The author is a blogger who writes on various soci-political topics on Substack. He is also pursuing a docturate at the Yale School of the Environment.
A few weekends ago, I was home in Delmar for my mom’s birthday. Inside, Tennessee orange and Georgia red were battling on the gridiron, and outside, maple leaves of the same color were pouring down like a colorful dry snow. And yet, through the silence of the muted football game came the unforgettably annoying buzz of leaf blowers.
Despite today’s polarized small town politics, there is still one thing everyone in Delmar can still agree on: blowing and raking leaves to the curb and having them removed by a gigantic vacuum truck. And it needs to stop.
Let me say first that I am sympathetic to leaf piles. I remember growing up and waiting for the leaves to fall so we could build forts, play hide and seek, throw the dog in, and fall asleep in the smell of dry leaves. I remember being a part of a horde of kids playing “catch the leaf” at recess at Hamagrael. The smell of dry leaves might still be my most nostalgic trigger.
But the fact is that leaf removal is both economically and ecologically damaging.
For a sense of scale, on the Town of Bethlehem’s website, they write that:
“Annually we collect about 20,000 cubic yards of just loose leaves — not counting other yard debris. This is the equivalent of nearly 200,000 lawn bags and requires a major effort each fall, beginning in mid-October. Specially equipped trucks vacuum up piles of leaves placed by the roadside. It’s a labor intensive process and takes several weeks just to go through the town once, but it can take much longer depending on the accumulation of leaves and weather conditions.”
Looking at the budget, the cost of this program in 2020 was a little over $1 million dollars. In a town of just about 35,000 residents, that’s nearly $120 per four-person household. Whether you like leaf pickup or not, should you pay $120 for it?
But the bigger question is where that money could go instead. Last year the city of Toledo, OH (pop. 268,508) spent only $800,000 to wipe out $200 million in medical debt for their residents. A ridiculous case, I know, but Bethlehem could pay elementary school teachers more money, put more money toward veterans support, toward native pollinator meadows, or for you libertarians out there, they could just simply cut taxes.
When it comes to the economics of it, leaf removal makes no sense. It should be reprivatized. We should not pay for leaf removal; you should pay. Not just because it’s an enormous cost, but because that $1 million is funding something that is ecologically damaging.
Economics aside, our trees are expecting the carbon recharge that leaves give the soil in their rainshadow. Deciduous leaves are meant to fall, decompose, and recharge the soil each year, giving life to the robust web of fungi and microorganisms that the trees live with. When leaves are removed, this input of energy is cut off, the soil becomes sterile, and our trees become unhealthy.
But who cares about the trees, right? This is America, the land of the sacred and pristine turfgrass lawn!
Well, extension schools across the country suggest that leaving leaves is healthier for both turfgrass health and weed suppression. According to a group of researchers at Michigan State, when one mows leaves (“mulches”) rather than removes them:
“The decomposing pieces of leaves cover up bare spots between turf plants that are an excellent opening for weed seeds to germinate. Experience has shown that nearly a 100 percent decrease in dandelions and crabgrass can be attained after adopting this practice of mulching leaves for just three years.”
Researchers at the University of Kentucky concur, and they add that mulched leaves almost entirely offset the need for added fertilizer. Mulching also prevents the threat of the often-cited reason for removing leaves in the first place: the smothering of the lawn. Rather than shading out the grass, the shreds will pretty quickly settle between the blades of grass, preventing competition from below. And finally, our landfills are already full!
Removing leaves from your property is just like throwing money to the wind. Keep your carbon! Instead of removing leaves, just fire up the lawnmower one more time and tear them apart. That way, in addition to everything else, the leaves won’t be a threat to pile up in our sewers during the winter months.
If you think by removing the leaves from your yard each year you’re taking care of your trees or your lawn, you’re not—leaf removal is about paying to maintain some weird human culture, not about ecological care or financial prudence.
I don’t expect the Town of Bethlehem to stop their Fall Leaf Pickup program, regardless of how stupid it is. But maybe if we can stop the cultural inertia in its tracks, over time the politics will follow.
So, leave the leaves! It helps the trees, the grasses, and your pocketbook.