23 November 2021

Where should Canberra's leaf litter go? A new survey wants to know

| James Coleman
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Lake Tuggeranong

An evening ride around Lake Tuggeranong. Photo: James Coleman.

Eucalyptus trees are a defining feature of Canberra’s landscape, but there’s no doubt the native species can make a right mess of anything underneath and, in the case of the fallen leaves, go on to pollute our waterways.

Help is at hand. Supported by the ACT Government, Griffith University in Queensland is calling for members of the public to participate in an online survey to find out where your street’s gum leaves are going.

Social Marketing @ Griffith founding director Sharyn Rundle-Thiele describes it as part of a larger project that will ultimately see her team from ‘The Leaf Collective’ find a range of ways to help clean up Canberra’s act.

“I think most of us don’t realise that leaves can be harmful,” she says. “We think they’re great, and we know leaves can make good compost, but for Canberra lakes, they’re about as bad as a cigarette butt.”

The ACT is built around waterways and studded with lakes in every major region, many of them fed by concrete channels that are, in turn, fed with stormwater from the roadside drains and gutters in the suburbs. Anything you wash down the drain can end up in your nearest lake, and that isn’t always a good thing.

Leaf litter can not only clog the waterways, but it also promotes the growth of algae, unappealing to look at and unhealthy for aquatic life – even toxic to humans and dogs in the case of blue-green algae.

“In water, leaves release chemicals that create the perfect conditions for algal blooms. The science is clear – leaf litter is definitely one of the contributors to water pollution, and it’s something we can all help with to get those waterways clearer.”

The campaign focuses on finding ways to support households to deal with leaf litter in the cleanest, most efficient way.

The first stage consists of an online community survey designed to determine what Canberrans think about leaf litter.

Sharyn Rundle-Thiele

Social Marketing @ Griffith Founding Director Sharyn Rundle-Thiele. Photo: Griffith University.

This will be followed by co-design sessions, hosting people from different backgrounds and skillsets to help design the campaign. A $50 voucher will be thrown in as a thank-you gift to those who partake.

“It’s about pulling together what’s already happening and getting some more momentum behind it,” Sharyn says.

Equipped with this information, the final part involves approaching various local service providers to find out how they can get involved.

“We’re really interested in hearing great ideas about what we can do and not do. Can we get behind something that’s already on the ground and promote it? Can a service provider help a household that can’t help themselves? Are some prepared to just get out there and help clean up the leaves themselves?”

The online survey has been live since 12 November. Initial responses suggest that one-in-three Canberrans have collected native leaf litter from the gutter or nature strip outside their residence in the last month, despite mixed views on who is ultimately responsible for tidying up leaf litter.

Up to 40 per cent of people have disposed of these leaves in their standard government-issued bin. This indicates that a lot of leaves are going straight to landfill rather than green waste.

Sharyn says the jury is still out about what people think of native leaf litter and whether or not it is lowering water quality.

The campaign in earnest will kick off in February 2022, focusing first on the Tuggeranong area.

“How this will look is all determined by what we learn from the three different parts of the research that we’re running. I’m still learning myself on this project, but there are going to be amazing alternatives out there, and we’d love to hear more about them.”

The 33-question online survey is open until 3 December and can be found on the Griffith University website. It’s estimated to take no more than 10 minutes to complete.

For more information and regular updates on the program’s progress, visit The Leaf Collective Facebook page.

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Donate the leaves to ACT Parks & Conservation – they’re always trying to build up forest litter fuel loads to catastrophic levels so the next bushfire can be bigger and hotter than the last one (and then they’ll blame the results of their mismanagement on “climate change”).

Worm farms. Great way of making natural fertiliser that helps plants cope with pests.

The ACT government is the worst culprit. Allowing grass along road verges to get that high that when mown leave a huge amount of organic material lying in the gutters only to be washed into stormwater then lakes and waterways!

HiddenDragon9:09 pm 24 Nov 21

Free green bins for every household which wants one might be the most practical solution, particularly in light of the observation that “up to 40 per cent of people have disposed of these leaves in their standard government-issued bin”.

Anything much beyond that is likely to run into the reality that while many Canberrans think gum trees are quite nice to behold at a distance, they don’t want them too close to their homes, and will not be overly inclined to help with a problem which is largely self-inflicted by a native tree-obsessed government – even if their spare time is not already consumed with cleaning up gum tree debris on their block.

I remember a time before self government when ovals were mowed, potholes were fixed and we really were the bush capital.

I think there should be a concerted effort to keep grass low, with the cut grass collected (along with autumn leaves) and the resulting mulch and soil used to beautify Canberra.

I agree with Stephen Saunders. In some areas we see people sweeping their deciduous leaves into the gutters, possibly hopeful the leaf sweapers will hoover them up or they simply don’t care if they are washed into the stormwater. Can’t burn them anymore so they do need to be removed.

ChrisinTurner2:35 pm 24 Nov 21

The idea that sweeping our streets only a few times a year is sufficient is obviously wrong. Most cities sweep once a week.

Stephen Saunders10:17 am 24 Nov 21

It seems odd to target native leaf litter. By definition, only exotics shed all their leaves at once. Every Canberra suburb I’ve resided, oak leaves have been a big problem.

The annual influx of deciduous leaf litter certainly impacts waterways, but its important to remember that Canberra was (for the most part) naturally quite sparse in regards to tree cover before settlement. The sheer amount of native trees we have planted have a huge impact on water quality even if they don’t shed their leaves all at once.

Capital Retro12:55 pm 24 Nov 21

And we used to burn them in the backyard or at the tip. No problems then.

Sharyn Rundle-Thiele1:04 pm 26 Nov 21

Thanks all for the comments submitted so far. We love hearing your views!

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