WOONSOCKET – Highway Supt. Rick Lambert was on his way to tend to an emergency boiler problem when he came upon it, tossed unceremoniously to the curb like an ordinary piece of litter, the merriment all but expunged from its branches.
It was a Christmas tree, of course, but the timing was so wrong he had to chuckle.
“It was Christmas morning,” Lambert recalled. “They were already done with their Christmas tree. It was out the door.”
After investing so much time, energy and money into selecting and decorating a Christmas tree, most families aren’t so quick to put them out with the trash. But that’s where most of them end up, and when they do, city crews retrieve them, throw them in trucks, and take them someplace very, very special.
It is where Christmas trees go to die.
The journey from sidewalk to a normally-vacant lot on East School Street is actually the beginning of a new and useful phase in the life of Christmas trees that land upon city sidewalks during the month of January.
City crews put the trees through wood chippers, collect the material and haul it all to Central Landfill in Johnston, according to Lambert.
Sarah Kite, the director of recycling for the state landfill, operated by the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, says the site accepts discarded Christmas trees from most of the cities and towns in the state. Unlike Woonsocket’s trees, which are pre-chipped to cut down on transportation costs, many arrive whole, but they’re all chipped once they get to Central Landfill.
Once they’re chipped, the materials aren’t stuffed in a big hole in the ground like ordinary household refuse. They’re added to leaves, brush and other organic materials the landfill accepts and sets aside so that it can be converted into compost for farmers, gardeners and other agricultural purposes.
Compost is a nice word for organic materials that are essentially left to rot into a kind of dark, loamy mud, but whatever you call it, the end result doesn’t happen overnight. As any backyard gardener knows, a good compost pile must be turned from time to time to expose the contents to air. That allows microorganisms and bugs that feed on the materials to thrive so that the process moves along as efficiently as possible.
Because compost is so rich in nutrients plants need to grow, gardeners are often heard referring to it as “black gold,” but for RIRRC it’s still pretty green, as in the color of cash. The product is sold retail by RIRRC for $30 per cubic yard, though farmers and others who buy in bulk can get wholesale rates, according to Kite.
“It’s Class A compost, so it can be used for anything,” says Operations Manager Brian Card. “Even your lawn.”
Officially, the last day for curbside collection of Christmas trees was Friday, but Lambert says the occasionally straggler will still show up well after Groundhog Day, a few strands of tinsel or an unwanted ornament, perhaps, dangling from its withered boughs.
Including the scores of trees collected by Woonsocket, RIRRC will take in an estimated 625 tons of discarded Scotch Pines, Douglas Firs, Blue Spruce and other species most favored for Christmas trees.
That might sound like a lot of trees, but it’s just an infinitesimally tiny fraction of the roughly 30 million Christmas trees that are sold in the U.S. every year, according to the American Christmas Tree Association. Figures for 2012 are hard to come by yet, but ACTA says Americans bought 33 million trees in 2011 at a cost of about $1.07 billion.
Though fake trees are said to be doing better than they used to, in part because some people think they’re an environmentally-friendlier choice, they still lag behind Mother Nature’s own. Just 9.5 million artificial trees were sold in 2011 at a cost of $670 million.
Kite says the ability to repurpose real trees as compost seems to support the theory that they are an environmentally wiser choice than fakes at the holiday season, but it’s probably not the last word on the subject.
“Like most issues, there are pros and cons on both sides of this one, too,” she says. “It’s not black and white.”