New uses for urban tree refuse

As landfill gates began slamming shut to urban tree refuse in the last decade, fertile minds began to think up ways to recycle this material into useable, and in some cases profitable, products. While some have been wringing their hands over what to do with all that waste, new gates have opened for the more enterprising.

Recycling waste into mulch

Gary Mullane of Low Country Tree Care (Hilton Head Island, S.C.) was one of the first to seize the moment and get into the mulch business. His state prohibited landfilling landscape waste in 1993, so Mullane formed a subsidiary company called Organic Recycling Center.

Mullane has learned a lot about recycling wood waste in the past eight years, and Organic Recylcing has gone through a number of changes. Today, the company is in the mulch business, not the grinding business. Organic Recycling no longer owns a tub grinder. In fact, it doesn't even accept waste from tree and landscape contractors on the island.

Organic Recycling now accepts only tub-ground chips from land-clearance operations. The company then ages and trommel-screens the material and sells bulk mulch to Low Country Tree Care customers, golf courses and contractors. Organic Recycling has a dump trailer and six-wheel dump trucks for delivering mulch. It also has a packaging machine that bags mulch for garden stores and home centers, including one of the national chains.

Financial considerations

Ted Collins Tree & Landscape, located in the Rochester, N.Y., suburb of Victor, was another early recycler. According to Vice President Greg Frank, his company got into the recycling business as a customer service. Over the years, however, mulching has also become a profit center.

Frank's company does not own a tub grinder, yet its mulch is triple-ground. He explains that there is a glut of tub grinders in his area, so it is less expensive to hire one to come in and process the chips when needed than to make the nearly half-million-dollar investment in equipment.

“Tub grinders,” Frank notes, “have become the fad machine in our area. They are like tree transplanters 20 years ago and aerial buckets 30 years ago. Everyone has to have one. But we are more conservative and crunch the numbers thoroughly before making such a significant investment.”

Ted Collins Tree & Landscape has two Prentice loaders that bring logs back to headquarters. Long, straight logs are sold to lumber processors. Less-desirable logs are sold as firewood. The company has been in the firewood business for most of its 44-year history, so it continues to cut and split firewood, and sell it through its gardens store. The rest is wholesaled to wood dealers as logs for them to cut and split.

About 25 miles north of Ted Collins Tree & Landscape, Birchcrest Tree & Landscape has invested in a large wood splitter. President Dave Dailey says that his company splits all logs, selling hardwoods to firewood dealers and grinding the rest into mulch. He, too, hires a tub grinder to finish the mulch, which he uses on Birchcrest projects and sells to other tree and landscape companies.

In the Midwest city of Omaha, Neb., Stacy Hughes of Hughes Tree Service bought a tub grinder and opened up a recycling center. He only grinds his own crews' waste, but sells the throughput to other companies.

Make sure your permits are in order

Frank and Mullane warn that you need to have all of your regulatory bases covered before venturing into the recycling business. Different agencies issue permits for different types of operations. For example, Ted Collins Tree & Landscape's permits allow dumping and processing only the waste its crews generate. That is substantial, however, because the company is the largest full-service tree and landscape company in the area.

While Ted Collins Tree & Landscape cannot accept waste from other companies, it can sell throughput to other companies. Besides the mulch his company uses on landscape jobs, Frank sells a substantial amount through the company's retail garden store. During the growing season, several trucks are dedicated to delivering bulk mulch to retail customers. Frank's company also sells mulch to other landscape contractors as well as a mulch spreading company.

Do you have enough space?

In addition to the equipment investment and permitting, you also have to consider available space before deciding to go into the wood-recycling business. You have to analyze how much space you can, and want to, devote to this operation. Organic Recycling uses 6 acres of expensive Hilton Head Island real estate. Ted Collins Tree & Landscape uses 5 of its 28 rural acres, Birchcrest Tree & Landscape uses 2.5 of its 6 suburban acres and Hughes Tree Services uses 3 of its 10 rural acres.

An unanticipated source of competition

Municipalities, as well as commercial landfills, have discovered that wood recycling can be a lucrative business, so you should investigate whether they are in the recycling business before you decide to enter the market. They can be formidable competitors. One community, however, takes a much more altruistic approach. Pittsford, N.Y., is an upscale community that owns its own tub grinder. The town uses it to grind wood brought back by its public works crews, and accepts green waste from tree and landscape companies from jobs done within the town. Town workers then process the chips, use what they need for street trees and parks, and store the rest at two locations around town for pick-up by residents. This is on the honor system, so general foreman Jim Schears doesn't know whether outsiders and professionals help themselves. He doesn't really care, either, because the town generates plenty for all.

Using fresh wood chips

Proper aging of chips has been a subject of ongoing debate. Many believe that fresh chips will tie up nitrogen so plants cannot use it. We asked three renowned researchers if this was true. Drs. Thomas Smiley from the Bartlett Tree Research Laboratories (Charlotte, N.C.), Gary Watson from The Morton Arboretum (Lisle, Ill.) and Donald Hamm from Clemson University (South Carolina) all agreed that there is no evidence to show that fresh chips on the surface affect soil nitrogen. Hamm suggested that mixing chips with soil, rather than just spreading them on the surface, can affect nitrogen. But all three agreed that mixing a little fertilizer with the chips should alleviate any worry about nitrogen tie-up.

Wood chips as a bulking agent

Hilton Head contractors now take their waste to landfills off the island. Besides accepting green waste from tree and landscape contractors, processing it into mulch and compost and selling it back to them, many landfills also use wood chips for daily cover, and they mix wood chips with soil when it comes time to cap a landfill.

Richard Abbott, CEO of ACRT, Inc., an urban and utility forestry consulting and training firm headquartered in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, says that wood chips have found other uses as bulking agents, as well. He says some municipal sewage treatment plants are adding them to the sludge they generate.

Heat and energy from landscape waste

Wood also makes good boiler fuel. In California, electric cogeneration plants use wood chips as a fuel source. Third-party companies have set up transfer stations in cities to accept urban tree residue, process it to the boiler operator's specifications and truck it to the cogeneration plant.

The Lied Conference Center at the National Arbor Day Foundation's Arbor Day Farm (Nebraska City, Neb.) is heated, air conditioned and electrically powered entirely by wood. According to an article in the February, 2001, issue of Arborist News, waste wood is the primary fuel source, but the farm also maintains a plantation of poplar hybrids just for fuel wood.

Burning wood is not limited to large facilities or wood-burning stoves for the home. Central Boiler of Greenbush, Minn., is promoting its line of outdoor wood boilers to the green industry. While cogeneration plants and Arbor Day Farm are fueled by wood chips, Central Boiler President Rodney Tollefson says that his boilers are designed to burn cord wood, supplemented by chip residue. He says that chips do not let as much air through as cord wood.

Tollefson cites one greenhouse in Pennsylvania that was forced to close due to the high cost of propane. Switching to wood fuel allowed the owner to reopen. Tollefson believes green-industry offices and shops, as well as greenhouses, are good candidates for wood-burning boilers. That's like turning lemons into lemonade. You generate waste that nobody wants, so you use it to heat your buildings. What can be better than that?

Weighing the alternatives

Before deciding to participate in any recycling program, your first step should be to research your market and ask yourself these questions:

  • Is there a market for wood-chip mulch in my community?

  • What's the competition?

  • How much will I have to invest in land, equipment and people to get into the wood-recycling business?

  • What's the payoff? Can I make a profit?

  • What alternatives are there?

  • Does my landfill accept chips, or are they planning to do so, either for cover or mulch?

  • Are there any transfer stations within a reasonable distance that accept residue?

  • Is it cheaper in the short term, and in the long term, to haul to landfills or transfer stations, or to get into the recycling business?

  • What will I save by heating my buildings with wood?

Most importantly, we recommend that you assemble a team of advisors. Every business should have a team of people who are familiar with the business, but are not in that business. The team should include a business lawyer, a certified public accountant, a risk manager (usually a commercial lines insurance agent) and any other professionals who can advise you on important matters. If you have to make a major investment in land or equipment, you need to be confident that the equipment will be kept busy nearly every day and that a market exists for the throughput.

Duane Pancoast, who is active in the International Society of Arboriculture, is president of The Pancoast Concern, Ltd., a public relations consulting firm and advertising agency headquartered in Victor, N.Y. For the past 30 years, he has represented many green-industry clients, including tree and landscape companies, consultants, equipment manufacturers and trade associations.

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