When they go up, they form the centerpiece of the yuletide home, bedecked in ornaments and tinsel, towering over brightly wrapped gifts. When they come down, they are defrocked and dumped on sidewalks, desiccated reminders for much of the public that Christmas has passed.
But for a select few, the discarded conifers lining the streets of Boston this time of year represent a pine-scented break from their usual quarry: These are salad days for city waste haulers.
“Think about it: Some of the stuff can smell pretty horrible,” said Basil Rigano of Capitol Waste Services Inc., as he stuffed a castaway spruce into a large mustard-yellow garbage truck in Roxbury Monday. “You don’t get sick of this.”
There was a catch. Monday was the first day of Boston’s two-week effort to recycle thousands of residents’ trees. But Rigano’s team, one of five coursing the city in search of scrapped firs and spruces, was allowed to pick up only trees that have been removed from their stands and completely stripped of ornaments, tinsel, and other adornments. The rest end up getting picked up by a regular garbage truck and go straight to a landfill, which costs the city far more to dispose of, said Michael Brohel, the recycling coordinator for the city Public Works Department Waste Reduction Division.
The city recycles roughly 40,000 Christmas trees each year, Brohel said, which roughly translates to 1,200 cubic yards, or 240 tons.
But, he said, some 40 percent of the trees residents put out on the curb end up being picked up as trash.
The recycling truck can only take the trees from a neighborhood on its recycling day, and they have to be clear of what Brohel calls “contamination,” meaning trees left out with stands, decorations, or stuffed in bags that make it impossible to grind them into usable mulch.
“You have to do two things right,” Brohel said.
The recyclable trees are hauled off to the city’s compost site on American Legion Highway. There, yard waste collected in the fall, composed primarily of leaves, was stacked Monday in about 2½ acres of neat rows. This compost will be distributed to community gardens throughout the city, and the surplus is sold to offset costs.
The mulch from last year’s recycled Christmas trees has been used to cover the site’s perimeter to protect the compost from invasive weeds and prevent soil erosion.
Bruce Fulford — president of City Soil & Greenhouse Co., a private company contracted to operate the site — indicated a small pile of Christmas trees, the first batch of this year’s haul. Although most of them were clean, he said, a few still contained ornaments that may have escaped the haulers’ eyes.
Leftovers like these are what makes it difficult to recycle the discarded trees into higher quality mulch for city gardening, Fulford said. But, he added, all of the mulched trees will find a use at the site.
“Either way, it’s out of the waste stream,” Brohel said.David Filipov can be reached at David.Filipov@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidfilipov.