As the air turns crisp and trees transform into shades of gold and red, public works and sanitation departments kick into high gear to prepare for cleanup.
Leaf pickup may seem like simple city upkeep. But there's a lot riding on it. Cities prevent slippery leaves from causing accidents on roadways, keep debris from backing up storm drains and ensure happy residents when they devote the necessary resources and staff to faithful leaf pickup.
When the leaves fall, the City of Clinton uses two driving vacuum trucks for collection, said City Manager Frank Stovall. Each truck is operated by a single person and uses a boom-mounted vacuum pipe and hose controlled from inside the truck's cab in order to vacuum up the leaves from the curb or the side of the road. The advantage is that the number of personnel involved in leaf collection is minimal, and residents don't have to bag their leaves but can rake or blow the leaves to the street to have them picked up, Stovall said.
The city's vacuum trucks work year-round, picking up leaves in the fall and early winter and grass clippings in the warmer months. Until this year, the city ran one vacuum truck every week year-round and a second truck during peak leaf pickup season. However, the city recently restructured its sanitation operation and reduced the vacuum service to every other week between March and October and weekly from October to March, Stovall said.
"The reduction allowed us to use the off weeks in the summer to reassign personnel to other tasks that are more labor intensive in the summer months, such as cutting grass," he explained. "Since the amount of grass we vacuum up was always relatively small, there has really been no impact on the customers."
Clinton's streets and sanitation division at the Department of Public Works strives to vacuum up loose leaves quickly after they have been put out on the curb to avoid complaints from residents about wind blowing freshly raked leaves around a neighborhood, and to prevent rain showers from washing the leaves into the storm drain system, Stovall said.
A big challenge is how to keep up if a piece of equipment fails, he said.
Year round or seasonal? Bags or no bags?
The City of Goose Creek handles leaf pickup no differently than regular yard debris, according to City Administrator Jake Broom. Leaves are picked up year-round. The city uses rear-loading trucks to collect the leaves and yard debris but requires all leaves to be in paper bags or in the city's designated brown yard debris roll carts. Residents can purchase a 95-gallon roll cart for yard debris for $65. The benefit of the paper bags is that they are biodegradable, but most residents seem to prefer the convenience of the roll carts, Broom said.
The yard debris roll carts allow the residents to do yard work over the course of a week without piling debris on the curb.
"If your collection day is Friday, but the only time you have available to rake is Sunday, the roll cart allows you to store the leaves until your collection day without creating an eyesore in front of your home," Broom said.
The carts keep the leaves contained during periods of wind or rain and help prevent the leaves from clogging storm drains. Residents also enjoy the convenience and ease of rolling the carts around in their yard while they work, rather than trying to rake leaves onto a tarp or into a wheelbarrow and then hauling them to the curb, he said.
While leaf pickup duties occupy a lot of time for employees in the fall, keeping the leaves out of storm drains is worth the effort, Broom said.
"During last year's historic flooding, despite our high rainfall totals and proximity to the coast, we had almost no incidents of flooding," he said. "I attribute that in large part to our proactive ditch and drainage maintenance program and our residents' diligence when it comes to keeping the stormwater system free of leaves and yard debris."
In the Town of Batesburg-Leesville, residents bag their leaves and set them curbside for the town to collect on a weekly basis, year-round, according to Public Works Supervisor David Padgett. Bagged leaves are collected by hand, normally by two men with a dump-body truck. Bagged leaves are carried to the limb and leaf landfill, where they are cut open and dumped on the ground.
The town also deploys a street sweeper to remove leaves that flutter into the gutter along its 14 miles of curbed roads, Padgett said. Leaves in parks and common areas around town are raked or blown into a pile and trucked to the limb and leaf landfill. Leaves in the parks and common areas generally are only removed in the fall.
The benefit of bagging leaves is that it requires the town to purchase a minimal amount of equipment, Padgett said. They already have the trucks and manpower, and therefore it is an effective and efficient way to complete this task, he said.
Residents are responsible for the purchase of bags, and most are nonbiodegradable, though some residents use biodegradable bags. Town employees who collect the bagged leaves discard all the bags into a trash dumpster after dumping them out at the town landfill. The leaves dumped at the landfill serve as an exceptional cover material for mulched limbs. This assists with the decomposition of landfill materials.
One noticeable drawback to the way the town performs leaf collection, however, is that people occasionally mix in trash with the leaves, requiring it to be removed by staff after dumping the bags out on the ground, Padgett said.
Batesburg-Leesville does not use yard debris roll carts. It can be a very effective and environmentally friendly way to perform this service, but Padgett said they have found that most of their residents have more than a roll cart full of yard debris weekly, and the method doesn't allow for the removal of limbs and leaves.
Burning, raking, mulching
In Ware Shoals, Town Administrator Heather Fields said residents are asked to bag their leaves for year-round pickup. Those bags, which are taken to the 2,200-population town's specific landfill for limbs and leaves, are not required to be biodegradable. If residents choose to burn leaves instead, the fire chief may issue a permit to do so, after inspecting what, where and how residents propose to burn the materials.
The job can be tougher for small towns with fewer resources.
In the Town of Lowndesville, which has a population of about 150, residents take leaf collection into their own hands.
"We're so small that we don't have pickup service at all," said Lowndesville Mayor Rufus Waters. He said town residents don't even burn their leaves anymore. Instead, they take their trash, yard debris and recyclables to a central location where each goes in a designated bin.
"Most people just mulch those into their yard, or rake them up and take them to the (county) convenience center," Waters said.