Homesteading, Gardening, and Off-Grid Living

How to Dispose of Old Mulch: What to Do With Yard Waste

By: Zac Friedman

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There are a number of ways to get rid of old mulch. You can put it in your yard waste bin or haul it to your local landfill or yard waste disposal center. You can compost it and use it as a soil amendment around flower beds and trees. Depending on the local laws and type of mulch, you may be able to burn it or use it as a fuel. In some jurisdictions, you can just throw it in the garbage.

Mulch helps to suppress weeds, retain moisture in the soil, regulate soil temperature, control erosion, and increase overall soil quality. It’s also a great way to improve the aesthetics of your yard. Mulch doesn’t last forever. It can fade and degrade over time. At some point, you may choose to remove it. In this guide, I’ll explain how to dispose of old mulch. I’ll also explain how you can recycle old mulch. You don’t always have to get rid of it. 

What To Do With Old Mulch

How to Remove Old Mulch

Before getting rid of old mulch, you have to remove it. To remove old mulch:

  1. Assess the mulch condition- Check the old mulch for signs of mold, fungus, compaction, insect or pest infestations, or decay. Determine if the entire layer needs removal or just a portion of it.
  2. Gather the necessary tools- You might need gardening gloves, a sturdy rake, a broom, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow or large buckets to transport the mulch.
  3. Prepare the area- Clear any debris or garden ornaments from the mulch area. Use a rake or flat shovel to loosen the mulch from the soil and break up any clumps that have formed. 
  4. Begin the removal process- The next step is to use the rake, shovel, leaf blower, or a broom to gather all of the old mulch. Avoid disturbing the underlying soil or plant roots. Wear gloves while handling the mulch as it can cause splinters. Also, avoid breathing too much dust. Wear a mask. 
  5. Transport the mulch for disposal- Place the old mulch in a wheelbarrow or buckets. You could also place it in large plastic yard waste bags. Transport it to a designated compost area or disposal bin.
  6. Check the soil health- Once the mulch is removed, examine the soil for signs of compaction. You might also consider having the soil tested. A soil test will tell you the pH, moisture content, nutrient content, and more.
  7. Prepare for the new mulch- Smooth out the soil surface. If you’re adding new mulch, make sure to leave a gap around plant stems and tree trunks to prevent rot. You can also choose to install a weed barrier, like landscape fabric for weed control.
  8. Recycle or dispose of the old mulch- Recycle the decomposed mulch in compost piles if it’s free of disease. For mulch that’s moldy or infested, use community yard waste programs for disposal.
A pile of mulch and a wheelbarrow
Removing old mulch is hard work

How to Get Rid of Old Mulch

The best way to dispose of the old mulch depends on the type of mulch it is, how much mulch you have, and where you live. Some jurisdictions have strict rules for disposal of yard waste. Removing mulch can be hard work.  In this section, I’ll outline 6 ways to get rid of old mulch. 

1. Put it in Your Yard Waste Bin or Haul it to a Yard Waste Disposal Center

Yard waste consists of any organic materials from garden and lawn upkeep, including various types of organic mulches like wood chips, bark chips, straw, bark dust, hay, pine needles, and leaf mulch. These materials are organic and biodegradable. Only biodegradable vegetative matter should go in the yard waste.

It’s important to note that inorganic mulches, such as stones, rubber, or plastic, do not qualify as yard waste due to their non-biodegradable nature. These should be disposed of according to local recycling guidelines. In some cases, dyed mulches may not be considered yard waste either because they contain various chemicals. 

Waste bins
Be sure to place your old mulch in the proper bin. It should go in yard waste

The separation of yard waste from regular garbage is a legal requirement in many jurisdictions. Some regions mandate the disposal of yard waste in designated bins and prohibit its inclusion in regular trash. Non-compliance can result in fines.

Most cities offer yard waste collection. Call your local garbage collection utility to enquire about having a bin delivered. There is usually a monthly charge. Sometimes it’s free. Alternatively, you can load the old mulch up and haul it yourself. You’ll usually pay by the ton to dispose of it. 

There are several reasons that yard waste must be treated differently from regular garbage. When yard waste is put in landfills, it can undergo anaerobic decomposition and release greenhouse gasses. It may also simply not decompose when it’s buried under other trash. Over time, it builds up and takes up a lot of space. 

Instead of going to a landfill, yard waste can be composted and used to enrich soil. This reduces the volume of materials in landfills and reduces emissions. Organic yard waste should be decomposed in a controlled environment like a commercial compost facility.

Inorganic waste can lead to environmental contamination and should be treated differently. It should not go in the yard waste.

Correctly disposing of old mulch in yard waste bins is an effective way to support environmental sustainability. It ensures that garden waste is appropriately recycled, reducing landfill strain and enhancing soil health.

2. Put it in the Garbage or Haul it to a Landfill

In some areas, yard waste disposal services are not available. In this case, the best option might be to dispose of the mulch in the regular garbage, which ultimately leads to landfill. While this might not be the most environmentally friendly option, it’s an option.

A landfill
In some jurisdictions, old mulch simply goes to the landfill

Understanding the impact of disposing of mulch in landfills is important. Organic materials like mulch decompose in landfills, but this process is significantly slower compared to composting. 

This slower decomposition in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment can lead to the generation of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. However, in areas without yard waste disposal services, landfilling remains the primary option. 

3. Compost the Mulch Yourself

One of the most environmentally friendly and beneficial methods to dispose of old mulch is through composting. Composting is the process of decomposing organic matter, such as leaves, grass clippings, and untreated wood mulch, into a rich soil amendment. Compost can provide nutrients and organic matter, which enhances soil health and promotes plant growth.

A large compost bin
Composting is a great way to get rid of old mulch

To compost mulch effectively, add it to a compost bin or pile along with other organic materials. The key to successful composting is balancing ‘greens’, such as kitchen scraps and fresh plant matter, with ‘browns’, which include old mulch and dried leaves. 

This balance creates an optimal environment for microorganisms to break down the material. Turning the compost pile regularly introduces oxygen, which is important for the decomposition process. Maintaining proper moisture levels in the compost pile is also essential for efficient decomposition. 

There are several benefits of composting your old mulch. First, it converts waste into a resource. Compost reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. Compost also improves soil structure, enhances its ability to hold moisture, and provides essential nutrients to plants, such as nitrogen and phosphorous. In addition, composting reduces landfill waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

Once the composting process is complete, which can take a few months to a year depending on the conditions, the resulting compost can be used in various ways. It can be spread as a soil top dressing for lawns, mixed into vegetable garden beds to enrich the soil, or used as a potting mix additive for container plants.

If you decide to compost, make sure the mulch is dry and not contaminated with any disease, fungus, or pests. It should also be organic and not dyed. You should only compost untreated mulches. 

4. Burn it or Use it as a Fuel

Disposing of old mulch by burning it is often overlooked. In some areas, burning garden waste is legal and effective. You do need to follow specific guidelines to do it safely. Check your local laws for info. Burning can reduce the volume of the mulch by up to 90%.

You could simply burn the mulch in a bonfire on your property. You could also use it as kindling to help you start fires in your fire pit or fireplace. If you have a wood burning stove in your home, you could use the mulch to help heat your home. It will create a lot of smoke but it will work. 

Before burning, it is important to first verify with local authorities whether burning mulch is permitted in their region. Regulations vary widely and can change depending on the season. Usually, there are only certain times of year when you can legally burn.

When burning is an option, doing it safely is important. Safety starts with choosing an appropriate location for the burn. It should be a clear, open space, away from buildings, trees, and other flammable materials. The ground around the burn area should be cleared of any debris that could unintentionally catch fire. Having a source of water or a fire extinguisher nearby is an important precaution in case the fire begins to spread unexpectedly.

There are several rules that gardeners should adhere to when burning mulch. Firs, the fire should be kept at a manageable size. This means adding the mulch in small amounts rather than all at once. This allows for better control of the fire. It’s also important to monitor the weather conditions. Burning should not be done on windy days. Embers being blown around, increasing the risk of a fire spreading. Of course, you should never leave the fire unattended. Constant supervision reduces the risk of the fire getting out of control.

While burning old mulch is not always the most environmentally friendly option, it can be a practical solution in areas where it is legally allowed.

5. Recycle it

There are a few ways to recycle old mulch. One common method is to repurpose old mulch for composting. As it breaks down, the mulch adds valuable organic matter and nutrients.

Another innovative use of old mulch is as a source of fuel. Certain types of wood-based mulch can be used as biomass fuel in specialized heating systems.

Old mulch, especially if it’s softwood, can be repurposed as bedding for pets like rabbits or chickens. Its absorbent nature makes it suitable for this use. It is important to make sure that it’s free from any harmful chemicals, fungus, or additives before using it with animals.

Old mulch can also be recycled directly back into the garden. It can be moved to different areas where less aesthetic appeal is required, such as under bushes or in remote garden corners, where it continues to suppress weed growth and retain soil moisture. This extends the life of the mulch and reduces the need for new mulch purchases.

Moreover, many recycling centers accept old mulch. These centers often repurpose the mulch for various community projects or further processing into compost. Check with your local recycling center. 

Old inorganic mulch such as lava rocks or rubber pieces can be cleaned and reused as is. You could give it away or even sell it to someone else who wants it.

6. Sometimes You Can Put Mulch in the Recycle Bin

Whether or not you can put mulch in the recycle bin depends on local regulations. While some municipalities allow it, others don’t.

To determine whether mulch can go in your recycle bin, contact your local waste management department and ask. They will provide guidance based on the local environmental laws and their recycling capabilities. The disposal rules for mulch differ significantly from one city to another.

In many cities, it’s illegal to throw yard waste in the regular garbage due to the environmental impact it can have in landfills. Some municipalities require that yard waste be disposed of in specific yard waste bins. Sometimes you can put it in the recycle bin.

In cases where mulch is allowed in recycle bins, it’s typically because the city has the facilities to process organic waste separately. However, in cities without these facilities, the mulch will likely be rejected. 

Cedar mulch
Red cedar mulch

How to Dispose of Dyed Mulch

Dyed mulch is used for its aesthetic appeal. Dyed mulch is essentially wood chips or shavings that have been treated with a colored dye, typically in hues of red, brown, yellow, or black. The dye can be synthetic or it can come from a natural source. This mulch is used to enhance the visual appeal of garden beds and landscapes. It provides a striking contrast against plants and grass. 

When it comes time to dispose of dyed mulch, the process can be more complex. The presence of dyes in mulch poses a unique challenge for waste management. Some waste management companies do not accept dyed mulch due to the chemicals in the dyes, which can complicate the composting process or potentially contaminate soil. For example, some dyed mulch can contain CCA (Chromated Copper Arsenate). This is a wood preservative and pesticide that can pose a risk to plant and animal life. For more info, check out this guide from the EPA.

Where dyed mulch is accepted, there may be specific guidelines to follow. It’s important to check with their local waste management facility to understand the regulations and options for disposing of dyed mulch.

When looking to dispose of dyed mulch, one option is to inquire with local landscaping companies or community gardens. Some may accept dyed mulch for use in large-scale landscaping projects. They might have a use for your old mulch.

Another option is to compost it. You may have to add it in small amounts. It may not break down as quickly as other types of mulch. Before you do this, it’s best to check which type of dye was used so you don’t introduce harmful substances into your soil.

You could also bury it or gradually integrate it into areas of your garden where the dye will have minimal contact with plants. This method allows the mulch to decompose naturally over time.

You could also try to sell it if it’s in decent condition or give it away. 

How to Dispose of Inorganic Mulch

Inorganic mulch is made from non-living materials. It is commonly used in landscaping for its durability and low maintenance. Examples of inorganic mulch include lava rock, gravel, rubber chips, and plastic mulches. These materials do not decompose or enrich the soil but are favored for their ability to suppress weeds, retain soil moisture, and provide a decorative element to garden beds and landscapes. 

Disposing of inorganic mulch can be more challenging due to its non-biodegradable nature. The disposal process varies based on the type. For rock or gravel mulch, one option is to repurpose it in other landscaping projects, such as creating pathways, drainage areas, or as a base for potted plants.

Alternatively, rock and gravel can often be donated to local community gardens or landscaping projects. It’s important to make sure that these materials are free from contamination before repurposing or donating.

Rubber mulch, typically made from recycled tires, requires a different approach. Due to its potential environmental impact, it’s advisable to check with local waste management authorities for specific disposal guidelines. Some areas have dedicated recycling programs for rubber materials, which can repurpose this type of mulch into new products. In areas without these types of programs, it may be necessary to seek out specialized recycling facilities that accept rubber. In some cases, it can be thrown in the garbage. 

Even if you use organic mulch, you may need to dispose of inorganic materials such as landscape fabric or plastic sheeting. You’ll use similar disposal techniques for these materials as inorganic mulches. In most cases, you can simply throw them away, donate them, or recycle them.

A flower with mulch around it

You Don’t Need to Remove Old Mulch in Most Cases

The removal of old mulch isn’t always necessary. Much of the time, adding a fresh layer of mulch over the existing one is also an option. This saves time, money, and effort. It also contributes to the health of the garden. The key to successful layering is understanding how to do it correctly to avoid potential issues.

When adding new mulch over old, it’s important to gauge the total depth of both layers. The combined depth should not exceed 3-4 inches. This depth is optimal for most plants, allowing for sufficient moisture retention while ensuring proper air circulation to the soil. 

Having a layer of mulch that is too thick can cause several issues. A thick layer of mulch can prevent water and air from penetrating the soil effectively, potentially suffocating plant roots. This can lead to root rot or fungal growth. It can also create a habitat for pests, such as termites. The mulch at the bottom can also go through anaerobic decomposition, which can cause foul odors and release acidic compounds into the soil. This can harm your plants.

To layer new mulch effectively, start by evaluating the condition and depth of the existing mulch. If it’s largely decomposed or less than 2 inches deep, adding up to 2 inches of new mulch is advisable. 

If the old mulch is still fairly intact, consider removing some of it to maintain the optimal total depth. When spreading the new layer, ensure it’s even and avoid piling it against plant stems or tree trunks.

Before adding new mulch, use a leaf rake to loosen the old mulch up to ensure that air and water can reach the soil. Don’t add new mulch on top of a solid layer of old mulch. 

For more info, check out my guide: Should I Remove Old Mulch Before Adding New Mulch?

Old Mulch Can Be Reused

You don’t have to throw away your old mulch. You can reuse it. Reusing old mulch is not only a cost-effective solution. It is also a sustainable gardening practice.

Before reusing old mulch, it’s important to inspect it thoroughly for any signs of pests, fungus, or disease. Introducing infested or diseased mulch can spread problems throughout your garden. Look for unusual mold growth or insects. 

It’s also a good idea to smell the mulch. Mulch can go bad.  If it smells off, like rotten eggs, vinegar, or manure, it may be undergoing anaerobic decomposition. This could occur if the mulch was stored in a large pile. Toxins can build up that can harm your plants. You’ll need to spread the mulch out and allow these compounds to dissipate before resuing the mulch. 

If the mulch is free from any of these issues, it’s generally safe to reuse. Old mulch can be redistributed around the garden. It can be broken up and spread thinly over existing soil, mixed into compost piles for added carbon, or even used as a base layer for new mulch. This redistribution helps to recycle plant material and can improve soil structure and fertility over time.

A layer of wood chip mulch

Another Option: Cover Crops

Cover crops can be used instead of mulch. These are crops that are planted in the fall to cover the ground and provide protection during the winter months. Cover crops are sometimes referred to as ‘living mulch.’ 

Cover crops offer many of the same benefits of mulch. Before planting new plants in the spring, till the cover crop under, plant, and install fresh mulch. This system can work well.  

Final Thoughts About Mulch Disposal

Disposal of old mulch is part of regular garden maintenance. There are several ways to get rid of old mulch. You can compost it, repurpose it within your landscape, or put it in your yard waste bin. Be sure to adhere to local waste management guidelines for disposal. The best disposal method depends on whether or not the mulch is made from a biodegradable material or not.

The key to mulch disposal lies in understanding your options and choosing the one that aligns best with your gardening practices and local environmental regulations. By making an informed decision about mulch disposal, you can contribute positively to both the health of your garden and the well-being of the planet.

How do you dispose of your old mulch? Share your experience in the comments below!

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