It all started when Nancy Sreenan looked out her back-porch window and saw two garbagemen hauling her Christmas tree away. “They were dumping the Christmas tree with the regular garbage,” says Sreenan, who lives with her husband and daughter on the near northwest side. “I knew that wasn’t right because I knew the city was supposed to collect the Christmas trees separately and then recycle them.”

She bolted from her house into the alley, beginning a daylong phone odyssey through the depths of the city’s bureaucracy–a trek that exposed her to the city’s indifference to and ignorance about garbage disposal, one of the most pressing problems of our time.

Sreenan knew city officials had made an offer in December to recycle every Christmas tree in Chicago. It was a bold offer, enthusiastically applauded by environmentalists. After all, the more recyclable products that are removed from the city’s waste stream, the less garbage there is to be burned in pollution-producing incinerators or dumped in landfills–which, at the current rate of disposal, will be filled by 1992.

No doubt about it, Christmas trees are recyclable. Fed through an electric saw called a chipper, the bits and pieces of squashed bark, needles, and wood make excellent mulch. “The average Christmas tree is about five pounds,” says Edith Makra, an urban forester with the Open Lands Project, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving open space. “We estimate that there are at least 100,000 Christmas trees in Chicago, which, if recycled, means about 500,000 pounds or 10,000 cubic yards of landfill space saved and 10,000 cubic yards of mulch created.

“The great thing about mulch is that we can use it to help other trees and plants grow. If you spread mulch around a tree it decomposes, and as it decomposes it releases nutrients into the soil. It also acts as a buffer, making the ground warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. And it retains soil moisture, which means you don’t have to water your tree as much.”

After a limited Christmas-tree-collection effort last year, city and Park District officials decided this year they’d go all out. Garbagemen would collect and deposit the trees at various parks. There Park District workers would grind them into mulch, to be spread around trees in parks all over the city.

“It’s a great idea,” says Sreenan, a dedicated environmentalist who recycles her family’s newspapers, bottles, and cans. “That’s why I was so outraged when I saw what my garbagemen were doing. They were throwing away a valuable opportunity to reduce our landfill waste. So I ran out into the alley and I said ‘What are you doing with my tree?’ One guy said ‘We’re picking it up because we’re not doing the special tree collection anymore.’

“I knew that was false. I knew the tree-collection routes would run January 13, 17, 18, and 19–and this was Thursday, January the 19th. I said ‘You’re wrong.’ He said ‘No, you’re wrong,’ I would have said ‘No, you’re wrong,’ but I realized he wasn’t the guy to argue with. I mean, I like my garbagemen–this wasn’t the first time I’ve talked to them. Generally, they do a really good job. So I said ‘You aren’t taking my tree” and I walked back into my house.”

It bothered her. Sreenan lives in the 47th Ward, where the garbage crews are among the hardest working and most conscientious in the city. If they were mixing trees and garbage, it could only be happening in every ward. She opened her phone book to Streets and Sanitation and dialed the number listed under the heading “Central Complaint & Inquiry.” The woman who answered told Sreenan to call the Park District for information about Christmas-tree collections.

Sreenan did just that. An operator put her on hold, which gave her time to think. The more she thought, the more she realized that the woman from Streets and Sanitation was wrong, that it was ludicrous to ask the Park District about garbage collection. She hung up, called Streets and Sanitation back, and demanded that the receptionist connect her with the office supervisor. A woman who said her name was Ms. Brady answered.

“I told her what had happened,” says Sreenan. “And this lady–this Ms. Brady–said ‘No, you’re wrong. There is no more tree collection.’ I said ‘But the radio says there is.’ She said ‘The radio’s wrong.’ I said ‘But Open Lands says there is.’ She said ‘Open Lands is wrong.’ I said ‘But it’s in the newspaper.’ She said ‘The newspapers are wrong.’ No matter what I said, she said it was wrong. I got really mad and said ‘I wish someone in Streets and Sanitation gave a hoot about recycling!’ And that shut her up.”

Momentarily confounded, Sreenan called the Park District back. Some bureaucrat assured her that she was far from being wrong, that she was right. Streets and Sanitation was the right department to call, and Christmas trees should still be collected separately. He told her he completely understood her frustration and that, in his opinion, most city workers were nothing more than a bunch of buffoons. He suggested she take her story to the press.

The Park District employee made Sreenan feel better, but that wouldn’t save the Christmas trees in her ward from getting mashed with the rest of the garbage. So she dialed the number, from the back of a card that had been handed to her months ago, of the Streets and Sanitation employee in charge of garbage collection in her ward.

“He was more knowledgeable than the people downtown,” says Sreenan. “But he wasn’t big on the idea of recycling. He said it would cost a lot of money–which isn’t true–and that it would cause problems with the unions, and that no big city had tried it. I said ‘What about Portland, Oregon, and Minneapolis?’ And he said ‘Those aren’t big cities.’ Like if New York isn’t doing it, Chicago can’t do it either.

“Then he told me that one of his workers hurt himself picking up a tree–I guess he pricked himself with a needle. And that the problem is we have too much mulch. That’s when I realized he didn’t really know what mulch was. A lot of people don’t know what mulch is.”

Sreenan hung up and called Eugene Schulter, her alderman. His secretary told her to call the “Pine Line.” “It turns out that Streets and Sanitation has a special phone line called the ‘Recycle the Holiday Spirit Pine Line’–or something like that–to handle questions about the Christmas-tree recycling,” Sreenan says. “And no one–not even the people at the inquiry office–knew enough to tell me that. I had to get that information from the alderman’s secretary.”

Sreenan called the Pine Line. “I got this guy who told me that the problem is that we have too many trees. Which made me even madder. You would figure that the guy who operates the Pine Line would know that there can’t be too many trees.”

She hung up, called Open Lands, and was connected to Edith Makra. “Of all the people I talked to, Edith was the nicest,” says Sreenan. “She put my outrage into perspective. She said ‘Listen, this is only the second year that Chicago has tried this, and we’re the only city in the United States that’s even doing it, so there’s going to be some mistakes.’ She said it was ironic that my ward should have this problem because Schulter is one of the few aldermen who’s up on the issue.”

Sreenan felt better after talking to Makra, but she decided to call Schulter, just to keep him posted. “Schulter gasped when I told him what had happened,” she says. “I couldn’t decide if he was being facetious. I said ‘Are you really shocked?’ He said ‘Yes, I am.’ Apparently, until I called, he didn’t know what his garbagemen were doing. I said ‘Don’t be shocked. There are a lot of stories like this out in the naked city.’ Although I probably didn’t really say ‘naked city.'”

Sreenan then called Ms. Brady at Streets and Sanitation back. “Just to sort of rub it in and let her know that I had been right all along. And she said ‘I never told you those things.’ I said ‘Yes, you did.’ She said ‘No, I didn’t.’ Sure enough, the more I listened, the more I realized that she wasn’t the ‘Ms. Brady’ I had talked to. The person I had talked to had been an impostor. That left me feeling mad and unsatisfied, because I’ll never know who it was that sent me off on this wild-goose chase in the first place.”

So that was that. She’d already done more than most citizens would have thought of doing. If those who run Chicago don’t care whether it collapses under a heap of garbage, well, there’s not much one little citizen can do. Except recycle her Christmas tree.

Which Sreenan did. She took her tree to the north-side park Rogers Park, just like the Pine Line man told her. To get the address, she called the Rogers Park field house. “Some guy answered the phone and said it’s on Jarlath Street. I said ‘Jarlath? How do you spell it?’ He said ‘J-a-r-l-t-h.’ I said ‘That’s not Jarlath, that’s Jarlth.’ He said ‘Oh.’ So I go up there, and it turns out it is Jarlath. Isn’t that a fitting end to this ordeal? The guy doesn’t even know the name of the street he works on.

“I left my tree on a pile of other trees at Rogers Park, and I thought ‘My poor old tree has a better chance of being chipped here than it does in my alley.’ Of course, for all I know, they threw it into the garbage as soon as I left.”

Officials from Streets and Sanitation blame the collection problem on the unseasonably warm weather. “We thought we’d free up extra garbage trucks for the special tree collection because regular garbage collection usually falls off after New Year’s,” says Kirsten Svare, the department’s spokesperson, echoing one of several explanations the Pine Line man had offered Sreenan. “It’s usually cold in January, and people don’t take out as much garbage. That hasn’t been true this year, so we weren’t able to make a lot of special tree runs. We’ll do better next year as we refine procedures.”

Maybe next year it’ll be cold.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.