Where Do All the Christmas Trees Go?

Temporary tree lot blight on 15th and Dolores.

Temporary tree lot blight on 15th and Dolores.

Christmas is over. How long will you keep the tree?

From January 3 through 14, kick your naked tree to the curb and Recology will pick it up on your regular recycling collection day. Once they’re on the truck, Christmas trees journey 63 miles to be reincarnated as pure energy.

First, they go to the dump. There the trees are processed through a wood chipper, and the remains take a special ride on an 18-wheeler to a biomass facility in Tracy.

At the biomass plant, the Christmas trees rise like phoenixes — or at least steam does, when their chips burn inside boilers. The steam-powered turbines generate electricity that is sold to PG&E. Then “it powers your laptop computer,” said Recology spokesperson Robert Reed.

Tree remains on the sidewalk on 15th Street.

Overall, San Francisco’s Christmas tree chips produce about 20 megawatts of power, or enough energy to serve 20,000 houses for a month, according to Chris Trott at the Tracy Biomass Plant. The plant has paid Recology for the chips for the past two Christmases, but only enough to cover the cost of transporting them to Tracy.

The rest of the year, Tracy Biomass uses peach pits, walnut shells and tree trimmings to power the plant.

There’s a reason for Recology’s quick turnaround time — to reduce the number of Christmas tree-related fires. “The San Francisco Fire Department wants us to pick them up as quickly as possible,” said Reed.

Recology truck driver Mike C. has worked with the organization for 20 years, and has seen the trees go from being wasted to being recycled.

“We won’t take them with the garbage — if we see one, we have to take it out,” he said. It takes two weeks and four or five Recology crews to pick up and process most of San Francisco’s Christmas trees.

Mission residents who keep their trees past Recology’s January 14 deadline should take them to the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council‘s recycling center at Kezar Stadium by January 20, according to the Department of the Environment. The recycling center composts the trees, turns them into mulch or wood chips — or puts them to a more creative use.

“Last year we made a gate for our garden,” said Wayne Wiley, who works at the recycling center. The center collected nearly 100 trees last year.

People can take items from the recycling center to reuse. Someone took a discarded Christmas tree after the holidays last year, but Wiley isn’t sure what they used it for.

Recology picked up 477 tons of Christmas trees last year, an 11 percent decrease from 2008, Reed said. (The company doesn’t count individual trees.) But every year the quantity of Christmas trees they haul away decreases as San Franciscans become more eco-conscious.

“The most environmental people are going for potted trees, or living trees. Other people are going for reusable trees, like plastic trees. And with the economy, people are buying smaller trees,” he said.

This reduces the amount of Christmas tree-based fuel available to the Tracy Biomass plant, but Reed said the evolution is a good thing.

“We feel that the live tree is the greenest, most environmental option. We need more trees — keep it alive and after the holidays, plant it.” After living trees, artificial trees are the most environmentally friendly, Reed said, as long as you reuse them for at least 20 years.

Even those who work at traditional tree lots agree. “People should be sending cards to President Obama to stop tree-cutting,” said Javier Aguilar, who was selling chopped trees at 15th and Valencia on Christmas Eve. “The planet is dying, and people only use the trees for two minutes. You shouldn’t kill.”

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