Recycling green waste helps improve bottom line

Mission Landscape uses a specialized blower truck to quickly and efficiently put down the compost it produces by recy- cling the green waste that maintenance crews generate.

Mission Landscape ( is one of California’s largest and most respected full-service lawn and landscape companies. The company handles everything in landscaping from design to construction to mowing to maintenance. Another service included in the company’s portfolio of work is “environmental resources,” which is something that actually happens behind the scenes: Mission Landscape recycles all of the green waste it generates.

“If you’re in the lawn and landscape maintenance business, then you’re in the green waste business,” says CEO David Dubois, whose father Wayne started the company about 40 years ago. Back then, the green waste generated by mowing, trimming, clipping and pruning was typically sent to the landfill. Around 2000, Dubois started looking at the vast quantity of green waste that his crews were collecting, and the enormous disposal fees that were being accrued. “Our dump fee costs were going up, and at the size we were, it was getting to be a really big number,” he explains. “Doing the math, we found that we could get the equipment and location and set up a recycling yard ourselves. We knew that we wouldn’t have any less green waste in the future as we continued to grow the company. When you do the projections and see what the waste costs for your business are going to be, it just starts to make sense.”

Dubois investigated a financing program being offered by what was then called the California Integrated Waste Management Board (now known as CalRecycle) to help businesses take things out of the waste stream that was headed for the landfill and recycle it in some useful way. “It wasn’t a difficult procedure – it was easier than getting a home loan, but it takes a lot longer,” he recalls of the process.

Mission Landscape has some 400 employees in its maintenance division. At that size, the company generates a lot of green waste, which is brought back to the main yard each day and then trucked to the recycling facility. In 2010 alone, Mission Landscape processed/recycled 7,600 tons of green waste and moved/ sold 40,000 yards of topper mulch.

Following the many rules and guidelines of the program, Dubois located the right property to serve as the green waste recycling yard. Because of various regulations, it couldn’t be done at the company’s existing site. “According to the state, it had to be in a ‘recycled material development zone,’ and it required approval of the city [Chino, Calif.] it was located in,” he says. There were a few other regulations at the time that needed to be met, he adds. Since then, he points out, the number and complexity of the regulations governing the recycling facility, and the required record-keeping, have grown dramatically in recent years. “It’s become a real challenge – it would be very difficult to start an operation like this today.”

The company’s green waste recycling yard represents a large investment in land and equipment. The regulations governing its operation have become increasingly complex in recent years, says Mission Landscape CEO David Dubois.

Then there are the costs involved. Mission Landscape had to purchase several pieces of expensive equipment to make its green waste recycling facility work effectively, including a Morbark grinder, as well as several large loaders to make the piles, which are then watered to get the temperatures up and must be regularly flipped as the material breaks down. “With the moisture and composting, the seeds and everything in there is killed off, and it darkens the look,” explains Dubois.

Another important step was to create a process that made logistical sense. Maintenance crews bring back green waste to the company main yard on a daily basis. From there, it’s brought to the recycling facility. “We cover a broad area, and we have a pretty good central location for the mulch recycling. We transfer all of our own boxes [of green waste] from our yard each day; then we recycle it and grind it into a topper mulch,” says Dubois.

Whenever possible, trucks that come into the recycling yard to off-load green waste are then loaded with finished compost before they return back to the company’s main facility. This allows trucks to be full both ways, increasing efficiency and limiting trucking costs as much as possible. Plus, says Dubois, “because it keeps coming in, you’ve got to keep it going out.”

Mission Landscape has around 400 employees in its maintenance division. At that size, the company generates a lot of green waste. In 2010 alone, Mission Landscape processed/recycled 7,600 tons of green waste and moved/sold 40,000 yards of topper mulch.

To help keep up with the amount of mulch being produced, the company also purchased a “blower truck” capable of holding 60 yards of mulch. “It can blow it on slopes and planters and open space areas. We use that to help put it down in bulk at a much faster rate,” says Dubois. Adding that capability helped the company pick up some new accounts, including clients looking for assistance with erosion control and groundcover projects, and representing additional demand for the mulch product. “We sell the mulch and blow the mulch for our clients, as well as for some of our competitors,” he adds. “We’ve even had the blower truck contracted for projects that don’t involve our mulch, including [spreading] playground chips. You can just move mulch so quickly up to 400 feet away – two guys can put down 60 yards of mulch in half-a-day.”

The recycling operation handles just about every bit of green waste the company generates in its maintenance operations. “Ninety-eight percent of plants are capable of breaking down. Tree trimmings are really great, because you get a higher portion of carbon to nitrogen,” says Dubois. The recycling facility has actually helped save the company a little effort and money in its tree care division, because it’s no longer necessary to bring a chipper out to every single job. “On smaller job sites, we run the trucks and chippers because of the tight spaces, but on larger projects, we just drop the large trees and move them in chunks directly to the grinder. There’s just no need to process the material twice,” he explains.

There are two particular types of green waste that have proven challenging to recycle, according to Dubois. First is flax, “which just doesn’t break down and essentially turns into rope during the recycling process,” he explains. The second is grass clippings, which prove problematic on several fronts. “Grass is very tough. It really doesn’t recycle. It has to really be spread out in very thin piles and just let it air out. It’s really just moisture – it’s just water inside a cell. If you throw it in the grinder, it will just turn into something like mud.” To reduce the amount of grass clippings, the company’s maintenance crews use Exmark Lazer mulching mowers to return as much of the clippings as possible to the lawns. “They do a really good job with the recycling,” says Dubois. What grass clippings that do make their way to the recycling yard as completely dried and used in very small amounts as part of specialty “fines” mixed up on occasion for particular customers.

“We don’t play around with too many specialized mulches,” says Dubois. “We make a common ‘topper mulch’ that probably 80 percent of people are happy with. We’re a landscape company – mulching is not the core of our company. This is something that helps us off-set rising costs – and we have a direct need for topper mulch. There are a lot of people in the business making mixed materials for nurseries, and that’s what they specialize in. Doing that would just take us too far away from our core business.”

As it is, though, the green waste recycling facility is proving to be an important piece of the puzzle, helping Mission Landscape get rid of the vast quantities of debris it generates while also providing the equally large quantities of compost that are needed. “It’s a great complement to our maintenance business,” says Dubois.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.