Dead Christmas trees find new life as compost

Roughly 100 tons of Christmas trees collected by the city each year

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CEDAR RAPIDS — As the holiday season ends, thousands of area homes are left with dry and brittle Christmas trees. The city of Cedar Rapids is willing to take these holiday leftovers as a part of the yard waste collection program.

The roughly 100 tons of Christmas trees the city collects each year do not end up festering in a dump. They are deposited with the Solid Waste Agency — an independent agency with which the city works — where they are turned into compost.

“It is kind of funny to think a Christmas tree that is being recycled today, in six months could be compost a Linn County resident is picking up,” said Joe Horaney, the communications director for the Solid Waste Agency.

Horaney said during fiscal year 2012, the agency took in 31,000 tons of yard waste and sent out 20,000 tons of finished compost, with more than 9,000 of those tons picked up by Linn County residents — who can collect two cubic yards per visit, free of charge.

“For the first time ever last year, we actually ran out of finished compost to give to the public,” Horaney said. “We actually had weeks where we didn’t have any to give out because so many people are taking advantage of it.”

While the Christmas trees only make up a fraction of the material composted by the agency each year, Horaney explained the process a tree goes through to transform from needles and branches to rich dark soil.

The foliage is piled up with all other yard waste material before being sent through a grinder, which leaves the trees in a coarse wood chip-like state.

Once space opens up in one of 40 deep channels called windrows, the material is deposited there for three to four months to “cook.” During this time, the material breaks itself down, reaching an internal temperature near 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

When ready, the compost is fed through a machine that sifts out any remaining non-organic material, like a forgotten ornament, and then is piled up for collection.

Megan Murphy, the communications and education coordinator for Cedar Rapids’ Utilities Department said there could be challenges with collecting the discarded trees.

“Normally, yard waste collection is fully automated,” she said. “(The driver) stays in the truck and operates an automated arm to collect the YARDY cart, but they have to get out at each stop to pick up and load the Christmas tree. There is cold and the risk of slips, trips, and falls every time you get in and out of the truck.”

Matt Fowler, the garbage and yard waste supervisor for the city of Cedar Rapids, delivered a truck full of trees to the agency on Thursday, and said the extra work is comparable to when drivers exit their truck to collect bags of leaves during the fall.

While some might see the discarding of a Christmas tree as a sad reminder of the end of the holiday season, Murphy chooses to look on the bright side.

“I see it as a great cycle of life,” she said. “The tree grew and was beautiful. It was in a house and people enjoyed it. And now you see it kind of becoming a new life form that will be rich compost and nourish plants, or maybe the next Christmas tree. I find joy in that.”

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