OPINION: PEI leaf collection system is askew on the energy/climate change front – SaltWire Network


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Pamela Courtenay-Hall, Ph.D.is associate professor and chair of the philosophy department at the University of Prince Edward Island.

The past week in Scotland, world leaders at COP 26 have been trying to negotiate a way to move the world away from increasing climate change disaster.
The past week on Prince Edward Island, conscientious home-owners have been raking leaves and bagging them for pick-up by the Island Waste Management Corporation.
What could this leaf collection ritual have to do with the global climate change conference?
It’s not just that climate change has given us an incredibly warm autumn, with residents raking leaves in often summer-like weather. The first frost usually occurs the last week of September. But even by Nov. 5, some inland areas on P.E.I. hadn’t yet met their first frost. Some city gardens still had tomatoes, potatoes and green beans flowering. Ordinarily, all of these plants would have been damaged by frost weeks ago.
This is a momentary localized “nice weather” event in climate change, important to hold onto and enjoy … in the manner of “Count your blessings while they are here.” But it is essential to do this without losing sight of the ongoing global tragedy it is linked to. And without forgetting that here in P.E.I., frightening events are sure to come our way in the form of hurricanes, flash floods, heat waves, droughts, and rising sea levels.
The deeper connection is that both events involve fossil fuel consumption – COP 26 trying to reduce it, and Island leaf collection unfortunately increasing it. Here’s why.
After all the fallen leaves are dutifully bagged and set at the side of the road for pick-up, IWMC trucks come out and haul these tons of leaves to the Island’s centralized composting site in Brookfield.
Those bags are heavy, especially after several rains. That’s a lot of miles and a lot of fuel. There are also energy costs involved in the production and distribution of leaf bags … and in trucking the resulting composted material to whomever is willing to buy it.
So the logic of our leaf collection system is askew on the energy/climate change front.
In contrast, the logic of leaf fall is unassailable.
Two primary things tell trees to close off the vessels connecting their leaves to them, and shed their leaves. One is the waning sunlight of autumn. The other is the summer-long achievement of adequate levels of carbon to accomplish the year’s growth. No longer able or needed to convert sunlight into plant growth, the leaves would simply become a source of trouble for trees in the winter. They would keep evaporation happening even though water uptake by the roots has shut down for the winter. They would enable tree-borne insects and diseases to proliferate. They would increase the tree’s wind resistance. And they would increase the snow accumulation on the tree’s branches. It only makes sense to drop the leaves.
Birch trees are among the first to complete this process. Maples, cherry trees, plum trees, beeches and others will soon follow. Oaks with their strong resilient leaves will be the last.
The logic of our leaf collection system is not so sound, and it fails also on the biodiversity and soil conservation fronts … because leaves are needed in the very place where they grow.
Trees absorb carbon from the air and nitrogen, potassium, calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus and other minerals with the aid of microorganisms deep in the soil. When leaves fall to the ground in autumn, they make some of these nutrients available to other plants – including our lawns – and eventually replenish the soil. They ultimately improve soil aeration and drainage, provide food for beneficial soil microbes, and enrich the fungal networks in the soil that allow plants to exchange sugars, nutrients and water. To truck all this away every fall is to rob urban soils of their natural sources of replenishment. And chemical inputs can’t make up for the lack of organic matter.
Fallen leaves are also important for preserving biodiversity. They provide winter insulation and habitat for insects and amphibians. These in turn provide winter food for birds.
These are among the reasons why The Nature Conservancy of Canada has been encouraging home-maintainers to let a layer or two of leaves remain on their lawns over the winter … though not a dense pack that would smother your grass and allow winter molds to grow.
The NCC has also been encouraging home owners to reconsider the practice of completely cleaning out their gardens for the winter. Many kinds of insects hibernate on plants and dead branches -- including the larvae of many pollinators like butterflies. And many kinds of birds, including goldfinches, chickadees, and juncos, feed not only on these insects but also on any seeds left behind on garden plants. Then in early spring, they use dried up plant material to build their nests.
As Raechel Bonomo of the NCC points out, “By completely cleaning up our gardens and yards, we may be removing important wintering habitats for native wildlife in our communities.” (Leave those leaves on the ground, Oct.21, 2021, Nature Conservancy of Canada website.)
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What to do with overload leaves?
For householders with more leaves than just a layer or two on their lawn, there are the options of using the extra leaves as garden mulch, or composting the leaves.
Charlottetown resident Amy Simon has taken the composting option in her backyard garden. A symphony musician, Amy brings an artist’s esthetic vision even to the design of her compost bin. It is constructed of spruce and metal fencing wire. She has also built a simpler leaf bin entirely of metal fencing wire from a garden supply store.
For those who want to add kitchen and garden waste to their leaf compost, a lid on top and fencing wire underneath would make the bin impervious to raccoons, chipmunks and other rodents. But if you just want a place to store your leaves till they turn into compost, four stakes in the ground and chicken wire wrapped around them would do the job.
If leaves are piled up and left undisturbed, it could take two years for them to become usable compost rather than simply mulch. But turning the leaf pile with a garden fork would speed up the process.
Amy notes three reasons why some people choose to mow their leaves before composting them:
"Some people really prize their lawns, so it may be attractive to them to turn their leaves into a fertilizer by mowing it. Some people also have tons and tons of leaves come down and it may be easier for them physically to mow than to rake. Raking is also more challenging when the grass is longer, so tackling both in one go could be appealing too."
Because birch leaves are rather small and thin, Amy doesn’t bother with shredding the birch leaves on their lawn. But she notes that larger leaves mat together more easily. “I turned the leaves in my bin a few times this summer and there were definitely sections that were matted together and not breaking down, due to less exposure to oxygen. Shredding them would just speed up the process.”
It is possible that until we evolve more locally based composting systems, some amount of leaf transport may be needed by IWMC’s centralized composting operation.
As Amy points out, “They may need a certain amount of our fall leaves to add to the compost mix in order to keep the carbon-nitrogen balance.”
In a society more logically and ecologically organized, composting would be done at the household, neighbourhood and regional levels. As community-spirited as it feels and looks to have your leaf bags lined up on the roadside waiting for pick-up, the energy costs are large, and the costs to soil enrichment and biodiversity are significant. Individually and collectively, we can devise better ways.

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