Where Leaves Go After They’re Collected

All the leaves you rake and bring to the curb for collection have to go somewhere. Ever wonder where the leaves from your yard ultimately end up?

Where the Leaves Go

Municipalities in our region collect a huge number of leaves from our neighborhoods each fall. In fact, City of Naperville collects 45,000 cubic yards of leaves during their 6-week collection period. That’s enough to pile an entire football field 21 feet high with leaves!

All those leaves have to go somewhere. In some places, leaves get turned into food. For example, some leaves collected in Naperville end up at The Conservation Foundation’s McDonald Farm, an organic vegetable farm. Leaf collection trucks dump piles of leaves on the farm. Throughout the year, the farmers spread the leaves onto the vegetable fields. Incorporating leaves on the farm helps retain moisture, keeps weeds down, and adds nutrients to the soil. Village of Plainfield also sends leaves collected by street sweeping to farmland to be used as fertilizer.

A farmer at the McDonald Farm spreads leaves collected from Naperville onto broccoli and cabbage fields.

Other communities pay a facility to receive and compost their leaves. These facilities speed up the decomposition of leaves and create compost that will be sold to farms or gardening stores.   

Contact your municipality’s Public Works department if you’re interested in learning exactly where your neighborhood’s leaves go.

Leaf Collection and Street Sweeping Protects Local Rivers

The nutrients in leaves belong in the soil, not in our rivers and streams. When leaves are incorporated into farms and gardens, their nutrients go back to the earth and fertilize plants. If leaves are left in the street or storm drains, stormwater flows through leaves and leaches the nutrients out of them, creating a kind of nutrient-rich tea. The “leaf tea” then flows into storm drains that discharge into local bodies of water.

The same nutrients that feed plants also feed algae in the water. As algae grows it adds oxygen to the water during the day through photosynthesis and draws oxygen out of the water at night through respiration. This diurnal swing in oxygen levels is normal. When there are excess nutrients however, algae can proliferate causing algae blooms creating huge diurnal swings, releasing large amounts of oxygen by late afternoon and plummeting oxygen levels by the early morning hours.  

The swings between high and low can be extreme and very stressful to aquatic life. When the algae die, usually all at once, the decomposition process also sucks oxygen out the water. Fish (and other aquatic life) need oxygen just like us and can’t survive in oxygen depleted water.

To keep our rivers and streams healthy, we need to get leaves out of streets and storm drains. That’s why leaf collection programs are important. You can also keep nutrients out of waterways by using leaves in your yard and garden.

Algae covers the surface of the water
Leaf pick-up, street sweeping, and using leaves as a resource prevent leaf nutrients from getting into waterways and causing algal blooms.

Using Leaves at Home

Instead of sending leaves off your property, consider using them as a resource at home. Naturally, leaves restock the soil with nutrients as they decompose on the ground. However, if we leave leaves where they fall, they may mat up on our lawn and kill our grass. Also, they may fall on our driveways, sidewalks, and streets where they are easily picked up by stormwater and brought into storm drains. 

Instead, we can use leaves on our properties to take advantage of their nutrients to nourish our lawn and garden. When managing leaves at home, you have a few options: 

  • Use a mulching mower to shred leaves in place. Mulched leaves decompose much faster than whole leaves and help restore nutrients to the soil where they belong.  
  • Shred leaves and use them as mulch around trees or in your garden. 
  • Add leaves to your compost bin, or create a dedicated leaf-mold bin to create a natural garden amendment that boosts the water retention of soil. 

Of course, if those options don’t work for you, your community’s leaf pick up program is a great choice too. Thank you for keeping local rivers and streams healthy this fall!

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