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After years of picking up alley Christmas trees for mulching, Denver’s waste haulers will be taking trees left in alleys on the large item pickup trucks to landfills. People who want to compost their trees need to drop them off at composting centers or chop them up for their own green composting bins. (Michael Booth, The Colorado Sun)

Alongside the traditional post-holiday blues in Denver this year comes an extra hangover of guilt: If you toss your spent Christmas tree in the alley, it doesn’t get recycled into compost. 

Instead, it’s getting a ride of shame on the large-item pickup truck, smashed between the old sofa cushions and rusted hot water heaters. 

After years of picking up alley-dropped trees and taking them for composting that Denver residents could get back for their gardens, the city this year is urging would-be recyclers to haul the tree themselves to a transfer station or chop it up and put it in the green compost bins. Trees left in the alley this year go on the regular routes of the monthly large-item pickup trucks. 

Denver made the move to restore 12-month large item pickups for all customers, instead of using large item crews for shuttling Christmas trees to compost in January and starting large item pickups in February, a city official said. More large item pickups are a frequent request from city council members and their constituents. 

“The drop-site approach frees up resources to serve more customers more comprehensively,” said Nancy Kuhn, spokesperson for Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, which handles waste and recycling. “Only about 11% of our customers participate in tree recycling. By asking these 20,000 or so customers to utilize our drop sites in 2023, our crews can provide monthly large item pickup service to all 180,000 customers starting in January instead of in February as we did last year in order to collect trees.”

Christmas trees are piled together on Jan. 3, 2023 at the Cherry Creek Waste Transfer Station in Denver. Denver’s “Treecycle” program is a seasonal effort to turn recycled Christmas trees into mulch after the holidays. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The extra customer driving and the dumping were not the Christmas wish of environmental groups. 

“This is disappointing,” said Randy Moorman, director of policy and legislative campaigns for the nonprofit recycler Eco-Cycle. “Live Christmas trees without decorations are very compostable, just like other yard waste and therefore should not be going to the landfill, where they will contribute to the creation of methane gas, a powerful greenhouse gas.”

The change comes as Colorado communities navigate a fast-changing system of waste handling and recycling. Denver is switching this month from residential garbage hauling paid for by taxes to a fee-based system. Residential customers will have to choose what size of garbage bin to take, and pay more for the largest bins. Meanwhile, they will get free composting bins, and recycling picked up every week instead of every two weeks. 

A statewide plastic bag fee went into effect Jan. 1 at retailers, layering on top of many city laws that already require the fee. Environmental groups are ramping up efforts to reduce more plastic waste by redoubling on proposals to prohibit single-use plastic utensils. Denver residents in the fall passed a mandatory expansion of recycling to multi-unit apartments and businesses

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Fort Collins has also made changes to its tree recycling, ending free drop-offs at city parks in 2020 to conserve city resources at the beginning of the pandemic. Residents with trees are now directed to three recycling or landscaping sites, and asked to pay $5 or $10 to leave the tree. 

Denver officials said they are making it as convenient as possible for residents by offering nine weekend drop-off locations and three open on weekdays. They’re spreading the word through all their social media channels and in flyers sent to homeowners describing the new waste and recycling system. 

Conservationists are watching, with Naughty or Nice lists at the ready. 

“I hope their effort to get out the word is effective,” Moorman said. “I would like to know how many trees they collect this year at the drop-off in comparison to past years collecting it at the curb.”

 

Michael Booth

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: booth@coloradosun.com Twitter: @MBoothDenver