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Treating Nature Like Garbage

This weekend, I took advantage of the unusually warm April weather to take my family down to the local creek for a swim. Before global warming started having its obvious effects, I never could have imagined going down to a local stream in the middle of April for a nice family swim. The air and the water would have been too cold.

So, there is a small silver lining to the dark cloud of climate change. I'd be a fool not to admit that. I like swimming in our creek.

However, I would also be a fool to pretend that the small silver lining of a longer swimming season outweighs the big dark cloud of poverty, environmental degradation, disease and death that is growing ever larger and ever closer as a result of climate change.

Rational people now agree that global warming is real and caused by human beings. However, many people still don't know what they can do about the problem. Given that it's global in nature, it seems just too large for any single person to deal with.

Of course, humanity is also global, with 6 billion people and counting. It's our collective action, for good or for ill, that will determine the degree to which the Earth's climate will change. Individual actions, repeated 6 billion times, make a global difference.

curb lowes lawn bags spring yard cleanup

It was with that in mind that I looked upon the row of bags pictured above, resting on the curb in front of a house on the way back from the creek. There were at least 20 bags, filled with what some might call yard waste.

It was a waste indeed.

The leaves, branches and grass clippings contained in these bags would go into a municipal compost facility, and that's a better way for them to go than into a general garbage dump. Still, the bags represent a great waste.

Consider the energy that is expended, and the pollution created, in order to get the contents of these yard waste bags into a municipal composting facility. First, there's the energy that goes into the production and transportation of the bags themselves, bought from a big box Lowes hardware store. Then, there's the energy it takes to operate the Lowes hardware store so that the bags can be sold.

Then, there's the energy cost of taking these bags full of yard waste to the municipal composting facility. Add onto that the energy that is expended in processing the contents of the bags into compost. Also, more energy is expended and more pollution is created in the final transportation of the resulting compost to the place where it will be used.

A lot of fossil fuel will be used in dealing with these yard waste bags. That fossil fuel, as it is burned, puts carbon dioxide into the air and contributes to global warming.

There's yet another layer of waste, however, that isn't often considered. What so many people regard as messy yard waste is, in fact an essential link in the cycles of nature.

Fallen leaves and branches, combined with grass clippings and foliage from last year's garden plants contain a great deal of natural energy and nutrients. When they are taken out of a yard, energy and nutrients are also taken out of the yard and its ecosystem.

A residential yard is not a natural ecosystem, but it is an ecosystem nonetheless, and if it is healthy, it does take carbon dioxide out of the air. Vigorous, health plants grab carbon dioxide out of the air to enable their metabolisms to function. That carbon is processed, and then stored in their bodies, and when those bodies die, a good deal of the carbon gets stored in the ground... if those plant bodies are allowed to remain to be naturally incorporated into the soil.

Plants growing in weak soil won't grow as much as plants in rich soil, and so they won't grab as much carbon dioxide out of the air. So, by removing all that supposed "yard waste", the ability of the yard to act as a carbon sink is diminished. Year after year, as nourishing plant materials are hauled off to the curb like garbage, the soil becomes thinner and poorer, and the plants growing in grow weaker.

Many people regard fallen leaves and sticks, or last year's brown foliage, as ugly. They want these things taken away as if they are dirty. They are, I suppose, dirty, if by dirty we mean not filthy, but of the dirt, the soil that we live on and depend upon.

In nature, early spring is not green. It is brown. Early spring is a time of decomposition, after the preserving refrigeration and freeze of winter is gone. Nutrients are released into the soil by decay, just in time for new growth to use them. It's a beautiful process, and one that truly celebrates the green to come.

In a healthy yard, those leaves and sticks will decay. They will not need to be seen all year long. They will go away, but they do not need to be taken away.

This supposed yard waste is not trash. It is not litter. It is a form of wealth. Our refusal to recognize that wealth is part of the reason we face a climate crisis today.

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