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10 tips to reduce pollution from your yard: expert interview!

10 tips to reduce pollution from your yard: expert interview! thumbnail
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Want to reduce pollution from your yard? We asked the experts at Greenville County Soil & Water Conservation District to share proven tips you can use to make your yard safer and cleaner — and help reduce local water pollution in the process. Watch or read to find out how! 

I. Video interview: Top 10 tips to reduce pollution from your yard

Want to jump right to our video interview with the experts from Greenville County Soil and Water Commission? Here you go:


(*Note: If you run ad blocking software, the video may not display – sorry! Here’s an alternative YouTube link.)

Special thanks to the following experts from Greenville County Soil & Water Conservation District for their participation in this interview:

  • Lynn Pilewski
  • Chaneen Haler
  • Kirsten Robertson

II. Article: How to reduce pollution from your yard

Additional information and excerpts from the video interview to help you reduce yard pollution:

i. Small yards, big impact.

You might be surprised to know that:

In short: your lawn matters. Specifically, how you manage your lawn matters. 

Nope, you don’t have to care a lick about the environment to care about yard pollution. Reducing yard pollution can and should be an issue that transcends politics or any other ideological divisions. It simply makes sense — and it can even save you money. 

ii: Why care about yard pollution? 

Here are three reasons to care about yard pollution:

1. Health – If you, your children, or your pets play in your lawn, there’s the potential to be exposed to dangerous endocrine disrupting and carcinogenic chemicals if you’re using synthetic pesticides. (Or if your lawn care company is.) Similar to cigarette smoke, repeat exposure to these lawn chemicals can increase the risk of a number of illnesses and diseases

2. Water quality – The quality and safety of the water you drink from your tap is directly impacted by the chemicals and contaminants that come out of local yards and go into our waterways.

3. Safer, cleaner community – Raise your hand if you don’t want to live in a cleaner, less polluted community — or world? (Hope your hand is down!) 

iii. Six primary sources of yard pollution 

In our interview, Lynn Pilewski, Community Relations Coordinator at Greenville County Soil & Water Conservation District, detailed the primary sources of yard pollution as follows:

1. Fertilizer

Fertilizer runoff from yards is a major pollutant. Much of the fertilizer (mainly nitrogen and phosphorus) applied to grass isn’t utilized by the actual grass, and instead ends up washing out into local waterways. 

These fertilizers then cause excessive algae growth which depletes oxygen from the water, causing fish kills and other problems. (If you’re interested, you can read more about the effects of fertilizer pollution here.)

2. Pesticides (which includes insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and other “icides”) 

Many/most synthetic pesticides are environmentally persistent, e.g. they don’t quickly break down, nor do they only kill/harm the specific thing you’re spraying them on. Insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and other “icides” not only persist in your yard, they also persist in the environment, continuing to cause harm beyond your yard.

A significant percent of these chemicals are also transported up into the atmosphere where they spread globally due to our interconnected climate system. Oddly enough, the North and South Pole operate as giant sinks for these contaminants, and the higher up the food chain you go, the higher the concentration of pesticides and other pollutants in the animals studied. As a result, scientists note: “cases of low fertility, immune deficiency, disruptions to the endocrine system, genetic mutations (genotoxic effect) and malformations being seen” in polar animals that live thousands of miles and oceans away from where these chemicals are being used.

3. Grass clippings and leaves 

Those grass clippings and bush trimmings are comprised of nutrients like nitrogen. If you blow your grass clippings into the street and they wash down the nearest storm drain and into the adjacent waterway, those plant materials break down and are released into the waterway, having a similar effect as fertilizer runoff.  

4. Pet waste 

Pet waste is another major source of yard pollution. Yes, Fluffy is adorable, but Fluffy’s poop is basically a giant fertilizer bomb that’s also filled with harmful species of bacteria that don’t need to be in our waterways. 

Thanks, neighbor! While out for morning neighborhood walks with our baby, it's always nice to see sidewalk presents like dog poo. Dog poo isn't just gross, it creates a huge pollution problem for local waterways.

Thanks, neighbor! While out for morning neighborhood walks with our baby, it’s always nice to see sidewalk presents like dog poo. Dog poo isn’t just gross, it creates a huge pollution problem for local waterways.

5. Used auto fluids

Spilled gas and oil, oil leaks, battery acid… Those chemicals wash off your driveway or street and go right into the nearest waterway. 

6. Soil runoff  

Silt and mud running off of a new construction site during heavy rains despite a barrier.

Silt and mud running off of a new construction site (and into a storm drain and creek) during heavy rains despite fabric barriers being erected.

Ever notice the fabric barriers put around new construction sites? Those are required by law for good reason: they’re trying to reduce the bare soil from washing or blowing away into nearby waterways. But soil erosion isn’t just a problem at construction sites…

If you live in a hilly area or don’t have plants or mulches holding your soil in place, it can wash or blow away. All that extra soil/silt can then clog up waterways, creating slow moving or stagnant water. 

iv. Where does all this yard pollution go? 

Storm water runs through and over the ground, carrying whatever pollutants are present right into nearby rivers, lakes, and streams. Pesticides and other chemicals can also be spread far and wide in the atmosphere, as mentioned above.    

What about if your neighborhood has storm drains?

Storm drains do not go to a treatment facility, they deliver everything that goes into them right into our waterways. The only way to filter that water is to make sure the pollutants are not on the ground to start with.

This reality means it’s up to each of us to prevent our own pollutants from entering local waterways — or atmosphere. (If you’re in Greenville County South Carolina, see the Clean Water Starts With Me campaign with monthly clean water challenges.)

v. Ten tips to reduce pollution from your yard

Now, the good news: you can drastically reduce or eliminate pollution from your yard starting today! You can also encourage your friends, family, and neighbors to do the same.

Here are the top-10 tips to reduce yard pollution as provided by the experts at Greenville County Soil & Water Conservation District: 

1. Always pick up after your dog. 

When your dog poops outside, pick it up and dispose of it in the trash or use a specialized pet waste composter. Yes, you should pick up the poo in your yard too, not just when your dog leaves a present on your neighbor’s lawn. 

Sure, poop is “natural,” but the vast quantities of dog poop combined with the unique characteristics of domesticated dog poop is a potent combination.

For instance: 

Dog poop contains 23 million bacteria per gram, which is far more than wild animals. The natural environment has evolved to handle wildlife that is naturally found in those areas but can only naturally support ~2 dogs per acre. In urban areas, there are ~400 dogs per acre. The accumulation of waste of all these dogs overloads and strains the natural system.

Learn more at

2. Get a soil test BEFORE fertilizing your lawn.

Get your soil tested by a university extension to determine what quantity/ratio (if any) of fertilizer your lawn needs BEFORE you fertilize it. If you’re in Upstate South Carolina, use Clemson University Extension.     

This can also save you money in fertilizer costs! 

3. Use compost to fertilize your yard. 

Even better than using chemical or mineral fertilizers on your lawn, use high quality compost and/or worm castings applied about 1/2 – 1″ deep on the lawn surface in the spring. Let the rain or your irrigation system work this material into the soil.

Compost and worm castings are full of beneficial microbes and also have immediately bioavailable nutrients as well. Thus, they’ll drastically improve your lawn health (deeper roots, less disease, etc) and have compounding beneficial long-term effects on your soil without causing fertilizer runoff.

4. Don’t blow leaves/grass into storm drains. Mulch them and leave them. 

Grass clipping and chopped leaves are actually plant food. Bagging and disposing of them or blowing them out of your yard is like burning money. When those materials decompose in our waterways, it’s also a source of nutrient pollution. 

5. Set mower height at 4″ for a healthier lawn. 

In addition to leaving your grass clippings in your yard, don’t cut your grass too low! 4″ tall grass equals:

  • deeper-rooted healthier grass,
  • less irrigation,
  • less plant stress,
  • less disease,
  • less work and money.  

6. Use a reel mower for small yards.

If possible, use a reel mower. (There are lots of options to choose from.)

No more having to drive to get gas or oil (or spilling gas and oil when you top up your mower). No more gas fumes and black carbon dust spewing in your or your families faces or coating your lawn. No more noise pollution from a roaring lawn mower either. 

A reel mower is ridiculously simple to use and maintain. Ours is so quiet, our baby has been known to fall asleep on me when I’m mowing. 

Benefits of using a reel mower - yard pollution

Baby Sebastian and dad (your truly) mowing the lawn together in August. I’ve used gas, plug-in electric mowers, and reel mowers – and much prefer a reel mower to the other options. Reel mowers also use zero energy (other than human calories) and generate no pollution. Sebastian fell asleep on me shortly after my wife snapped this photo.

Reel mowers were the norm for our grandparents — let’s make them fashionable again! *Our grandparents didn’t have battery-powered weed whackers, but use those instead of gas-powered tools to further reduce your yard pollution. 

7. Wash your car on your lawn, not the driveway or street. 

Wash your car on your lawn if at all possible. Why? 

The soap and pollutants that wash off of your car will be at least partially filtered out and/or broken down by soil microbes before entering nearby waterways. Not so if you wash your car on the driveway or street. 

What about people like me who don’t want to drive over a bed of edible plants to get their car into their yard for a washing? Look for a nearby car wash that has commercially recycled water. 

*Side note: Don’t permanently park your car in your lawn as this will cause soil compaction, killing your grass and reducing your lawn’s ability to filter pollutants.  

Soil compaction from car parked in lawn.

Can you spot the area in this lawn where a car is regularly parked? The resulting soil compaction means grass and other plants are unable to grow there, causing unsightly bare soil. It also means the grass and soil are no longer able to serve as pollution filters in this area.

8. Keep ground covered to prevent erosion and soil loss.

Exposed soil is soil that’s likely to be eroded. It’s also going to be stripped of its capacity to filter pollutants and hold rainwater.

Bare soil plus steep hill equals soil erosion. Soil and debris from this yard runs right into this storm drain each time there's a heavy rain, creating pollution in the adjacent creek.

Bare soil plus steep hill equals soil erosion. Soil and debris from this yard runs right into this storm drain each time there’s a heavy rain, creating pollution in the adjacent creek.

Think of exposed soil as an open wound on your skin… Nature’s “bandaids” are:

  • dead plant material (mulches, leaves), or
  • living plants (grass, shrubs, bushes, trees, etc).

In short: if you have spots with bare soil in your yard, protect them with living plants and/or keep them covered with mulch. If you have a steep hill in your yard, also consider terracing with rocks walls or other materials. 

9. Choose native plants to reduce watering and fertilizing requirements.

Use native plants in your landscape! Native plants are adapted to your specific environment and thus require far less maintenance. (Here’s a helpful native plant finder.)

Native plants are also helpful as food sources for wildlife and host plants for native pollinators. They can also be edible. For instance, we grow native passionfruit (host plant for Gulf fritillary butterflies) and pawpaws (host plant for Zebra swallowtail butterfly). 

Lawn irrigation tips specifically for our Upstate South Carolina soil type (clay) and climate:

  • Water your lawn early in the morning once per week — and only if there’s been no storms.
  • Water your lawn for 20 minutes, then shut off irrigation and let the water infiltrate for 20-30 minutes. Then water it again for another 20 minutes.  
  • Make sure your sprinklers are watering your yard, not the street or driveway. 
  • Don’t irrigate in the cool months.

10. Leave buffer of untrimmed plants on waterways to filter pollution. 

If you live next to a stream, river, or lake, leave a wild area between your lawn and the waterway. This is the same concept as riparian buffers used to reduce pollution on farms.

Those larger, more mature plants (and their underground roots and microbial partners) will help filter out pollutants before they go into the water.

We hope this information helps you create a cleaner, safer, more affordable lawn! You can learn more about yard pollution at:

Other articles to help get you growing in the right direction:

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  • Reply
    Greg Werks
    June 26, 2023 at 3:24 am

    Reducing pollution in your yard is crucial for a healthier environment and ecosystem. These ten tips offer practical ways to minimize pollution, such as using organic fertilizers, managing stormwater runoff, and avoiding harmful pesticides. Let’s take action and make our yards a haven for nature and ourselves. Together, we can create a greener future and preserve the beauty of our planet.

  • Reply
    April Gordon
    October 6, 2020 at 8:33 am

    Terrific and much needed information. In the video a Carolina yard certification is mentioned. Could you give a link to this and how to become certified. Thank you.

  • Reply
    Alison Raborn
    October 5, 2020 at 8:33 pm

    Get tips and worth printing out. However you forgot how HOA’s (Home Owner Assocation) play a huge role in polution. They want GREEN lawns and golf courses, and they want that grass short. No washing car’s on the lawn and so on. Someone needs to educate them.

    • Reply
      Aaron von Frank
      October 6, 2020 at 11:15 am

      Yes, HOAs and professional lawn care companies are a big obstacle that can impede on sensible, practical, ecologically-minded lawn care practices, unfortunately. Since HOAs are representative of the people in a particular community, hopefully their rules and goals will shift as individuals’ understandings shift. And the same goes with lawn care companies – if consumers start asking questions about what they’re using or requesting different services/products, they’ll respond to market demands. Kind of a perfect storm right now though.

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