Discarded Christmas trees. Photos: Tracey Taylor

Berkeley is planning to collect old Christmas trees this month, just as it has done for many years. However, the city is now asking residents to cut the tree up into lengths that can fit into their compost carts, prompting some people to complain.

The policy change is an attempt to prevent damage to Berkeley’s plant debris collection trucks, according to Heidi Obermeit, the city’s recycling manager. Trees that are longer than four-feet-long have damaged the side loaders of the trucks in previous years, sidelining them for weeks until they can be repaired, Obermeit said in an email.

The side-loading trucks “are not designed to handle big long trees and when they get shoved into the truck they can damage the plates,” she said.

“We find that trees left at the curb often aren’t cut to appropriate lengths and we also find plant stands still attached,” she said. “Asking community members to place their tree in their cart helps to ensure that all of the non-compostable items like ornaments, lights and tree stands are removed. Plastic and glass are problematic contaminants in the compost program.”

Drivers can also get hurt when they have to hurl trees in the truck rather than have the truck’s automated system lift the compost carts, she said.

The city has grown stricter in recent years about the trees it will pick up. Two years ago it would pick up trees that were five feet long or shorter. Last year, the city said it would only pick up trees shorter than four feet long. Now the tree must be cut up completely.

The announcement of this policy prompted some grumbling on social media.

I think it’s completely ridiculous,” said Sherri Kaiser, who lives around San Pablo Park. “We pay for refuse removal services and the idea that the city won’t pick up our Christmas trees unless we are home lumberjacks seems incredibly silly.”

“Looks like the compost pick up will not include Christmas Trees this year unless they are fully broken down and in the bins (“lids closed”),” Jenny Strauss wrote on Facebook. “This seems ludicrous to me. Many (most?) people don’t have chainsaws or saws sitting around. Many (most?) won’t have seen the notice, or even if they did, won’t have a way to cut down their trees or put in bins, or get to the transfer station.”

Berkeley is requiring that discarded Christmas trees be cut up and put in the green compost bins. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Wendy Muse Sinek said the new tree policy has been the subject of intense discussion in the private email group for her neighborhood around San Pablo Park. She said people already dump junk at certain nearby corners and she worries that those who don’t want to comply with the new policy will leave their desiccated trees there, too.

In addition, her green compost bin is usually full every week, so she does not know how she will find room for a cut-up Christmas tree.

“I can’t see how this can be a good idea for the city,” said Muse Sinek.

Both Kaiser and Strauss wrote to Mayor Jesse Arreguín about the new policy. He replied that he is trying to get the rules overturned.

“I was just informed of this policy this morning by another constituent,” Arreguín wrote to Kaiser in an email. “Councilmember Davila and I were not aware of this policy change. It was done administratively. I have already connected with our City Manager asking for an explanation of why this policy was changed, and asking that we revert to the old practice of recycling whole trees.”

Obermeit acknowledged that this policy change might be difficult for some people. She said that her department has gotten eight calls complaining about the new rules. Residents who don’t have handsaws, she pointed out, can borrow them at the Tool Lending Library at the South Branch/Tarea Hall Pittman Branch at 1901 Russell St.

The city will also run special trucks on Saturday and on Jan. 19 to pick up the trees that are not chopped up and put in the compost bin, she said. Those are rear-loading trucks with “more compaction force and a stronger compaction plate.”

Residents can also bring their old Christmas trees to the Transfer Station at 1201 Second St. for disposal. It is free to drop them off there throughout January.

Obermeit also wanted to remind people that “flocked trees aren’t compostable and have to be landfilled. Our goal is zero waste, so we ask them to avoid flocked trees.”

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...