Chester, New Hampshire Compost Facility where Bruce sent me, they’re taken care of by Remi and Sons.

See those piles? They used to be your leaves.
Credit Hannah McCarthy for NHPR

Lee Brown, who works here, gives me a tour.

"We put ‘em in a pile, we cover them with some compost that’s already been cooking here for awhile to hold all the bags and everything tight in place so it ain’t blowing around, and as the year goes on, we flip the piles, constantly flip ‘em," Lee explains.

"The more you flip ‘em, the quicker they break down."

We climb into Lee’s front end loader and rumble past piles that look less and less like dirt and more and more like bags of leaves. Lee digs the truck’s massive scoop into a decomposing pile and steam rises into the cool air.

"There’s a bacteria and it’s what breaks down all these leaves, and it has to stay, like I said, a temperature between 110 and 140 in these piles to keep ‘em cookin’.

There’s actually a lot going on in this compost piles. Bugs, earthworms, fungi and anaerobic bacteria are all working to break down disparate paper bags full of fall leftovers - and, it turns out, turning them into a commodity.

"This here is the finished product. See right here? Finished product," Lee says, pointing to a pile.

"After all that’s said and done, see how that’s still a little warm there? It’s still cooking, but it’s done. I mean, if you look at it by spring? This stuff here? Beautiful."

Gold...Just Not *Your* Gold

This whole process can take a year or more, with Lee turning the piles over five or six times per year. But with the bacteria doing most of the work, overhead is minimal at this operation.

"Just me and the machine. Me, the machine and fuel."

Once the process is done, the compost is sold to landscaping companies for around sixteen dollars a yard. Those companies sell it to customers at a markup.

So, thanks to the process of decomposition, your town's leaves eventually turn to gold. But it's not your town’s gold.

In Manchester, the city pays Pinard Waste, and then Pinard pays that composting station. This, Mark says, is the one catch to saving all of that landfill space: it’s arguably better for the environment, but it’s not cheaper for taxpayers.

"The downside is that, obviously there’s a cost to collecting yard waste separately. And when you run the numbers, the additional hit to the city of Manchester budget is about three quarters of a million dollars a year."

Of course, if you want to do a little alchemy of your own, you can always try composting in your own backyard. But a word to the wise... make sure you turn over that pile every once in awhile.

"If it sits and rots it will get a pungent smell and then people will complain," Lee tells me.

"What does it smell like?"

"Ehhhh, you want me to take you down and then you can explain it?"

"No, no, that’s okay."

Do you have a question about something that's unique to New Hampshire or your community? Submit it at our Only in NH project page, and we might answer it in an upcoming story.

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