Matching Up Waste Materials With Large-Scale Landscaping Needs

Jean Schwab
BioCycle May 2004, Vol. 45, No. 5, p. 22

 

EPA program encourages holistic landscaping decisions, stressing reuse for economical, environmentally-friendly solutions.

Think about large-scale land uses that abound in the United States – shopping and business centers, parks and recreational facilities (e.g., golf courses, ski resorts, amusement parks), roads and highways, industrial sites (including brownfields), hospital and university campuses, and military installations. For many of these sites, establishment and upkeep of acres of aesthetically-pleasing landscapes and well-maintained turf are daily business activities. Now think about the millions of tons of waste materials – grass, trees, brush, lumber, asphalt, and concrete – that are hauled away, buried, or burned each day as a result of these landscaping and groundskeeping operations. Add to that, the millions of gallons of water, pesticides, fuels, and oils used every day in those operations. The costs of these materials – both economic and environmental – could be easily reduced or even eliminated with updated landscaping methods.

By employing green landscaping or “greenscaping” methods, land managers can achieve significant cost savings while minimizing their impact on the environment. To encourage greener, more sustainable landscaping methods, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently launched a program called GreenScapes. The program promotes practices and products that meet the users’ needs in landscaping but are more environmentally friendly as they are designed to preserve natural resources and prevent waste and pollution. GreenScapes assists companies, government agencies, and other entities to make more holistic decisions regarding waste generation and disposal; air emissions; and the use of land, water, pesticides, and energy.

WORKING TOGETHER TO ACHIEVE SUCCESS
The GreenScapes Program focuses on education and outreach, but is also a partnership program – a formal agreement with government and industry leaders partnering and committing to exert a powerful, unified influence over the reuse, and recycling of natural resources in large land use operations. The GreenScapes Alliance is a unique component of EPA’s Resource Conservation Challenge (RCC), a major initiative that identifies and uses innovative, flexible, and protective methods to conserve natural resources and energy. The alliance reinforces the RCC goals by emphasizing a multimedia approach to environmental stewardship.

In addition, the alliance: Provides information about the cost savings that can be achieved by reducing material use; decreasing waste; conserving resources; and purchasing durable, environmentally preferable products (e.g., recycled-content and biobased products); Educates land managers about environmentally beneficial landscaping that can yield water and energy savings, conserve landfill space, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions; Publicizes case studies, success stories, and technical assistance to help alleviate concerns regarding alternative landscaping practices and products; Promotes market expansion and development of recycled-content, biobased, and other environmentally preferable products; and Recognizes environmental excellence through GreenScapes activities.

Prospective participants include landscape contractors; nurseries; golf courses; road construction and maintenance industry; parks and recreation operations; schools; hospitals; federal, state, city, and local governments; industry associations; marketers; and manufacturers just to name a few. GreenScapes is looking for opportunities to work with individuals and organizations involved with land use, landscaping, contracting for or providing those services, producing applicable products, or representing those that do.

HOLISTIC DECISION MAKING
For organizations that want to improve both their bottom line and the environment the basic principle is simple: Focus on the “4 Rs” – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rebuy.

When planning a new landscape design or updating a current one, avoid landscaping products that require frequent replacement or maintenance. When purchasing structures such as decks, piers, benches, signs, bridges and trail markers, switch from wood to plastic lumber. Products made from recovered plastic do not require routine upkeep – saving paint, solvents, and labor costs – and last many years longer than wood, greatly reducing repair and replacement costs.

Another simple GreenScapes activity is on-site composting of green wastes and food scraps. Compost contributes vital organic matter, nutrients, and disease-suppressing properties to the soil, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Use compost to improve or reclaim damaged or nutrient-poor soil and prevent erosion. Plus, adding compost to planting beds helps improve water absorption and retention and further reduces watering requirements.

When dealing with erosion control and reduction of nonpoint source pollution at new construction or redevelopment projects (e.g., storm water runoff), reduce or eliminate use of plastic silt fencing and substitute with blankets, berms, and filter socks made of compost. Compost provides superior filtration and erosion prevention/control, is more easily installed and maintained, and does not require energy-intensive removal or disposal from the site after the job is completed.

Reduce and conserve water through water-efficient landscaping or “Xeriscaping.” Plants that are drought-resistant and indigenous to a region’s soil and climate conditions can survive and thrive, generally with less care or water. The use of native plants is also environmentally preferable because they are more resistant to pests and disease, thus requiring less fertilizers and pesticides. Long-lived, hardy vegetation can lower labor costs and reduce spending on maintenance supplies.

Another beneficial activity is to reduce pesticide use through an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plan. IPM reduces the environmental and health risks from pesticides and, in some cases, the amount of pesticides needed. IPM is based on a combination of techniques, such as biological control, habitat manipulation, and modification of cultural practices. It often includes steps that can be taken before a pest problem is encountered.

REUSING PRODUCTS
Many items can be reused effectively without adding much time or energy. For example, mulch made from chipped woody shrubs and tree clippings from maintenance operations can be applied around trees and in flower beds. Additionally, placing mulch over a plant’s root zone inhibits weed growth and conserves water by reducing moisture evaporation. Other options include returning wooden pallets to suppliers or dismantling nonreturnable pallets to reuse the wood or chip it into mulch. Another reuse activity, which is typically overlooked, is using alternative sources of irrigation water such as gray water, reclaimed water, and collected rain water. This option saves water and money while reducing runoff, erosion, and nonpoint source pollution.

RECYCLE, COMPOST AND REBUY
Although on-site composting of organic materials is a waste reduction activity, offsite composting is considered recycling. If there is not adequate space for on-site composting, then GreenScapes encourages sending compostable wastes to a municipal or private composting site. To further reduce disposal costs, it’s important to collect and recycle materials from operations and equipment (e.g., wood waste, yard trimmings, plastics, glass, metals, used oil, and used tires).

Rebuying means rethinking current purchasing habits – looking for products made with recycled content, biobased content, or other environmentally preferable attributes. Purchasing products made of recycled content helps “close the recycling loop” by reintroducing materials collected through recycling programs back into productive use.

One such example is compost. GreenScapes strongly encourages the use of compost for erosion control, site remediation, soil and plant health, on roadsides, brownfields, and golf courses, – the uses and locations are almost endless. The program also encourages the use of other products made from recovered resources such as plastic lumber. Another option is rubberized asphalt (made from scrap tires) for parking lots and walking, running, bike, or cart paths. Rubberized asphalt surfaces last longer than traditional asphalt and require less maintenance. Other green purchasing opportunities include using biobased products, such as cleaners or solvents, and biobased fuels and lubricants for equipment operations and maintenance instead of petroleum products.

Reevaluating purchases associated with landscaping activities can be financially beneficial. Switching from disposable products to long-lasting or reusable ones enables organizations to purchase fewer items. Buying durable goods might be more expensive at the time of purchase, but during the landscape’s lifetime, maintenance and purchasing costs will decrease. These long-term cost savings might be the perfect opportunity to give businesses an edge over the competition.

CURRENT SUPPLY AND DEMAND
How much impact could the increased use of compost, rubberized asphalt, or plastic lumber in landscaping applications have? Figure 1 shows how much of these materials are still available to recover. In 2000, EPA estimated that 28 million tons of yard trimmings were generated, of which almost 16 million tons were recovered and composted. Increasing the use of compost in landscaping applications – particularly roadside stabilization and golf courses – could easily divert the remaining 12 million tons of yard trimmings from landfills.

According to the Rubber Manufacturers Association, approximately 281 million scrap tires are generated each year in the United States, but the scrap tire markets utilize only 218 million tires. Increased use of rubberized asphalt in landscape paving applications (e.g., parking lots, running, bike, or cart paths) would quickly consume the remaining 63 million tires that are disposed in landfills.

Furthermore, according to EPA, in 2000, the United States generated approximately 13 million tons of plastic suitable for reuse in plastic lumber. Unfortunately, only one million tons were recovered for beneficial use and of that, less than 200,000 tons were reused in plastic lumber. The 12 million tons of plastic discarded would have provided ample feedstock for manufacturing plastic lumber utilized in landscaping projects (e.g., marinas, boardwalks, park benches, signs, fencing). Using compost, rubberized asphalt, and plastic lumber in landscaping projects would perform better than standard practices and would have a huge impact on the environment.

NEXT STEPS
GreenScapes is striving to help large land use managers and industries learn about the economic and environmental benefits of conserving natural resources, preventing waste and pollution, and encouraging positive change in landscaping operations. Change is a gradual process but even small improvements can create a giant ripple effect, spreading from one site to the entire landscaping industry. Many public agencies and commercial landscapers across the country have successfully employed environmentally beneficial landscaping techniques of one type or another but few know about these successes.

GreenScapes is collecting this type of information and providing it and other resources via our web site. Although still in its infancy, the site already includes a great deal of valuable information and will continue to grow as the program collects additional examples of environmentally beneficial practices and products. GreenScapes encourages those interested in environmentally beneficial landscaping to visit the GreenScapes web site to learn more about green landscaping techniques, read real-world success stories, and view a complete list of the program’s Partners and Allies who are committed to helping improve the environment The GreenScapes Alliance is a wonderfully wide-ranging group – from leading national and state organizations to dedicated small businesses. For more information, visit www.epa.gov/greenscapes.

Jean Schwab is the Program Manager for EPA’s GreenScapes Program, based in Washington, D.C.

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