Fewer Christmas trees at curb — and that's fine by P.E.I. sanitation workers

It appears real Christmas trees are not as popular as they once were, according to the sanitation workers who are picking up a lot fewer trees curbside.

Are real Christmas trees not as popular as they once were?

Stephen Howlett stuffs discarded trees into his garbage truck during the annual curbside pickup this week. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Christmas may be the most wonderful time of the year, but it's the aftermath two weeks later that Stephen Howlett dreads the most.

For a week in January, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., he and other drivers at Superior Sanitation leave their garbage routes to pick up thousands of Christmas trees at curbside.

"That's the most hateful job we have," said the Mermaid, P.E.I., man. "It's miserable, plus you have trees covered in snow, you get wet. It's probably my least favourite favourite job."

Pickup ends Saturday

This year's pickup ends Saturday, and while the mild weather over the past few days is certainly welcome, Howlett said most winters the trees are either buried in snow by a plow, stuck in the ice or blown into the ditches. 

Howlett says the Christmas tree pickup is 'the most hateful job we have.' (Pat Martel/CBC)

"Supposed to do the best you can to try to get them," he said. "But if they're too heavy, you can't lift them, you pretty well gotta leave them."

That's the most hateful job we have.— Stephen Howlett

Howlett has noticed the number of real trees left at the curb has dropped dramatically over the past decade. Back then, on one of his runs in the country, he'd pick up 100 trees. This week, there were only 30. The same goes for his other runs.

Figures from Island Waste Management Corporation show a similar drop province-wide, where a decade ago, about 20,000 trees were picked up. Now it's only about 12,000.  

'Risk of fire'

"A lot of the new apartment buildings don't permit real trees because of the risk of fire," Howlett noted.

"As well, we have quite an influx of immigrants in P.E.I. now, especially in the Charlottetown area and a lot of them are not of the Christian faith and they don't celebrate Christmas."

Strong winds sometimes blow the discarded trees into the ditch. 'Supposed to do the best you can to try to get them,' Howlett says. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Other possible reasons for the decline of the real tree include an aging population. As baby boomers get older, they can't lug a large tree into their homes, so many just settle for an artificial tree.

Some Islanders choose to forego a real tree for environmental reasons.

"I know you look at social media, you see a lot of people who don't think people should be cutting down Christmas trees or using Christmas trees because of the environmental effect they have," Howlett said.

Used for mulch

The thousands of trees picked up across the Island this week will be trucked out to the compost facility in Brookfield, where they'll be shredded into chips and used for mulch. 

Howlett says a decade ago, on one of his runs in the country, he'd pick up 100 trees. On the same run this week, there were only 30 trees. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Howlett still puts up a real Christmas tree in his home — for now.

"The wife insists I have a tree up the first of December and leave it up to the first of January and then, of course, it's all dried out," he said. 

"After the mess of needles this year, I don't really care if I ever see one in my house again, either."


Pat Martel has worked with CBC P.E.I. for three decades, mostly with Island Morning where he was a writer-broadcaster and producer. He joined the web team recently to share his passion for great video. Pat also runs an adult coed soccer league in Stratford. He retired in Oct. 2019.