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The Final Cut : Stripped of Their Shimmering Ornaments, Christmas Trees Are Ready for Mulching

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Consider the plight of the noble Christmas tree:

Whether it’s the graceful Douglas fir or various unpedigreed pines, most start life in massive growing camps, where they are cultivated and groomed for one purpose--to become the age-old icon for the American Christmas celebration.

Weeks before the holiday arrives, the trees are snapped up like gold from countless lots throughout the city--the prettiest and healthiest going first; the spindly Charlie Brown varieties with the gaps between their limbs going last, if at all.

At home, the trees are watered, cared for, decorated, revered.

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But this week, their short-lived existence comes down to this--stripped of their decoration in the waning holiday hours, most are cast out onto curbs like so much urban garbage, destined for the landfill.

But not every tree. Some are meeting a kinder, more ecological end.

At the Sunland Park and Recreation Center this weekend and next, the whir of a garbage truck loader can be heard consuming the remains of hundreds of once-glimmering pines and firs. But these trees aren’t headed for the dump--they are destined to be recycled, eventually to become bags of mulch like those that organizers were handing out free, one for every Christmas tree brought in.

Belinda Meritt drove her pickup all the way from Universal City to “do the right thing” with her tree. “This is a middle ground. We bought the tree, but it’s going to compost, not the dump.”

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Jack Topalian, a supervisor for American Waste Industries, contracted by the city to manage a dozen Christmas tree recycling sites across Los Angeles, including three in the San Fernando Valley, said the ritual is “all part of a cycle.”

“The trees are grown, harvested and enjoyed,” he said. “In the end, they go back into the dirt where they started. There’s a nice simplicity to it. It’s not necessarily a happy ending, but it’s not sad. These trees aren’t useless.”

In addition to the Sunland site at 8651 Foothill Blvd., trees can be returned in Panorama City at Branford Park, 13300 Branford St.; and in Encino at the Balboa Sports Center, 17105 Burbank Blvd.

On Saturday, Topalian stood in a shady, pine-scented parking lot, clicking off arriving trees with a pocket counting device as a crew of a half-dozen volunteers collected the castaways from the backs of pickups, the tops of vans and station wagons, even the back seats of convertibles.

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By noon, Topalian’s counter read 221, and he said that the Sunland site alone would top 1,000 this weekend. He estimated the city will recycle 80,000 trees by the end of the drive.

For many, there was indeed a sadness to the chore that signals the end of the holiday season. That fact wasn’t lost on volunteer Dave Hiller, whose arms were wracked with scratches from unloading so many trees.

“A lot of people feel like, ‘Hey! I paid $45 for this thing just three weeks ago,’ ” said Hiller, who wore thick work gloves. “Now they’re throwing it away.”

From the seat of his truck, Keith Woods of Shadow Hills wasn’t sorry to see his tree go.

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“I just wanted to get it the hell out of the house,” he said. “I paid $60 for the thing only to see the base leak and warp my hardwood floor. I hope I never see that tree again.”

Gary Hall of Tujunga brought 11-year-old daughter Kim to show her this last chapter of the holiday story.

Weeks ago, Kim was flushed with excitement as she and her brother decorated their tree. But, the job of taking the ornaments down? “We gave that to my mom,” she said.

Now, neither she nor her dad gave the old tree a second look as it was hauled away.

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“Jeez, that thing was shedding,” Hall observed. “I had to drag it through three rooms just to get it out of the house. Most of that tree is still back in my carpet. I don’t think I’ll ever get the needles vacuumed up.”

Driving up in his Mustang convertible, Robert Ybarra of Sylmar was circumspect about the day.

“For me, this is a lonesome job, the signal that the holidays are really over. But I choose to see a ray of hope in all of this.

“After all, we’ve all got a new year to look forward to.”

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