December 1994 // Volume 32 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA4

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Agents Contribute to Statewide Program Designs in Yardwaste Management

Composting as a waste management tool can play a major part in recycling efforts. Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) was contracted to conduct a study for the Department of Waste Management to determine the feasibility of a statewide yardwaste composting program. Due to their firsthand knowledge of yardwaste compost, Extension agents were surveyed to ascertain their perceptions on uses and users of this material. The results of the survey were used to recommend needed public educational programs and pilot projects for the state. As a result of the feasibility study, several bills were introduced in the General Assembly and funds were authorized for VCE to prepare the Virginia Yardwaste Management Manual.

James H. May
Research Associate
Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Internet address:

Thomas W. Simpson
Coordinator of Chesapeake Bay Agricultural Programs
Maryland Department of Agriculture

Diane Relf
Associate Professor and Extension Specialist
Consumer Horticulture
Department of Horticulture
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Cooperative Extension can play a significant role in addressing the problems of diminishing landfill space by targeting yardwaste composting. Most yardwaste is currently disposed of in landfills and is estimated to comprise 15 to 20% of municipal solid waste volume (May & Simpson, 1990). However, composting is a highly efficient means of converting organic waste into useful materials and has been used for thousands of years.

In 1989, at the request of the Virginia Assembly, Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) conducted a feasibility study for the Department of Waste Management. An important part of the study was a survey of local Extension agents throughout the state. Extension agents are in the unique position of having firsthand knowledge of how Virginia nursery operators, farmers, and home gardeners use yardwaste compost. Some agents are also involved in, or are aware of, local programs for municipal composting.

The results of the survey were instrumental in formulating recommendations regarding needed public educational programs and pilot projects identified in the feasibility study. As a result of the feasibility study, four bills were introduced and two bills have been passed in the Virginia legislature. One of the approved bills grants municipalities the authority to ban yardwaste from their landfill, providing they have a composting program in place. The other allows farmers to accept yardwaste from municipalities for on-farm composting. In addition, the Department of Waste Management authorized funds for VCE to prepare and publish the Virginia Yardwaste Management Manual. This serves as a guide for municipalities and Extension agents on promoting and implementing composting programs. VCE has undertaken an educational program to increase municipal and homeowner yardwaste composting and the use of compost on public and private land.

The Survey Method

A survey was developed at Virginia Tech, by the authors, and sent to 125 VCE agents in agriculture. The survey was designed to determine the agents' perceptions of: (a) current yardwaste management in their locality; (b) citizen participation in backyard composting; (c) local government interest in composting/recycling; (d) potential uses of compost by homeowners, nursery operators, local government, and farmers; (e) potential for privatization of compost facilities; and (f) need for public education programs.

Results and Discussion

Management of Yardwaste

Seventy-two percent (90) of the Extension agents in agriculture responded to the survey. Seventy-four percent of the respondents stated that their locality had a separate leaf collection program. Of those, 70% disposed of the leaves by landfilling. Six percent stockpiled the leaves for later landfilling, and only 8% composted the leaves in some form. Nearly one-third (32%) had a give-away program, although only 21% of those gave away more than half of the leaves collected.

Bulk disposal of grass clippings at the landfill was allowed by 88% of the localities represented. However, 79% of the agents indicated that less than one-quarter of the residents in their area remove grass clippings from their lawns. This was encouraging because grass clippings are difficult to collect, and contribute to odor problems in large-scale composting, and are better left on the lawn or composted in the backyard. Eleven percent of the households in the agents' localities participated in backyard composting. Thirty-two percent of the respondents were aware of local government interest in initiating yardwaste recycling plans in their area, and 8% of those already had a formal committee or plan in place.

Uses of Compost

Virginia has few municipal yardwaste compost facilities in operation. Therefore, most people, including agents, are not familiar with the properties of compost and some misconceptions exist about its use. Agents' perceptions of the use of yardwaste compost by homeowners, nurseries, local governments, and farmers are presented in Table 1. According to the table, the number one perceived use is mulch, followed by soil amendment, organic nutrient source, and use in lawn establishment.

Table 1. Agents' perceptions of yardwaste compost use
by various groups (ranked in order of perceived use).
Uses Homeowner Nursery Local
Mulch 1 1 1 2
Soil Amendment 2 3 3 1
Lawn Establishment 4 5 4 *
Organic Nutrient 3 2 2 3
Potting Mix * 4 5 *
(* not asked of this group)

Yardwaste compost, when produced on a large scale, is a dark, crumbly material, similar in texture to peat moss. Due to the grinding and screening in processing, it is too fine to be used as a suitable mulch. Most people familiar with backyard leaf composting, where partially decomposed leaves are used as a mulch, assume that yardwaste compost has the same texture and erroneously consider it a mulching material.

Yardwaste compost is also very low in macronutrient content and would not be of much value as a nutrient source. It does, however, contain many of the trace elements or micronutrients. It is also an excellent soil conditioner and can be incorporated into the soil to increase the water holding capacity, increase the cation exchange capacity (CEC), and improve the soil tilth. Some of the agent responses indicate a need to first educate the Extension agents on the properties of, and uses for, yardwaste compost. In response to this observation, in-service training for agents and advanced training for Master Gardeners have addressed the manufacture and use of yardwaste compost.

Compost Facilities

Forty-five percent of the agents responding indicated that their locality would be interested in contracting with a private firm to accept and compost bulk collected leaves and grass clippings for a fee less than the landfill tipping fees. The agents indicated that likely operators of such a facility would be waste management firms, nurseries or landscaping contractors, and biological farmers. Less likely would be greenhouse operators and farm and garden suppliers.

Educational Programs

Programs needed for educating the public on using yardwaste compost were identified through the survey also. Two-thirds of the responding agents indicated the need to educate the public on using compost and local governments on managing yardwaste. Over half of the agents (52%) responded positively to the need for educating the private sector on yardwaste compost technologies and possible business opportunities. Forty-six percent indicated the public should be educated on ways to compost in the backyard. Seventy-five percent of the respondents indicated the most effective educational program or activity would be demonstrations and pilot programs on large-scale composting technology. Thirty-six percent of the agents stated they would like their locality to be considered as a site for a pilot project. Two-thirds indicated that brochures for homeowners would be effective, followed by publications on technologies, presentations to the nursery associations, field days, press releases, and seminars. The least effective methods identified for disseminating information were the most technologically advanced: radio and TV, video tapes, slide sets, and teleconferences.

Comparison of Survey Results

The results from the survey sent to VCE agents were compared to results from a similar survey of Virginia landfill managers, and showed similarities in several of the responses. When asked about methods of disposing of leaves, 70% of the agents and 76% of the landfill managers responded that their locality sent them to the landfill. Seven percent of the agents and 6% of the landfill managers responded that their locality stockpiled the leaves for later use. Only 6% of the landfill managers use some type of public giveaway program for leaves, while 32% of the Extension agents indicated their locality participated in such a program. Eighty-six percent of the landfills allow bulk disposal of grass clippings at their site, while the Extension agents indicated that 88% of their local landfills allowed this.

According to the landfill managers, 34% of the municipalities have established a group to study alternative uses for yardwaste, such as composting, while the agents indicated this number to be 32%. Thirty-one percent of the landfill managers indicated that yardwaste composting was feasible in their locality, while 45% of the Extension agents indicated it was feasible.

The Extension agents are much more optimistic than the landfill managers about the amount of participation in giveaway programs and the feasibility of establishing a yardwaste composting program in their locality. Otherwise, the responses to the survey questions are very similar. This provides one measure of the validity of the survey and the accuracy of data obtained from Extension agents in assessing conditions in their communities.

Conclusion and Recommendations

As in other states, VCE is becoming a major source of information for educating the public, as well as large scale operations, on producing and using backyard compost. The agents' responses to the survey were instrumental in developing educational programming to address yardwaste. This educational programming has included the following actions.

  1. Agents and Master Gardeners have been provided with training on the properties and uses for compost and teaching tools for their educational programs. Teaching tools include publications and slide sets for lectures and seminars.

  2. A pilot composting project which includes research and education components has been established in Radford, Virginia.

  3. A field day was conducted and Extension agents, farmers, nursery operators, and local government officials were invited. Technologies, equipment, and uses of compost were demonstrated by Virginia Tech researchers. Participation in this program has given the agents a working knowledge of yardwaste composting systems from collection to distribution to the public.

  4. Public education on backyard composting has been conducted on a statewide basis via radio, press releases, and brochures for distribution at retail outlets.

  5. An Extension research associate was hired, partly with Extension funds, to conduct applied research on composting, both backyard and large scale, and coordinate the dissemination of information to agents and the public through demonstrations, field days, publications, slide sets, and videos.

Agents have a sound knowledge of the needs and potential for their community in yardwaste management and an understanding of what educational programs are effective in producing change. They are an excellent resource for collecting information for projecting needs and planning action. Surveys designed to collect adequate information and agent recommendations are a useful tool in program planning.


May, J. H., & Simpson, T. W. (1990). The Virginia yardwaste management manual. (Cooperative Extension Publication No. 452-055). Blacksburg: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Simpson, T. W., & May, J. H. (1990). The feasibility of a yardwaste composting program for Virginia (House Document No. 34). Richmond: Virginia General Assembly.