Making the Most of Christmas Trees Past

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This is where tens of thousands of once loved and gaily decorated Christmas trees come when they are all used up and no longer wanted. Here is where they meet their end.

Lining an empty road off Ortega Highway are the sad rows of castoffs, stripped of their bright lights, baubles and tinsel after the holidays.

They are piled 6 feet high and hundreds of yards long. Crews chain-saw the trunks and then feed the trees to chipping machines, where they emerge as mere mulch to cover equestrian trails or serve as organic weed killer for lawns.

It is the end of the Christmas tree that nobody sees, except for Cameron Spicer and a few others.

"We've got hundreds of tons of trees--it's chain-saw madness," said Spicer, operations manager for Solag Disposal, the San Juan Capistrano company that has been going door-to-door since last week in six South County cities, collecting discarded Christmas trees.

"You know all those Christmas tree lots?" said Paul Torralbo , 33, a supervisor for Solag. "They all end up here, that's where they go."

This is Solag's third year of its Christmas tree recycling program, a service offered free to South County residents through Saturday. Last year, Solag recycled about 40,000 trees, said Dan Batty, spokesman for Solag.

This year, a week into the project, Solag has already recycled about 25,000 evergreens.

"We're trying to divert as much waste away from the landfill as we can," Batty said.

The service is part of Solag's contract with its cities to help them meet a state law requiring all communities to reduce the amount of garbage going to dumps by 25%.

Solag recycles the trees at three South County sites, one in San Clemente at 320 Avenido Pico, another in Aliso Viejo on Recreation off Glenwood Drive, and here, on Paseo Tirador across from Cook Park.

At these sites, residents can get bags of mulch, as much as they want, for free.

Meanwhile, the truckloads of conifers just keep rolling in, permeating the air with the crisp scent of pine.

"It seems like miles and miles of trees," Spicer said, adding that crews have been working more than 12 hours a day since Jan. 2, going from house to house on their regular garbage routes picking up the discards. "We're just able to assimilate what's coming in."

Shoving about 10 trees per minute through the chipper, Solag's crews transform them into the kind of mulch that gardeners love.

It's the acidity of the pinesap that makes the tree chips such a great natural weed killer, Spicer said. Other uses include fertilizer for soil, eliminating dust on horse trails and even as a substance to help keep slopes from eroding.

"People think we just take these trees to the dump," said Carlos Topete Jr., 19, who was hired temporarily by Solag as an extra hand during the frenzied two weeks of recycling. "In reality, we put them to good use."

Sorting through the mountains of discarded Christmas trees, some with flecks of tinsel still clinging to the branches or tree stands fused to the trunks, the crew members have learned a thing or two about their fellow South County residents--such as their buying habits.

"I saw price tags on some of the trees for $200 to $300!" said Paul Torralbo. "I pay $12 for mine at Kmart."

And, it seems, each year the trees just keep getting bigger.

"I've found 20-foot trees weighing hundreds of pounds," Spicer said.

This year, Spicer said, fewer people have bought "flocked" Christmas trees, those trees with the white, powdery substance sprayed on to simulate snow.

That's a good thing, because those trees are not biodegradable and can't be recycled. And that means that this year there are more trees to turn into mulch--but more work for the harried crew of Solag Disposal.

"Nobody realizes the hard work that we do to recycle," said Saul Cintora, 32, a Solag employee. "At least we go home smelling like pine."

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