Opinion: Stop Bagging Leaves in Plastic

Early every autumn a roll of clear plastic bags lands in front of every home in the town of Huntington. Highway Department workers drive their way through town dropping off the bags. It’s such a popular give-away that the Town Board has been approving the cost of it every year for decades.

This year, the bags cost $211,815, to be exact, according to Deputy Highway Superintendent Tom Cavanagh, not including the delivery costs. But there are other hidden costs. The leaves are not burned but trucked by carters to a recycling plant in East Northport. There the bags have to be cut open to separate the leaves, an imperfect process that adds to the cost of handling them. The leaves are then put on trucks again and sent to eastern Long Island farms to be used as mulch and in compost.

“As much as you do to process the plastic, there is always some left among the leaves,” said Toby Carlson, owner of Power Crush, Inc., the town’s recycling contractor, noting that this contamination is a problem for the farmers. “Loose leaves such as the landscapers bring in are much cheaper and easier to process. It almost doubles the cost to dispose of them in bags.”

“I would love to see the town switch to paper bags,” added Carlson. “It would be a tremendous benefit to everyone.”

Cavanagh said he believed the town had considered a switch to paper bags in the early 1990s, but decided against them because they cost more and can tear when they get wet in the rain or snow.

“The residents of this town love the leaf bags,” said Cavanagh. “Naturally there is an added cost to separating the plastic from the leaves.”

A check of prices for small quantities of bags showed two-ply paper about one-third more expensive than plastic, but even in small quantities the difference was 10 cents a bag: about 40 cents each for paper and 30 cents for plastic. Ads for today’s paper bags promise wet strength.

Town residents dispose of between 16,000 and 20,000 tons of yard waste a year, according to Cavanagh.

But leaves are not litter, as one environmental organization  points out. Fallen leaves should actually be raked off the lawn and into flower and shrub beds. The habit of cleaning leaves from beds before the winter, only to later spend money on mulch, is actually detrimental.

While Monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico for the winter, most butterflies, moths and other insects shelter under leaf litter for the winter, becoming the beauties we love to see and food for birds. Leaves also keep plant roots warm. Without their protection, plant roots can heave out of the soil in freezing weather and the soil itself can erode under the pounding of heavy rain.

People who still want to dispose of leaves also have alternatives to bagging. They can fill reusable bins and leave them out for carters to empty. Or they can gather leaves on a tarp and put them in a compost pile. Simple compost piles are easily built. 

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