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Want To Get Rid Of Your Leaves? Call 311 To Compost ‘Em, But Don’t Throw Them In The Trash, Experts Say

Leaving your leaves alone is best for your garden and the planet, according to experts. They say throwing them in the trash is illegal — and leaf blowers are an environmental nightmare.

You can request a pickup from 311, but don't toss your leaves in the trash.
Phil Roeder/Flickr
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CHICAGO — Leaves are littering the ground as winter approaches — and that just might be the best place for them, experts said.

It’s illegal in Illinois to throw bags of yard waste, including fallen leaves, in with your regular garbage. Leaves that end up in landfills turn to methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, according to scientists.

Instead, city officials encourage residents to bag leaves and other yard waste and call 311 to request a pickup so it can be composted, said Mimi Simons, a Department of Streets and Sanitation spokesperson. Composted leaves turn to carbon dioxide, which is slightly less harmful to the environment, and compost can be used as fertilizer.

On the other hand, experts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture say people should “leave the leaves” entirely. It’s the best way to “reduce greenhouse gases and benefit your garden,” according to the agency’s website, and experts have said they provide important winter cover for insects.

“Nature goes through this process as a way of replenishing the soil and protecting insects, and we’ve managed to turn it into something that’s not even recognizable because we’re neatness freaks,” said Mike Nowak, who’s co-hosted a weekly radio show about the environment and green living in Chicago for 25 years.

Allowing leaves to decompose in your yard is easier than bagging them and better for the ecosystem, although it is important to try to keep them out of the street where they can clog gutters and infiltrate waterways, Nowak said. 

Fallen leaves are full of beneficial nutrients for the soil that become even more potent as they decompose throughout the winter and early spring, Nowak said. Known as leafmold, the natural compost is prized among gardeners and difficult to find in stores. 

“I see people fighting to keep their lawns clean as leaves keep blowing in; meanwhile, I’m going into my neighbors’ yards and stealing their leaves to put in my front yard,” Nowak said. 

Credit: Provided//Mike Nowak
Mike Nowak took a picture of his leaf-filled parkway next to his neighbor’s cleared space.

Fallen leaves also provide hiding places and an extra layer of insulation for bugs that winter underground, such as bumblebees.

“Most insects are benign or beneficial, and by wiping the slate clean, leaving nothing but lawn, you’re making it harder for them to survive and get through the winter,” Nowak said. 

To make the leaves more manageable, you can mow your lawn to chop them into little bits so they don’t block the grass from the sun. Chopped leaves decompose much quicker and are usually gone by spring.

And you should avoid leaf blowing, Nowak said.

“Leaf blowers whip around and destroy habitats,” Nowak said. “They blow dust and pesticide particles into the air. They add to noise pollution and actual pollution. Gas-powered blowers are some of the most polluting engines on the planet; they’re much worse than your car.”

Whether you participate in the city’s composting program or leave your leaves, it’s important to make sure they don’t end up in a landfill, experts said.

“There are consequences for all of these actions, up and down the chain,” Nowak said. “If we don’t find smarter ways to recycle our plant material, then we’re acting as an accomplice to the mass extinction of animals and ultimately to climate change because we’re contributing to the methane that goes into our atmosphere.” 

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