Getting a Handle on Debris

Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) — more commonly known as trash or garbage — consists of everyday items such as food scraps, newspapers and grass clippings. In 2003, United States residents, businesses and institutions produced more than 236 million tons of MSW, which is about 4.5 pounds of waste per person per day. Of that total amount, 12.1 percent was made up of grass clippings and other yard debris. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ranked the most environmentally sound strategies for MSW. Source reduction (including reuse) is the most preferred method, followed by recycling and composting and, lastly, disposal in combustion facilities and landfills.

Four years ago, Walker Manufacturing commissioned an independent research firm to conduct a survey to determine how Walker owners and operators handle their debris. The survey asked users to identify their method of handling debris, their mode of transporting debris, where they take it, how far they travel and how much, if anything, they pay for dumping it.

Close to 400 Walker users responded to the survey, the results of which provide a base of comparison for Walker users and other contractors, municipalities and homeowners as they tackle the debris-handling challenge.


More than 75 percent of all those who responded to the poll use their mowers to pick up debris. According to survey results, contractors are more likely to use their mower's debris handling capability than other users. In fact, nearly 90 percent of all contractors indicated they picked up debris with their mowers compared to two-thirds of the other respondents.

Contractors reported collecting debris 65 percent of the time, compared to homeowners (58 percent) and municipalities and other users (48.3 percent).

Midwestern contractors are more likely to side discharge clippings than contractors in other parts of the country. In fact, they reported using their side-discharge decks 50 percent of the time, a figure that is well above side-discharge use in other parts of the country. Conversely, South Atlantic contractors find mulching to be more effective than their counterparts in other regions. According to survey results, they mulch 30 percent of the time. Western contractors spend the most time (80 percent) collecting clippings and debris.

The survey asked users if they could identify a collection trend. More than half of all respondents indicated that the number of properties where they pick up clippings has stayed the same over the last 2 years. For those who reported a trend, picking up clippings increased by nearly 3 to 1 over mulching/discharging. Contractors in the South Central and South Atlantic regions of the country experienced the greatest increase in clippings pickup.


Clippings and leaves are likely to end up in one of two places, according to respondents: either in an on-site or an off-site compost location. Nearly half of all contractors cited off-site compost facilities as the most likely place to dispose of debris. More than a third of homeowner respondents and a quarter of municipalities and “other” respondents favored on-site compost locations. Less than 20 percent of the respondents reported disposing of debris in landfills.

Several respondents said they took advantage of alternative dumping sites, including farmers' fields (clippings used for cattle field), gardens for mulch (a homeowner favorite) and city curbside pick up. One reported taking his grass clippings to a local winery where it was composted and used in the vineyard.

The issue of how to handle debris seemed more challenging to survey respondents than where to take it. A very low percentage (only 10 percent) of contractors reported employing a mechanical lift or vacuum system to handle debris. Tarps, bags and barrels carried the day and the debris for the majority of all respondents.

Twenty percent of contractors, however, took some of the elbow grease and back pain out of handling clippings by employing a ramp-to-truck dumping system. Those few who used vacuums and mechanical dump devices reported even more time and money savings.

“I was going to be a one-man band when I started mowing lawns a few years ago,” relates survey respondent Harvey Jackson, owner Jackson Lawn Care, Inc., Longmont, Colo. “Now I employ six people, have four Walker mowers and two Debris Systems' combination equipment and debris hauling trailers.”

“We collect 80 percent of the grass we cut. On one location alone we mow 19 acres. I figure using the debris trailer saves us at least two hours a day in clippings handling time and travel time, because it holds several cubic yards of debris.”

Larry Linehan, owner of Linehan Landscaping & Property Maintenance, Salem, N.H., collects grass on each of his 66 properties he mows weekly. To pick up clippings during the mowing season and leaves in the fall, he uses a vacuum system. It works great for both applications, Linehan says, although he plans to upgrade from a system with an 11-hp engine, 8-inch hose to one that is powered by a 16-hp engine and uses a 10-inch hose. The additional power and an increased hose diameter will speed up the job and help with wet, heavy grass.

Operators looking for a cost-effective way to unload debris may want take a tip from John Nompleggi, a landscape contractor in Kennebunkport, Maine. Nompleggi started his business in 1995. “To facilitate unloading, we lay in tarp in our transport trailers and dump clippings/leaves on the tarp,” says Nompleggi. “At the landfill we drag the tarp off the trailer with the Walker. Dumping takes no more than 10 minutes. I simply tie a couple of ropes from the tarp to the Walker and back the Walker and loaded tarp off the trailer.”


There are other costs associated with debris removal that go above and beyond the expense associated with handling debris on-site. The two biggest ones are dumping fees and travel time.

Nearly half of all survey respondents reported they are charged for taking debris to an off-site location. On average, they reported spending slightly more than $2,000 a year to dispose of the clippings. Contractors in the West and Northeast (spending $2,985.83 and $2,562.50, respectively) pay the most for debris removal. Those in the South Atlantic region (spending an average of $1,198 annually in dumping fees) pay the least.

How far do they travel to dispose of debris? More than 40 percent of contractor respondents indicated they travel 6 miles or more to dispose of debris. During peak mowing/leaf removal season, more than half of all survey respondents, including contractors, reported taking only one trip per day to the compost site or landfill. One-third of the respondents, however, take between two and five trips daily.

When asked how many trips per year they would take to the compost site or landfill, 56 percent of contractors reported making more than 50 trips. Of these, 16 percent indicated they took anywhere between 100 and 200 trips; another 14 percent reported taking more than 200 trips a year.

Having a mower with an efficient debris handling is only winning half of the debris battle. As explained by survey respondent Troy Robertson, “When I purchased my Walker, my only concern was how to handle the debris once I collected it. This is still a concern.” Currently, Robertson, who is located in Pratt, Kan., handles clippings with a ramp system, but is always looking for ways to save more time and money. “For me,” he says, “it's a matter of balancing the time and labor I spend handling debris against the cost.”

He is not alone. Handling clippings and other debris is a challenge no matter how big or small the operation is. As indicated in the above survey results, only a small percentage of respondents currently use a mechanical lift system or vacuum system to handle debris, and only 20 percent have streamlined the process with a ramp-to-truck or ramp-to-trailer system. That means close to 70 percent of them still handle debris with their hands. There's nothing wrong with that except that it takes time and labor to do this and time and labor add up to money.

Before the mowing season rolls around this year, take a moment to evaluate your debris handling process. Determine how much time you spend loading and unloading clippings and leaves. Factor in how many trips you make to the compost pile or landfill a day, how far you drive and how many trips you make in a year. Add up your time and expenses and then take a look at debris handling systems on the market. Some options are more expensive than others, and each has its own advantages and disadvantages. The combination trailers, for example, hold several cubic yards of debris (reducing the number of trips to the compost/landfill site) and can transport equipment, too. But they are expensive compared to other systems. Vacuum loaders are less costly, but they require enclosed trucks or trailers, which severely limits their use for transporting equipment.

Ramp systems are inexpensive, but they require backing mowers onto trucks and/or trailers. As one survey respondent reported, the system doesn't eliminate handling the debris by hand because grass and leaf piles still need to be relocated by hand to ensure a full load. Other systems such as lift systems on mowers are gaining in popularity as well.

In all cases, it's a matter of balancing equipment costs against the time and labor associated with handling the debris. The system you select has to be both cost-effective and best suited for your application.

The above article appeared in Walker Talk, Vol. 19.

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