Johnson County residents, be warned. The Lord of the Rings wizard Gandalf has a twin brother, and he’s watching what you do with your leaves and grass clippings.
The county’s Department of Health and the Environment is running two 30-second public service announcements throughout this month featuring a “Father Nature” figure to draw attention to the proper (or improper) disposal of yard waste.
In one, the height-enhanced character with flowing white hair and beard and a walking stick shows up just as a hapless resident is about to set fire to a pile of leaves. The other has him catching an embarrassed guy in the act of stuffing grass clippings down the storm drain. Each announcement, which advocates mulch mowing, ends with the motto, “Mow it high; let it lie.”
“We wanted to do something creative,” with the spots, said Julie Coon, solid waste management specialist with the department. After brainstorming ideas with a Mother Nature figure, Coon said the department fixed on a Father Nature inspired by the J.R.R. Tolkien character, who she said is stern and authoritative yet kind.
The announcements will run in Johnson County ZIP codes on cable channels ESPN, HGTV and TLC, she said.
The spots, although humorous, highlight a potentially serious problem, Coon said. “This is definitely an issue especially this time of year,” she said. Leaves — and grass clippings in the spring — can not only clog up storm drains but cause pollution and algae in streams and ponds from the excess nitrogen they generate.
“People think that because its organic material that it’s OK,” she said. “But it’s an unnatural amount that is more than the (stream) system can handle.” Decaying yard waste stuck in storm drains can also cause odor problems in neighborhoods, she said.
“You don’t want anything but clean water in the storm drains.”
The ads are also intended to remind residents about recent changes in waste disposal rules, she said. Gardeners can still put yard waste out for trash haulers, but it isn’t allowed in the landfill any more. Clippings and leaves must be in compostable containers for haulers to take for separate composting. Disposal services have varying rules and limits on bags, but Coon said one key component is the compostable container.
“There’s going to be a few people who forget and leave it in a plastic bag,” in which case the disposal service will leave it on the curb, Coon said. When that happens, homeowners may get frustrated and “do the wrong thing with it,” she said.
The county doesn’t have documentation of any spike in illegal yard waste disposal so far, said water quality specialist Heather Schmidt. But at least anecdotally, it’s possible that it could increase. The city of Mission reported an increase of leaves in storm drains after it adopted similar rules a few years ago, before the county’s new regulation, Schmidt said.
There are alternatives, however. The K-State Research and Extension Service in Johnson County has been pushing yard composting and mulch mowing for the past few years, and its programs have been popular, said horticulturalist Dennis Patton.
The most recent composting class had almost 90 participants, and the service soon expects to have sold about 2,000 plastic-coated wire compost bins, he said. The bins, which normally sell for around $110 each, are available through the extension service for $40 plus tax, Patton said. And they’re throwing in a free composting thermometer worth $25 while supplies last.
The new landfill regulations are probably driving that interest, Patton said, but there’s also more interest in environmental stewardship. “Twenty-five years ago I jokingly said it looked like composting was dead,” Patton said. “Now it’s the hottest thing since sliced bread again.”