With Trees Aplenty, Few Dumps, Northeast Leads Leaf Composting

AT first, it looks like a runway. But soon it's clear no planes land here. Instead, every few minutes, a truck arrives to dump brown leaves in a pile.

Welcome to the Hope Avenue Compost Site in Worcester, Mass.

For five weeks, leaves from streets are shredded and dropped in windrows the length of three football fields. Once a month, a payloader with a special attachment churns the piles for faster decomposition. The organic material is given to residents as fertilizer nine months to a year later.

This ``Fall Leaf Program'' is one of the state's best, according to Jack Macy, the composting-program director at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). ``We gave out four Willibalds [the shredder] to communities that had put together an [effective] plan to share them on a regional basis. The others went to Springfield, Needham, and Marblehead, all with good programs,'' he said.

Throughout New England, composting is becoming the wave of the future - largely for economic reasons, but partly due to a 1988 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finding that 17 percent of landfill material was yard waste. Thus, many states have enacted leaf-disposal laws. Massachusetts and Connecticut forbid open burning and disposal in landfills and incinerators. Rhode Island bans burning. New Hampshire prohibits disposal, and Maine bans it in landfills.

New England seems to be at the forefront of this trend away from burning and toward composting of leaves. ``[It] may generate more leaves, but, in general, they have better controls ... than, say, Western states where there's more open burning and less regulation,'' says Paula Fields, Western operations director at E.H. Pechan & Associates Inc., an air-quality consulting firm in Rancho Cordova, Calif., which studied the issue for the EPA.

The region is a natural for leaf composting due to its population density, landfill shortages, large number of deciduous trees, and high disposal cost. ``The economics really drive it. The ecological side comes in second,'' says Sumner Martinson, the DEP's recycling-program coordinator.

In Massachusetts, for example, it costs $5 to $30 to compost a ton of leaves and $30 to $100 for landfill disposal, he says. ``In almost 100 percent of cases, composting is cost-effective.''

But in Worcester, composting costs more that taking leaves to an incinerator where garbage is sent ``on a favorable contract,'' says Andrew Murch, the public-works department's assistant commissioner of operations. The $444,258 compost plan is ``a major [budget] component,'' he says, on a balmy day at the site.

Yet cost is not just measured in dollars and cents. ``You have to look at the broader picture,'' Mr. Murch says. ``We are saving landfill space from ashes. And we could lessen costs by selling compost. But I'm still an advocate for doing what we're doing. We have a very successful program.''

Meanwhile, the sight of sky-high leaf piles ablaze on a lawn is becoming scarce. ``Some people associate it with a romantic image'' of autumn, pumpkins, and football, says Scott Voorhees, an EPA air-quality analyst.

But, in fact, leaf burning is linked to the emission of particulates and toxins that cause air pollution and harm one's health. However, it's hard to know who's burning, where, and when. ``It's more difficult [to pin down] when you don't have a major source like a plant,'' he says.

For its study, Pechan analyzed state laws on leaf burning, waste reduction, composting, and other methods. Based on its findings, the EPA discourages burning in favor of composting via broadcast messages and fliers for local groups and governments.

``Regulations are [mostly] at the local level,'' says Liesa Houdashelt, a senior associate at Pechan. ``It gets right back to economics - what communities have money to offer composting and how much is given by the state to enforcement agencies.''

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