If you live in Owensboro, every fall you rake your leaves to the curb and a city truck ends up picking them up.
And you’ll probably never think about it again.
But have you ever wondered what happens to those leaves?
Well, they go to the Daviess County landfill, where they’re turned into compost, which is sold to gardeners and nurseries across the region.
Some people even come from as far away as Bowling Green to buy the compost, Robbie Hocker, the county’s solid waste manager, said this week.
By the time the Owensboro Sanitation Department completed its sweep of the city last month, it had collected 1,154 tons of leaves to deposit in the landfill.
Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?
“We’re not getting as many leaves as we used to,” Hocker said. “We are trying to find something else to use to make compost. We’ve tried using straw, but it really doesn’t work as well.
Because so few leaves have been delivered to the landfill, he said, “We’re probably going to run out of compost by mid-summer this year.
Leaf scarcity is not a new problem.
It started in September 2008, when the remnants of Hurricane Ike tore hundreds of tons of branches from local trees and even destroyed many trees.
And then, four months later, a huge ice storm hit the area, destroying even more trees.
In 2006, the sanitation department collected 1,900 tonnes of leaves.
In 2008, after Ike, it dropped to 1,600 tons.
And in 2010 it fell again – to 1200 tons.
It’s been 12 years since then, and the numbers haven’t improved.
One reason could be that more people are bagging their leaves.
Bagged leaves just go to the landfill, not the compost heap.
In 1999, the landfill buried 15,000 tons of sludge from the Regional Water Resources Agency annually, as well as about 3,000 tons of leaves from the city.
Started 20 years ago, then in 2002 the county decided to start combining sludge and leaves to make compost for the commercial market.
But getting into the compost business was not cheap.
The county’s initial investment was $136,000, which included installing a 200-foot by 300-foot platform and a machine to turn the rows of compost mix as they “cook.” .
A report submitted to Daviess Tax Court in 2003 showed the landfill sold nearly 1,000 cubic meters of compost that first year for almost $11,000.
But soon the compost was bringing in about $33,000 a year and keeping a lot of sludge and leaves out of the landfill.
And then the volume of leaves dropped, as did the amount of compost available for sale.
Hocker said the county sells the compost for $12.75 a scoop.
A ball, he says, will fill the bed of a small van.
Two scoops will fill the bed of a full size pickup.
But Hocker said he also sells it by the five-gallon bucket to gardeners who just want a little.
“Everyone wants them for their flowerbeds and gardens,” he said. “It goes quickly.”
The composting operation keeps leaves and sludge out of the landfill and brings in some money for the county, Hocker said.
This, he said, is a good use of taxpayers’ money.
People who want compost this year should register around April 1, Hocker said.
“It’s a win-win,” he said. “We put down a layer of leaves, a layer of mud, a layer of leaves, a layer of mud and we piled it up. The temperature in the pile rises, and in 30 days it’s cooked. Heat kills pathogens and weed seeds. It’s pretty pure when you sell it.
The landfill website explains the composting process as follows:
“When the time is right, depending on the recipe used, raw materials are precisely combined in windrows with measured amounts of biosolids. Each windrow is then turned using a machine called a beetle. The beetle uses rotating blades to combine ingredients to achieve an even distribution of each material. The windrows are then cooked.
“Cooking temperatures must reach above 132 degrees for a period of at least 15 days before they can be considered a finished product. We allow each windrow to reach this temperature for a period of 30 days, while turning each windrow at least five times to create the optimum oxygen content. After each batch has met the temperature and time requirements, the windrows are removed from the baking mat and placed in stock ready for sale. All the compost we make is randomly sampled and then sent to an independent lab for testing.
“Once you start, it cooks within two days,” Hocker said earlier. “The state says you have to bake it for 15 straight days at 131 degrees. We exceed that and our temperatures reach 145 to 150 degrees for a month. Then we sift it to remove all waste.