More than 50 percent of Truckee homeowners participated in the town’s Green Bag Program this past fiscal year, stuffing yard waste and pine needles into 80,327 green bags that were collected curbside.

The program allows residents to dispose of yard waste, thereby encouraging homeowners to create defensible space. But one unexpected problem arose as a result of its massive success — so many people were using the program that bags were piling up outside homes, creating an ugly fire hazard for neighborhoods.

Today, four years after its inception, the town is re-evaluating the yard waste program to reduce the increasing cost of handling more and more bags.

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The recycling coordinator for the Town of Truckee, Nichole Dorr, said the town did not expect the green waste recycling program, even one incentivized as a fire-safety measure, to gain such popularity.

“No one predicted that the green bag program would be so successful and its use so widespread,” Dorr wrote in an email to Moonshine Ink.

One reason for the program’s popularity is its simplicity.

“Its easy to use, easy to understand,” said Truckee resident Heather Svahn.

Other residents praised the program because the bags were easy to haul around and didn’t take up too much space, especially in a garage housing skis, kayaks, and other outdoor gear.

“Having the bags underneath your sink counter is a bit more convenient, and saves space as opposed to a bin,” said Elizabeth O’ Keefe, a Truckee resident who disliked the green bins she used to handle when living in Orange County.

The town originally decided not to go with bins because it would require purchasing extra equipment, but the town’s Solid Waste & Recycling Division is currently looking into the bins because of the rising costs of handling more bags. “Over the next several months the town will evaluate the current program and explore opportunities for possible change,” wrote Dorr.

Most of the 2,230 tons of yard waste collected since the program’s inception ends up at the Eastern Regional Landfill on Highway 89 between Truckee and Squaw Valley, where it is then sent to a biomass facility to be burned and transformed into electricity.

One major complaint about the existing program is that bags left in the front yard create blight. Some residents told Moonshine Ink that they produced anywhere from 20 to 50 bags a year, and many of these bags sat in their front yard or alongside the house. Since trash collectors only pick up a maximum of four bags a week per home (weighing no more than 40 pounds in total) it could take anywhere from five to 13 weeks to clear out the bags from some properties. 

Dorr recently spoke with Tahoe Donner, which is particularly struggling with this problem, about how to improve the program in wake of the subdivision’s overwhelming number of green bags. The Town of Truckee is looking into providing more free waste drop-off events and other options to address this rising concern about residential fire safety.

To deter large piles of bags at the curb, the town has been offering a free yard waste drop-off program. Only 4 percent of Truckee homeowners participated. The town continues to welcome locals to drop-off 6 cubic yards of green waste for free at the landfill.

Another lingering question is whether the bags are harmful to the environment. The green bags are made from LDPE, a traditional low-density plastic, which is a common material used to make bags. However, Tahoe Sierra Disposal is not equipped to break down LDPE green bags at its plant, and instead ships the bags to Ming’s Recycling in Sacramento, which buys back the bags at half a cent per pound. Ming Recycling reported that it receives approximately 3,000 pounds of bags every two months.

Not all counties in California have the money to implement a curbside collection program, even when struggling with similar fire hazards, such as Mono County, with its dry brush and fallen pine needles. “Out here in Mono County, we don’t benefit from the large-scale economy,” said Tony Dublino, Mono County’s Solid Waste Superintendent. “We don’t have curbside clutch. They are all required to take it to the transfer station.”

Tahoe Truckee Sierra Disposal is able to generate some money from incoming yard waste. The yard waste that is not sent to the biomass center is chipped for resale as ground cover, while some of the clean pine needles are separated out and sold to resorts for slope stabilization.   

“It [the green bag approach] represents the cost-effective way,” said Dublino. “When you take a step back, those things make sense.”

 

 

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