Petition Urges Action on Plastic Bag Ban for Louisville Yard Waste

An online petition is gathering signatures to persuade Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer to ban plastic bags for collecting yard waste.

Many Louisville residents are under the impression that yard waste is composted. But actually, all of the yard waste collected from the Urban Services District ends up in the landfill. This is because it’s time and labor intensive to empty all the yard waste bags in order to keep the plastic from contaminating the compost.

“I feel like they’ve been fooling us, or fooling at least most of the public, for the last year or so in having people collect it, separate it, and then put it into the landfill,” Tim Darst said. He’s on the Solid Waste Advisory Committee, and started the petition in hopes of spurring action.

The issue has been going on for awhile, without any final action from the Solid Waste Board, Fischer or the Metro Council. From a story I wrote in September 2012:

For nearly two decades, there’s formally been a ban on putting yard waste in a landfill in Louisville.

But there’s a loophole—it can be composted, or “beneficially reused.”

And that beneficial reuse is what happens to most of the yard waste put out to the curb in the Urban Services District.

Seventy percent of that waste ends up in the landfill anyway, because it’s contaminated in some way by plastic bags or other materials that aren’t technically yard waste. Instead of turning into compost, the material is used as “daily cover,” which covers trash at the landfill.

Metro Government pays Waste Management $31 a ton to haul away the yard waste. That’s an expense that’s added up to nearly $1.4 million over the last four fiscal years.

“Why the hell are we paying to put it in the landfill?” asked Solid Waste Advisory Committee member and environmental engineer Sarah Lynn Cunningham. “If it’s ‘beneficial reuse’ for the landfill operator, they should at minimum take it for free. But they certainly shouldn’t be charging us a surcharge for composting and then using it as daily cover. That’s just fraudulent.”

And the yard waste adds up, too. Cunningham calculates that annually, about 22,000 tons of yard waste is sent to the landfill.

“Haulers collect enough yard waste from Metro Louisville curbs to fill 18,237 garbage trucks,” she wrote in an email.  ”If they were lined up, end-to-end, they’d stretch five times around I-264.”

But in the meantime, no entity has acted to change the way the city collects its yard waste. The Solid Waste Management District Board could pass an ordinance on its own, but despite including the issue on the agenda for at various points for the past two years, hasn’t. The Metro Council could also institute a ban on plastic bags for yard waste, but the matter hasn’t gotten much traction because of cost concerns.

Mayor Fischer could also take action, and Darst’s petition urges people to call Fischer.

“I guess I’m really disappointed with the mayor, that this has been going on for a long time and something hasn’t been done,” Darst said.

Fischer spokesman Chris Poynter wrote in an email: “We are still in discussions internally about a potential plastic bag ban. We encourage citizens to be good stewards of the environment and use paper bags for yard waste.”

But Cunningham said that at this point, it doesn’t matter whether residents are using paper or plastic. She went to the Outer Loop landfill and asked how the yard waste is handled, and was told that if the waste arrives in a Metro garbage truck, it goes into the landfill.

“And I looked at these trucks, dumping this yard waste out, and there were paper bags in there, and there were plastic bags, and most of it wasn’t bagged at all,” Cunningham said. “It doesn’t matter if it came in a paper bag or not. The whole truckload goes into the landfill.”

In response, Poynter said that’s correct, but that paper bags are better for the environment, overall.

Cunningham suggests several solutions to the problem, including having enforcement officers enforce the rule that’s on the books, and letting the companies figure out how to compost the yard waste.

As of noon on Tuesday, the petition had 143 signatures.

The matter is on the agenda for tonight’s Solid Waste Board meeting, but it was also on the agenda for last month’s meeting and wasn’t addressed. The meeting is at 5:30 p.m. in the Metropolitan Sewer District’s first floor conference room at 700 W. Liberty St.

Erica Peterson

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL.

@ericampeterson

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