Greener BeeGreen HolidaysKeeping the holidays green: San Mateo County advises residents on how to recycle, compost trees

A Recology crane picks up retired Christmas trees that will be reused as compost or mulch.

As the holidays come to a close, residents are urged to reduce their carbon footprint by making sure their seasonal celebrations and decorations don’t have a lasting effect on the environment.

If you’ve unwrapped all the gifts and ready to dispose of your Christmas tree, San Mateo County recyclers are eager to help.

From the coast to the Bay, trash collectors announced special holiday pickups through January designed to make repurposing your Christmas tree a breeze.

“We want to make sure they’re going to a better place than just simply the landfill,” said Gordon Tong, program manager with the county’s Office of Sustainability. “The less waste that goes into the landfill, especially organic waste like trees, the more it helps our climate action plan goals because organic waste is a big contributor of methane in landfills when it decomposes.”

Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, more than 1 million tons of additional waste is generated in the United States every day, according to CalRecycle.

Across North America, millions of Christmas trees are sold every year with many of them chopped down and used as décor for just a few weeks. At San Mateo County’s largest waste collection plant — Rethink Waste, which accounts for more than 400,000 residents between East Palo Alto and Burlingame — nearly 520 tons of trees were processed last year, said Executive Director Joe La Mariana.

With state laws aiming to divert 75 percent of California’s waste away from landfills, composting and recycling is critical. Between the uptick in cardboard Amazon boxes generated from online shoppers, holiday party food scraps, wrapping paper and Christmas trees, La Mariana said Rethink Waste sees an additional 10 percent to 15 percent increase in refuse during the season.

When it comes to Christmas trees, Rethink Waste aims to give them a whole new life after they’ve been put out to die — ever think your old tree could benefit a bottle of wine or a children’s playground?

The highest-quality material is used to create mulch or compost that can be used in the agricultural industry, such at vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties. Trees can also be chipped and sold to local cities that may use them in parks or to Caltrans for use to help with soil erosion, La Mariana said.

Collection companies vary around the county, but Recology of San Mateo County will be picking up holiday waste and trees taken to Rethink Waste’s San Carlos processing plant.

“If you were to put your tree in the trash, the tree will go into the landfill with other garbage and create greenhouse gases,” Recology’s Waste Zero Manager Tammy Del Bene said in an email. By choosing to recycle, the tree will “become nutrient rich compost in the future.”

How to keep the holidays green

To help inform residents where and when they can make sure their trees are going to a better place, San Mateo County’s Recycle Works program puts out a holiday recycling guide.

To start, all stands, lights, tinsel, ornaments or any decorations must be removed; trees placed in bags also won’t be recycled. Most of the refuse collectors throughout the county will have special trucks running through January that will pick up trees. In many areas, they can be simply left out where one would place their trash bins, although it’s preferable for residents to put them out at the same time their compost is collected. Depending on where one lives, trash collectors may require the trees are cut into pieces ranging from 8 feet to 4 feet, according to the holiday guide.

For those who aren’t quite ready to part with their Christmas trees, disposing of them after January requires they be cut up and placed inside the compost bin.

Unfortunately, composting is uncommon for many multi-family apartments, townhomes or condominiums. But building managers are encouraged to call and schedule a group pickup for tenants to avoid leftover trees scattered around their buildings.

Trees aren’t the only holiday-related items residents are encouraged to properly dispose. Wrapping paper, while festive for gift givers, can quickly pile up. Most paper, other than the metallic or cellophane kind, is recyclable, said Tong.

But the best solution is to reuse larger pieces of wrapping paper, Tong said.

Reusing materials can be a bonus to the planet as an estimated 38,000 miles of ribbon is thrown away each year — enough to tie a bow around the Earth, according to CalRecycle.

With many opting to shop online, La Mariana said the cardboard boxes are an increasingly important item to recycle.

Looking toward next year, there’s a variety of more sustainable solutions to indulging in the holiday spirit. Renting a live planted Christmas tree is a great option; as is ditching the metallic tinsel and decorating trees with biodegradable strands of popcorn or macaroni, Tong said.

An estimated 2.6 billion holiday cards are sold each year in the United States, making electronic greeting cards a great option, according to CalRecycle.

So as the holidays end and revelers wind down, it’s a great time to remember sustainable options are year-round.

“Our society has made a statement that we want to reuse and divert as much material from landfills as possible,” La Mariana said. “We’re working very hard to capture the material and give it another useful life. I think that’s a really cool thing.”

Visit to find out how and when San Mateo County residents can recycle Christmas trees.

(650) 344-5200 ext. 106

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