Pruning debris, dead branches and grass clippings: how to dispose of green waste?

How to eliminate it? Is it burnable? Why not recycle it?

Inspirations / Evergreen tips


Estimated reading time 4 minutes

Greenery, flowers, fruit, vegetables, colours, scents, flavours, shade and relaxation: plants in the garden and vegetable patch offer us this and much more. During the year, routine jobs—such as pruning and mowing—and natural events, such as the changing of the seasons, turn a part of plants into green waste. This, together with wet waste (essentially kitchen leftovers) is brought by refuse collection authorities to large composting plants to be transformed into compost.

Today we will explain what green waste is. However, not everything that comes from your garden is waste, something that needs to be disposed of. Natural materials such as leaves, dead branches and small tree trunks actually have lots of potential uses: let’s see how you can reuse and recycle them.

Green waste: household or special waste?

Plant waste all looks the same, but it’s not. It differs in terms of who produced it, i.e. who did the gardening: grass clippings and pruning debris are classed as municipal waste when they are generated by householders.

So, how to dispose of plant waste? It depends on the company that provides municipal waste collection and disposal services in your area. Even in the case of grass, branches, tree/bush clippings and dry leaves, rules on waste sorting (including methods, times and so on) must be adhered to. For example, they can be delivered to your local collection centre (or recycling centre) or to a nearby collection point; thrown into a dedicated bin that is emptied outside your home, or used for home composting.

Instead of doing your own gardening, do you hire a tradesman or company to do it for you? In this case, the green waste they generate is classed as business waste. The green waste produced by professional gardeners must be disposed of at authorised centres as required by law (here in Italy the reference standard for waste is Legislative Decree 152/2006, known as the Consolidated Law on the Environment or the Environmental Code).

Disposing of green waste: to burn or not to burn?

Often in the countryside it is customary to dispose of green waste, such as pruning debris, by burning it in place. In reality, this practice of burning stubble, pruning debris and other green waste is not a lawful way to dispose of waste. Burning such waste is actually dangerous to health and the environment: it pollutes the air with fine particulates, depletes the soil of organic matter and damages habitats and fauna. However, there are exceptions.

The burning of green waste is permitted to eliminate threats to plant health, as prescribed by the competent authority. One example is combating the pine processionary moth.

You are allowed to burn straw, clippings and pruning waste in place in small quantities for agricultural purposes, in order to utilise these materials as fertilisers and soil improvers. However, it is always prohibited to burn green waste during periods in which there is a risk of fire or other unfavourable conditions (weather, climatic or environmental), as specified by the competent municipal and regional authorities, as well as by ARPA, the Italian environmental agency. Failure to comply will result in penalties for illicit combustion, unauthorised waste management or non-compliance with firefighting regulations.

How to recover green waste from pruning and mowing

The aim behind segregating waste is to maximise the proportion of waste that can be converted into new raw materials and resources while minimising the actual waste that must be disposed of in landfills. For example, green waste and wet waste are transformed into compost, glass is remelted, paper gets turned back into paper and the same goes for plastics and metals. Starting from the same principle, that of circular economy of waste, instead of including tree/shrub pruning debris (including evergreens), grass clippings, leaves, crop residues and vegetable patch cuttings with your municipal waste, why not utilise them directly at home?

Here's how to reuse or recycle plant debris without letting its beneficial qualities go to waste. Once it has dried out, you can reuse pruning waste as firewood for your stove or fireplace, lighting the fire and reigniting it using small pieces, and keeping it going with larger pieces. Here are some instructions for cutting firewood with a chainsaw.

Larger pieces of wood can also come in handy for doing DIY projects (such as DIY borders for flower beds), whereas branches cut with a pruning chainsaw or telescopic pruner provide inspiring ideas for decorating the home. With the help of a shredder (or chipper), less valuable wood and twigs can instead be turned into wood chips.

You can use wood chips as mulch for vegetable patches, flower beds and around the roots of trees and shrubs. Not only that, but you can also use them as an ingredient for home composting. Shredding branches and pruning debris before composting them is advisable although not essential: in the very least, it is better to cut and break them up so that they can mix better with other organic waste. Here you can read how to make your own compost and keep soil fertile.

Furthermore, if you have a multi-fuel stove, you can use wood chips as fuel, either as they are or compressed into pellets using a pellet mill.

And what can you do instead of cutting grass? If your lawnmower or garden tractor has a mulch cutting system, in the warmer months you can leave the finely chopped grass on the lawn: when it decomposes, it will act as fertiliser and help the soil to retain moisture. Here you can learn more on the subject of mulching.

As an alternative to mulching, or if you use a brushcutter, you can use grass as a nitrogen-rich material for composting, to provide a balance with carbon-rich woody materials. The compost bin should also be filled with hedge cuttings made with a hedgetrimmer.

Dry grass is a natural material for mulching, as are dry leaves collected with a blower in autumn. By the way, mulching is a good technique for both protecting the winter garden and protecting the vegetable patch from frost and heat.

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