Joseph Killilea stood on a sidewalk in West Roxbury and stared at the garbage truck across the street, transfixed. He is 2, which is the prime age for a garbage truck groupie, but this was no ordinary truck. This truck was the answer to a question.
“We’ve been talking to him a lot about what happened to Christmas,” his mother, Nicole, said as Joseph watched a worker picked up a neighbor’s Christmas tree and chucked it into the back of the truck, a jet trail of needles following it through the air.
Well, Joseph, that’s what happened to Christmas.
It is January, time for new beginnings, and for many, part of the New Year cleansing ritual is getting rid of the Christmas tree, that symbol of the season that transforms, in the blink of an eye, from the vibrant center of the home to something large and dying that is clogging up the center of the home.
But Joseph only saw half of the answer of what happens to Christmas trees after Christmas. He did not see the pile.
The pile is the ghost of Christmas past, and it is erected each January in a muddy lot in Mattapan, 120 tons of Christmas trees that are gathered from curbs around Boston and brought to the city’s composting site, where they wait to be chopped up by a giant grinder.
They arrive in specially designated garbage trucks, which prowl the city during the first two full weeks in January. As another load arrived recently, the driver opened its back door and covered the mud with a neatly stacked row, about 10 feet high and the length of a city bus. It smelled like an explosion at the Pine-Sol factory.
It is a strong odor, for sure, but certainly preferable to the smell of trash, which is one of the reasons the contractors who collect the city’s trash love being assigned to the Christmas tree truck during those two weeks, according to Mike Brohel, the recycling coordinator for the Public Works Department Waste Reduction Division. “And there are no rats hiding in trees.”
Only about 60 percent of the city’s trees make it to the compost site. The rest are bypassed by the tree recycling truck because they were placed on the curb with some “contamination” — usually trees that are wrapped in a trash bag or plastic sheeting, a classic, and usually futile, attempt to prevent the needles from getting everywhere. Those trees go into the regular garbage truck and end up in a landfill. The tree recycling truck also will not take trees with any ornaments, lights, or stands.
“You wouldn’t believe how many people just put it out on the curb with everything on it, fully decorated, tree stand and all,” said Rob DeRosa, the superintendent of waste reduction for the city.
Say what you will about the ritual of throwing out a tree, but do not say it is sad to see trees thrown to the curb after Christmas, or suggest that there is something cathartic about getting it out of your house. At least not to Rick Dungey, the public relations manager for the National Christmas Tree Association, a Missouri-based trade association that represents the Christmas tree industry.
“Do you say that about a pumpkin after Halloween?” he snapped in a recent phone interview.
“People say it’s so sad to see a Christmas tree thrown to the curb. It’s a plant. It was planted by a farmer. We used it. And now it’s going to be recycled back into nature. That is their life cycle. None of those trees would have existed in the first place if they hadn’t been planted as Christmas trees. If we didn’t use Christmas trees, there would be 350 million fewer trees in the US alone.”
Also, do not mention artificial Christmas trees to Dungey. Seriously. Best to stick with all the positive uses of old Christmas trees, of which, Dungey will tell you, there are many.
Recycling and composting are the norm for most municipalities, but there have long been more creative uses. In Louisiana, Dungey said, miles of trees have been strung together as fences to help prevent salt water from getting into fresh water marshes. Others burn the treesto produce electricity, or sink the trees to create habitats that fish like to hide in. And coastal communities have experimented with using old trees as sand-grabbing barriers to stop beach erosion and create dunes. The effectiveness of this technique is in question, and a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection said he is not aware of any communities in the state that are still doing this.
In Boston, the trees — which were planted as saplings about seven years ago — will be ground up and used around the composting site. Some of it will be used to stabilize erosion, while other bits of the Christmas pile will be mixed into the compost piles that represent other seasonal rites in the city: spring yard work and fall leaves.
In South Boston on Tuesday, a lone tree stood on the sidewalk of I Street. The tree belonged to Caroline O’Connell, who had just taken it to the curb, reluctantly. She said she had kept it up until the last possible collection day because she did not want to say goodbye to Christmas. And seeing it there on the curb, with her other trash and recycling, was a bit sad. Inside, her house was returning to its pre-Christmas state.
“I haven’t decided if I feel good or bad about that,” she said, before going inside to vacuum up the needles.