Ohio Cities Going Green

By Randy Happel | September 28, 2010

A river runs through it ... through the city of Findlay, Ohio, that is.

Named for Hancock County's first known settler, the Blanchard River has long played a vital role in this community's history and well-being. Findlay owns its inception to the Blanchard, when during the War of 1812, Col. James Findlay, while moving the Ohio Frontier Army from Dayton to Detroit, built a stockade on the site that would grow to become home to nearly 39,000 residents.

Findlay's supply of water now comes largely from the river, purified in the municipality's modern water works plant. The river has furnished a substantial volume of fish for many residents over the years and, for a long time, the ice that formed during the winter months kept people cool the following summer. Recreationally, the peaceful ambience created by the gentle current has drawn residents to the Blanchard's pristine banks for generations.

Most would agree that few cities are as fortunate as Findlay to have a supply of good water so close at hand. And while Public Works Commissioner Jim Rhodes applauds the river's many positive attributes, it also presents challenges for him and the city.

"The river adds a great deal to the aesthetics of Findlay and our city would most likely not exist today without it," explains Rhodes, "but it also takes a lot to maintain. Each year the city spends a great amount of time and labor doing trimming and clean up of downed branches and river debris. As wonderful as it is, the river creates its own logistical challenges."

Annual cleanup and maintenance of the Blanchard River, along with general municipal tree trimming, became more challenging for Rhodes when state legislators began imposing restrictions on how Ohio cities and municipalities could dispose of green waste and tree trimmings that previously were dumped in landfills. So Rhodes, in keeping with his proactive style, called a comrade and made the short 60-mile drive north to Sylvania. It was widely known that Sylvania was among the first towns in the Buckeye state to establish a successful recycling and Greenway program and Rhodes was eager to learn.

"Back in the late 1980s, Ohio started getting into recycling," recalls Bob Slack, director of the Sylvania Forestry Division. "At the time it was suggested that all communities pull at least 20 percent of their refuse out as recyclables. Sensing legislative action was on the way, we decided to get a head start."

He adds, "Few cities before us had done it, and not surprisingly, we made a few initial mistakes," admits Slack. "But since we've been at it for awhile now, a lot of other cities are coming to us. We enjoy being able to share with others what we've learned. This isn't like a private business. Cities are not in competition, so if we can share something to help others out, we're glad to do it."

Sylvania got a recycling program (plastics and aluminum cans) up and running first, then shifted focus to green yard waste. They started by supplying 30-gallon bags to area grocery stores that residents could purchase for disposal of grass clippings and leaves. The city then set up a free collection service for the nearly 5,500 households that transports the bagged yard waste to a rented 27-acre field dedicated solely to composting. The finished product is then offered back to the residents for a nominal charge. Tree trimmings and limbs are also collected when tied in bundles of 18 inches to 24 inches in diameter, and less than 4 feet in length.

In addition to the limbs and trimmings collected from residents, Sylvania's Forestry Division is responsible for all the trees that line city streets and occupy parks and city property. Each of the approximately 7,400 trees maintained by the municipality is plotted on a computer program that documents individual work history from planting to removal.

Response has been tremendous, but there was a definite learning curve. Slack's advice to officials in cities and towns who are looking to implement a Greenway program is to establish a clearly defined set of collection rules from the onset — and enforce them without exception.

The beauty of the Sylvania approach is, that in addition to grass clippings and leaves, their compost recipe calls for wood chips, affording Slack's municipality another use for recycling the nearly 500 tons of ground and chipped wood processed each year.

As the Sylvania Greenway program has grown, so have equipment needs.

"We've been doing this since the 1980s, starting with a 7-foot tub grinder and later added a 10-foot unit," says Slack. "Then about 4 years ago, we bought a Vermeer HG365 grinder. This machine easily handles the volume of wood we now process. It produces a really nice product and has been instrumental in the success of our program."

On a short drive back to Findlay, Rhodes was eager to get his program started.

"The greatest obstacle was coming up with the money to purchase a grinder," says Rhodes. "Our local Vermeer dealer helped us select a unit capable of handling the volume we anticipated grinding each year. Things have worked out great. It really helped having Sylvania's program to follow as we set things up."

Findlay already had two brush chippers and a stump cutter and purchased a Vermeer TG400A grinder. In order to achieve the desired end product, Dave Beard, Rhodes' Vermeer dealer, recommended 2-1/2-inch and 3-inch round screens. Rhodes is delighted with the results and feels the purchase is already paying off.

"We would have paid an awful lot of money to subcontractors just to get the tree waste removed," he says. "Now we process it all here and offer it back to our residents as mulch. And since the program has been in place, they (the residents) are cleaning up better and doing a lot more trimming. There seems to be more community pride."

Slack agrees with Rhodes that the grinder purchase has also been a good use of city funds.

It's important for cities to recognize up front that the majority of Greenway programs are not money-making propositions — although there is an opportunity to generate some income by selling compost, mulch and related products. The mulch Sylvania produces, for example, meets certification criteria for playgrounds, so they sell to schools and daycares in addition to offering product back to residents. Other markets include greenhouses, garden centers, golf courses, and landscape contractors.

"Understand that we do not make money on this," says Slack, "but we feel if we're going to do it we should treat it as a business. So we do advertising, promotions and special sales. We put out flyers and run ads in our local newspaper. We have even done coupons. But I always caution others who have come to look at our program not to expect an economic return. Although we treat it like a business, it's really more of a service. All we try to do is get back what we can to help offset some fuel and operational costs."

Both Rhodes and Slack are optimistic about the future of Greenway programs and feel a sense of gratification being able to provide this type of service to their residents.

"To me it's the best PR our city has," says Slack. "Besides doing the obvious beautification projects like planting trees and flowers that are noticeable and create a feel-good attitude, the Greenway program relates to recycling and the citizens know they are involved in doing the right thing. They see the product being offered back to them locally and in our city parks and playgrounds. The benefits are apparent, so participation is greater."