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A Christmas tree's life in the new year

Tim Shorter of St Petersburg’s Sanitation Department arranges discarded Christmas trees at the recycling and brush site, 1000 62nd Ave. NE. The trees will be recycled into mulch.
Tim Shorter of St Petersburg’s Sanitation Department arranges discarded Christmas trees at the recycling and brush site, 1000 62nd Ave. NE. The trees will be recycled into mulch.
Published Jan. 11, 2014

'Tis no longer the season, and so we are joined curbside by a felled forest of spruces, firs and pines. Christmas evergreens stripped of lights and dignity. Tannenbaums in trash.

The 25 to 30 million Christmas trees sold in America last year were marked for this fate as seedlings. In chain marts and harvest farms, standing them tall, we knew this day would come.

Yet there is no post-yule jolt to reality quite like the sight of a naked Christmas tree dumped between Dumpsters, befouled in the January cold, alone. Seven years of growth, for this? So desperate for remembrance they leave pounds of narrow needles behind.

Have you seen them? Adrift in the purge of wrapping shreds, blister packs and the million extra tons of garbage we toss every winter-holiday week. Discarded with the grace afforded grass clippings and food scraps. Eradicated like a weed.

Yes, it is that special time of year when we gather together to abandon the same thing, to cast aside the $1 billion we spent on trees a few weeks back. But lest we feel wasteful about our waste, let us remember that this copse of corpses can often serve a grander purpose.

Christmas trees are tossed into creeks to shield baby coho salmon from predators in Oregon, and sunk with concrete blocks as fish habitat in lakes in Kansas and New Hampshire.

They are built into nests for terns, ducks and egrets off the coast of Maryland, colonized as a heron rookery in Illinois and propped up as cover for chipmunks and raccoons in northwest Indiana.

They burn for electricity in Vermont, power paper mills in Wisconsin and mulch hiking trails in Tennessee. They shore up sand dunes in New Jersey and Alabama and fence the marshes in Louisiana, slowing erosion and helping aquatic plants spring to life.

The 76-foot-tall Norway spruce outside New York City's Rockefeller Center, the king of Christmas trees, will be milled into lumber and used to build a Habitat for Humanity home in Connecticut.

And at the Oakland Zoo, elephants like Donna and M'Dunda eat the trunk bark and strip the needles off old noble firs sometimes smeared with jelly or honey.

For less exotic purposes, This Old House suggests you cleave the trunk into slabs for flowerpot risers or table coasters. The National Christmas Tree Association recommends garnishing trees with fresh orange slices and strung popcorn to transform them into bird feeders.

So what happens to the 10 million artificial trees sold each year? The ones made of polyvinyl chloride and coated with Real Feel™ needles? Polygroup, one of Walmart's biggest fake-tree suppliers, ships some to China to shred. Most end up in landfills.

Christmas-tree trash has served as a key player in showcases of art, sport and science. Street artist D*Face adorned trees in rubbish piles around London last year with eyeballs and frowns. Contestants in a German town's Christmas Tree Throwing World Championships are judged on distance and height before setting their trees ablaze.

And a team of young inventors used 32 rocket engines to blast their star-topped tree into the sky. "No, I don't think astronauts have been given an adequate chance to celebrate Christmas in the past," one rocketeer said in their YouTube video, Christmas Tree Rocketry: The Art and Science of Holiday Recycling. "This is really a tribute to them."

Millions of forsaken trees are donated to this country's 4,000 Christmas recycling initiatives, like Georgia's "Bring One for the Chipper." Still, some scofflaws rebel, including one who stuffed a tree in the toppled trash can of St. Petersburg resident Pedro Coscarart. He posted a picture on Facebook, calling it "unfreakingbelievable." The brown tree lay on its side, ashamed.

In Hillsborough County, junked trees ride a conveyor belt into what's called a tub grinder, a massive sideways chipper the size of an above-ground pool. Its blades brutalize the stream of trees into a ragged, chunky mulch. Falling in, waste management official Doug DeArmond says, "would not be enjoyable."

That mulch can then be unceremoniously discharged into your pickup for $25 a load. Or it can be bulldozed into large pits and fed into furnaces that generate power for local water plants and 30,000 homes.

It is in this process where the ornamental curtain falls and Christmas trees are shown for the "wood waste" they really are. More than 100,000 tons of leaves, tree trimmings and other yard waste are recycled every year in Pinellas County alone.

For Leslie Nease, a Christian radio-show host and 2007 contestant on Survivor: China, the lasting lesson of Christmas trees is that evergreens brown, and nothing lasts.

"My heart broke as I saw the huge pile of used Christmas trees . . . in my neighborhood. How could we be so cruel?" wrote Nease in a blog post, "Fleeting Fame." "Just like the Christmas trees, people can be celebrated, adored and decorated for a season, but inevitably, the world will move on."

And so it goes. Another 350 million trees growing across 15,000 American farms stand ready to take their place.

In 11 months, if we're lucky, we'll park outside the Home Depot, step into the perfume of sap and pine, and shake a fresh tree loose.

This new Fraser fir will look so beautiful, won't it? We won't think about what comes next.

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8252.

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