"I assume they are taking it to a dump somewhere where they are putting it in a big pile - other than the regular garbage," offered resident R.C. Cain when ABC11 Eyewitness News asked him what he thought the labels on the trucks meant.
But there's no recycling going on. In fact, the regular garbage dump has been the destination for all of Durham's yard waste for the past three years. It's just mixed with tons of other household refuse that come in every day.
That came as a shock to many residents.
"Just to throw it in the trash pretty much goes against what we do here in our homes," offered resident Ben Keech when we told him about it.
Since September 2006, when a fire closed Durham's compost facility, the City has simply mixed yard waste with regular trash. Residents wouldn't know that from their utility bills. The City continues to charge residents with yard waste barrels $60 more a year for the service. It's charged in addition to regular garbage fees.
"They're kind of taking us for a ride on that," said Keech.
City leaders say they never planned to mix yard waste with trash for three years.
"It has surprised me how long it's taken," said Durham Assistant City Manager Ted Voorhees. "Our best intentions were to get this resolved quickly. Unfortunately, it didn't happen."
Durham has struggled to get the necessary state permits to reopen its compost yard. At one point, state regulators decided rain spilling off compost piles was dirty and should be treated as wastewater before spilling into a creek which feeds Falls Lake.
"That really took a long time, almost two years to get worked out. We were just basically on the sideline with no disposal option," Voorhees explained.
But even as the city dumps yard waste with regular trash, it won't pick up yard waste residents leave in regular trash bins.
Contrary to what Durham solid waste officials have said in the past, state law does not force separate collection of leaves and garbage. The law says yard waste cannot be dumped in a landfill in North Carolina. But Durham takes its yard waste to a landfill in Virginia.
"We don't really represent how we are disposing of the waste at the time when somebody signs up for the service. It's a collection service," said Voorhees.
But that is not what 'yard waste recycling' signs on the side of City trucks suggest, and that's not what many Durham residents think.
"I just kind of feel that we have been misled," said Keech.
And the city's own budget refers to "yard waste recycling" and a "composting facility" which supposedly collects waste that's "ground into mulch for re-use and re-sale."
None of that is happening. But 14 employees are dedicated to "yard waste collection," and there's a payroll of more than a million dollars. One listed budget strategy is to "expand the yard waste recycling customer base."
The city is already collecting about a million dollars a year in yard waste collection fees from about 16,000 customers and there is no yard waste recycling. But even with the fees, there is an added cost to taxpayers. The city estimates they spend $8.87 over and above what they collect in fees each time they stop to pick up yard waste.
So every time a truck stops to collect leaves, the city dumps about nine bucks.
Some ask why not pick up everything in the same barrels all at once if it's all going to the same place anyway.
"Might as well just get rid of the brown barrel and stick it in the green barrel and save us some money," said Keech.
But city leaders say while the service may seem redundant, it's not losing that much money. -
"I don't think there's much overlap frankly, because of the total volume that we have to collect, other than a little extra fuel," said Voorhees.
Durham leaders never thought their compost yard would sit idle for three years, and they think stopping and re-starting their brown barrel program would confuse customers.
"People can interpret it as they wish. We are entering back into yard waste recycling within just a few weeks," said Voorhees.
Voorhees said the City is in the process of getting its compost yard back on track and hopes to start truly recycling within a couple of months. That was also the goal back in 2006.