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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Milwaukee Christmas tree kerfuffle: Curb pick up on track to come back

Christmas trees await chipping at compost site in Wauwatosa.
Compost Crusader
Christmas trees await chipping at compost site in Wauwatosa. Milwaukee Common Council passed a resolution directing DPW to do the same.

'Tis the season to be jolly but not if you were Milwaukee’s sanitation services manager facing a city committee Monday.

The subject was Christmas trees and the Department of Public Works' unexpected announcement last week that crews would not be picking up trees when this holiday season ends.

The Milwaukee Common Council public works committee set a reversal in motion so that resident’s trees would be picked up after all.

Milwaukee Common Council committee meeting
Susan Bence
Monday's Milwaukee Common Council public works committee ordered DPW to collect resident’s Christmas trees.

The City of Milwaukee has been picking up residents’ discarded Christmas trees for the last 30 years and disposing of them in a landfill.

Rick Meyers oversees waste collection as Milwaukee’s sanitation services manager. He told a very displeased group of alderpersons Monday that the city received a letter from the state in January 2023 saying that it should have been composting, not landfilling, Christmas trees.

State law prohibits yard waste from landfill disposal. The state interprets yard waste to include Christmas trees.

But the DPW didn’t announce that change until last week when they told residents they must either bring trees to a city drop off center or make other arrangements for disposal.

Why did it take so long to share that information?

"What we were thinking is it’s not timely … the message may get lost if we start talking about this in July," Meyers said.

Alderperson Jonathan Brostoff responsed, "Well quite frankly, that’s not your call to make."

Fellow committee members echoed their displeasure, including AlderpersonMilele Coggs who pressed him on who made the decision on when to notify the public and council members. Meyers said it was his decision.

"... Had there been more communication, even if you introduced the communication file to public works in January, it would have got the public conversation out there in such a way that maybe residents and business owners would have known," Coggs said.
In the end, the committee chair, Alderperson Bob Baumann, said something must be done now to address confusion and the unanticipated burden the shift in Christmas tree policy would place on city residents.
On Tuesday, the Milwaukee Common Council passed a resolution directing DPW to pick up these trees and dispose of them in a manner that in compliant with Department of Natural Resources requirements. This means the trees can no longer end up in a landfill.

Now the resolution goes to Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson to be signed.

two men talking in a hallway
Susan Bence
Sam Wisneski of Milwaukee Tree Pick Up (left) talking with Robby Friedlen of Compost Crusader (right) after the public works committee meeting Monday.

Meanwhile, there are two private companies working to bring trees to composting sites.

Robby Friedlen, with Compost Crusader, said, "Yeah, it’s interesting because we have been engaged in curbside pickup of Christmas trees and we’re already planning before hearing this to do it again, because as they said, 'Curbside Christmas trees have been landfilled,' that should not be happening."

Compost Crusader picked up an estimated 100 Christmas trees within the City of Milwaukee last year.

"A company like ours is very well poised to that. We have trucks and staff and already run routes and all that," Friedlen said.

A couple of young entrepreneurs were also eager to help. After DPW’s announcement last week, they hatched the idea to start a new business called Milwaukee Tree Pick Up.

Sam Wisneski said residents are already signing up online. "My wife and I, it’s actually Allysa’s idea, … We already have two businesses so we have a staff of about 19 people and we have a couple of vehicles that can haul trees, so we thought we were really well equipped to take this on," he said.

Milwaukee Tree Pick Up is offering pickup within Milwaukee County and said a portion of each transaction will be donated to a local nonprofit, The Milwaukee Diaper Mission. There’s a personal connection here.

"We just had a baby about a month ago. So we’re so excited about that but when we’re trying to think about how we can make a charitable aspect of our business we thought we are buying a ton of diapers and we can’t imagine for folk who don’t have access to the resources to buy those diapers," he said. "So we’re donating 10% of our sales to Milwaukee Diaper Mission."

Wisneski's a strong believer in the power of entrepreneurship in bringing about change. He said he’ll report back to WUWM on how their Christmas tree pickup and delivery to composting sites goes.


Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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