• Ventura County Star: Eye on the Environment - Getting to bottom of Christmas tree flocking eco-mystery - Tuesday, December 16, 2014 at

  • David Goldstein
    Ventura County Star
    By Dec 14, 2014

    "Flocking" is a strange-sounding word for the subject of an ecological debate. Flocking as an environmental issue does not represent flocks of birds, but rather is the term for a snow-like decoration on a Christmas tree.

    Flocking is sprayed onto the needles of pines and firs, simulating trees in climates far colder than ours. According to local Christmas tree sellers, flocking with "high intensity colors" is also gaining popularity. People are increasingly having their trees sprayed with hues such as red, purple, pink and yellow. Even black trees are gaining a fraction of market share against traditional white flocking. Answers about the environmental consequences of flocking depend on whom you ask, and the subject seems fraught with misperceptions. Untangling the mystery of recycling flocked Christmas trees sheds light on issues of public perception, producer responsibility and recycling
    For years, local public agencies and private refuse haulers included in their holiday messages a warning not to recycle flocked trees. Compost and mulch makers, such as Agromin, were concerned about endangering their organic certification, and no one wanted to risk contaminating loads of recycled trees with chemicals from a comparably few undesirable trees. While tens of thousands of Christmas trees were regularly recycled each year in Ventura County, hundreds of flocked trees were sent to landfills.

    In accordance with instructions from private refuse haulers and public recycling coordinators, homeowners cut flocked trees into pieces and diligently placed them into trash carts instead of yard waste recycling carts. Trees dropped off at official sites were also segregated, with flocked trees sent to landfills and non-flocked ones given a second life as mulch.

    But last year, Dave Lidren, who works for Agromin during most of the year and operates Big Wave Dave's Christmas Tree Lots the rest of the year, convincingly presented the Christmas tree flocking industry's case. Harrison Industries and Agromin, its affiliated compost company, agreed to accept flocked trees this year, and some of the public agencies managing areas where the Harrison companies haul refuse have altered their messages.

    What changed? According to Lidren and his supplier, Mark "Tito" Anthony, nothing changed with the flocking itself, only the dyes and adhesives may have changed. Anthony manufactures the flocking material used by Lidren and claims it is 98 percent wood pulp.

    "It’s like paper," he said. The other 2 percent, he said, is adhesive, dye and nontoxic boron for flame retardant.

    I followed up regarding the adhesive and dye, and he referred me to supplier Greg Szuba, vice president of Peak Seasons Inc.

    Szuba first said much of the flocking is made from cotton-based pulp instead of paper, the adhesive is made from corn starch (supplied by Ingredion Inc. in Los Angeles) and the dye is made by Keystone Aniline Inc. in Chicago.

    Rick Stover, senior technical sales representative at Keystone, showed me safety sheets stating the dyes are nontoxic.

    Nevertheless, Dave Green, who manages organic certification for Agromin's main compost site near Oxnard, remains on the lookout for flocked trees. He cited strict standards his company must follow to retain its organic certification. Even the corn starch could be a problem unless it can be certified free of genetically modified organisms, as is the product used by Big Wave Dave's.

    Last year, just a week before Christmas, Green first heard news of the initiative to remove prohibitions on recycling flocked trees. This year, Green is optimistic all the trees he receives will be diverted from area landfills. He plans to segregate flocked trees and make them into mulch or biofuel, rather than certified organic compost.

    The verdict: To ensure your tree is as recyclable as possible, avoid flocking. If you do flock, keep your eye on the environment and recycle your tree in your yard waste cart, rather than disposing it in your refuse cart.

    David Goldstein is an environmental resource analyst for the county of Ventura. Representatives of government or nonprofit agencies who want to submit articles on environmental topics for this column should contact Goldstein at 658-4312 or david.goldstein@ventura.org.

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