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Fairfax County Considers Pivoting Away from Plastic Bags for Yard Waste

(Updated at 2:25 p.m.) Fairfax County is considering adopting an ordinance banning the use of plastic bags for yard waste and instead encouraging residents to transition toward greener alternatives.

Presented to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors during its environmental committee meeting on Tuesday (Oct. 27), the proposed ordinance states:

Yard waste shall be set out in paper yard waste bags, reusable containers, other storage devices as approved by the Director, or bundled with string as instructed by the collection provider and shall not weigh more than fifty pounds. Yard waste shall not be placed in plastic bags.

The Board of Supervisors voted on Feb. 25 to begin phasing out the use of plastic bags by both customers of private companies contracted to collect yard waste and residents in the county’s solid waste collection areas.

County staff with the Solid Waste Management Program worked with community and private haulers to encourage customers to use compostable paper bags or reusable containers instead for this year’s yard waste season, which began in March and ends in December.

A survey of more than 5,500 homes in Fairfax County found that plastic bags were still utilized in 51% of yard waste set outs in the evaluated Census tracts. 31% of set outs were done with reusable containers, 11% with paper bags, 6% as an uncontained yard pile, and 1% with compostable plastic bags.

“It’s been a transition yard waste season, essentially, to help homeowners, and people that are generating yard waste that have properties get used to not being able to use plastic,” Fairfax County director of engineering and environmental compliance Eric Forbes said. “We didn’t have a ban. This yard waste season is really a transition year.”

Seven other jurisdictions in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area already discourage or prohibit the use of plastic bags for yard waste collection. Loudoun County, for example, has required paper bags or reusable containers since 2002.

Fairfax County’s current ordinance regulating yard waste collection only dictates that it be “set out in bags, reusable containers, or in piles as instructed by the company which will be collecting them.”

Fairfax County staff anticipate formally requesting a public hearing on the proposal to amend and readopt the ordinance in January 2021, with an actual hearing expected to take place in February. If everything goes according to schedule, the new ordinance will be implemented in March in time for the next yard waste season.

“In March of 2021, as long as the ordinance change is adopted, implementation of the new ordinance will begin, basically banning plastic bags from the yard waste recycling stream,” Forbes said.

Forbes says homeowners should prepare their yard waste first by grasscycling, then composting if they have enough space, and finally compiling the waste in a reusable container or paper bag for curbside collection.

“Grasscycling is actually cutting the grass back into the lawn or mulching your leaves back in the lawn,” Forbes said. “And then backyard composting would be the next best alternative for those residents that have the space.”

If neither grasscycling or composting is an option, yard waste can be placed in reusable containers or paper yard waste bags for curbside collection, which are available at the big box stores like Home Depot, Lowe’s or Walmart, he said.

Additional information on yard waste management can be found on Fairfax County’s Public Works and Environmental Services website.

Photo via Fairfax County government

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