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Following the fate of the Christmas tree

Erica Mu
Volunteers anchor unsold Christmas trees to chains at the edge of Quarry Lake in Fremont.

If you’re like me, the sight of inflatable Santa’s and fake, twinkling icicles anytime after December 25th, may cause you to roll down the car window and yell out, “Christmas is over!" I’m no Grinch; I just think holiday sentimentality has its place, and its expiration date is approximately 11:59 p.m. on December 25th. And while my neighbors can continue to flaunt their cheerful, plastic, and permanently anchored reindeer, there is one thing they really have to get rid of: their Christmas tree.

Throughout January, people dump their evergreens on the side of the road, where I have to look at them all month long. Well, I decided to do something different this year, and follow these ghosts of Christmas past as they travel from the lot, to the lake and landfill.

On a brisk Saturday morning at the muddy edge of Quarry Lake in Fremont, Pete Alexander, manager of the East Bay Regional Park Fisheries Program is teaching a group of 75 volunteers how to tie a Christmas tree to a heavy chain. It’s a strange sight, and some of the younger volunteers aren’t sure how to explain it. Cale Milamacke of Castro Valley thinks they're throwing trees into a lake. Jatel Dasai of San Jose was told that they're planting the furry, dead plants on the shoreline. But a hesitant Emily Williams of Fremont is spot on when she tells me that they're making habitat for fish.

Bundled up at the edge of the lake are 800 to 1,000 used Christmas trees, and the morning's young volunteers are fluffing them up, laying them down and tying them to chains spreading like rays from the edge of the lake. When the lake fills after a heavy rainfall, the limbs of the Christmas tree will become submerged and covered with algae, creating a nutrient source for insects and food and hiding places for fish. 

"Instead of a flat, two-dimensional bottom you have a three-dimensional bottom," explains fisheries manager Alexander. "It'll look like an underwater reef harboring large and small mouth bass."

But what about the rest of the Christmas trees that don't find their way to Quarry Lake? After the holidays, the Bay Area’s got maybe a million to get rid of. That’s where the Diamond 1463B comes in.

The Diamond 1463B is the two-week old, 1200 horsepower, industry-grade grinder at the Newby Island Compost Facility in Milpitas. If you live on the Peninsula and put your Christmas tree in the compost bin… well, now you know what happened to it.

Once these Christmas trees meet the Diamond 1436B, the chopped up remains are added to seven-foot high rows of decomposing yard waste for the next 51 days. The result? Perfect fodder for garden beds, golf courses and erosion control.

Standing here in front of the grinder, a song pops into my head. Maybe it’s not so bad to extend the holidays. Christmas trees do have a life after Christmas, and it’s not standing limply in my neighbor’s living room window. They’re making the Bay Area a better place.

Now if only I could get that plastic reindeer to the Diamond 1463B...

Have you got a favorite Christmas tree disposal story? A particular post-advent adventure with your Douglas fir you’d like to tell us about? Let us know on ourFacebook page.

This story originally aired on January 4, 2011.

Erica Mu is a reporter and producer for the "Hear Here: A Pop-Up Radio Project" in conjunction with KALW and the Association of Independents in Radio. Mu has reported on the serious side of health and the quirky side of arts, and she's also helped KALW pioneer the digital frontier as the news team’s web strategist and editor. Mu has also organized and directed KALW’s live storytelling events.