Return of the trees Recycling: Ikea's 'leasing' program allows the environmentally correct to dispose of Christmas trees properly.

January 12, 1998|By Joanne E. Morvay | Joanne E. Morvay,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Two weeks after the holiday ended and five weeks after they'd brought them home, customers of the Ikea store in White Marsh were making the ultimate returns this weekend: their Christmas trees.

They came in minivans with trees strapped to the roofs, pickup trucks with spent trees rolling around in the beds, even compact cars, trees inside, drying branches pressed against driver's seats, dropping needles on the upholstery.

These were people who had taken part in Ikea's annual Christmas tree "leasing" program -- a promotion that trades a cut-rate price on a handsome evergreen for a promise to return the tree to be recycled instead of abandoned on a sidewalk.

On a sunny Saturday, the first of two days scheduled for the tree return, vehicles were 10 deep and a pile of trees measuring 150 feet by 20 feet was 6 feet deep and growing.

Trees some had spent an hour choosing, weighing the merits of each and carefully measuring for proper height and width, were unceremoniously dumped in the far end of the store parking lot. Strands of tinsel glittered on the asphalt, and a few withered boughs of holly peeked out from drying fir branches.

The tree project is Ikea's yearly effort to encourage recycling and build good will among customers and the surrounding community. Returned trees are recycled into mulch on the spot and customers are allowed to take home as much as they want for free.

The majority of the trees returned Saturday, though, were still so green that the sap in their trunks jammed the chipper being used to reduce them to mulch. The machine soon broke, forcing the Baltimore County contractor recycling the trees to make an emergency trip to buy a new one.

Sweden-based Ikea has been "leasing" Christmas trees to customers in the United States since 1985. The Baltimore store began the practice shortly after it opened in September 1988. White Marsh store manager Mike Lahey said it was slow going for a few years until customers caught on. This year the store distributed 3,000 trees in just two days.

Ikea spokeswoman Marty Marston said the company thinks the tree program "takes home furnishings one step further."

Customers "lease" the cut trees for $20 plus tax, paying a $10 security deposit and $10 "rent." Those who return the trees, along with the "lease agreement," may get their security deposit back or receive a coupon good for $20 off a $100 purchase at the store.

In conjunction with the National Arbor Day Foundation, Ikea also plants a new tree for every tree returned. Previously, the saplings were planted at national parks like Yellowstone. This year, the plan is to work with elementary and middle schools near each store to have the trees planted in the local community. The company estimates it will have planted 100,000 trees by the end of this year.

Trees distributed by the East Coast stores were trucked in from Pennsylvania in early December. If the relatively low $20 price inspires visions of "Charlie Brown" Christmas trees with spindly branches and droopy needles, think again. These trees range from five to 15 feet tall, and could bring triple or quadruple the price at your neighborhood tree lot.

Richard and Mela Just of Columbia returned a bushy 13-foot fir Saturday. The tree -- which the couple had stood in a corner of their apartment because they had only enough ornaments to cover two-thirds of the branches -- almost completely covered the roof of their taupe Toyota Camry.

"We don't usually get real trees because we don't like the environmental idea of cutting a tree down for one day of celebration," explained Mela Just. But Ikea's recycling program has made them loyal customers.

In fact, the lease agreement sorely tested the environmentally correct couple's commitment to recycling. Richard Just lamented having to let his still-thriving tree go Saturday. He'd hoped it could have died a "natural" death in their living room.

John DiCamillo of Hamilton had told his wife, Sally, that they'd be the only ones bringing a tree back Saturday. he was surprised to find tree leasers' cars lined up instead.

Ikea's Marston said the chain records a 75 to 80 percent return rate for the trees each year, with most customers opting for the cash deposit. By the end of business yesterday, said Ikea operations manager Jenny Bilsky, 2,313 trees had been returned. (The store plans to accept leased trees from a few stragglers through today.)

Dorothy Williams and Walter Byrd, both of Baltimore, admitted they don't shop at Ikea. Both in their middle 50s, and the store, with its sleek chrome, glass and blond wood furnishings, is too ultra-modern for their taste.

"But you can't beat the price of these trees," Williams said as Byrd finished removing two seven-footers from the top of her turquoise minivan.

Though the tree return conveniently coincides with the last weekend of the store's yearly winter sale, chain spokeswoman Marston said that is not the real motive.

"We do this totally at a loss," she insisted.

This year's unseasonably warm weather made the return process easier on store staff, but many environmentally minded Ikea tree customers bring their trees back no matter what the weather.

Two years ago this week, after one of the worst Baltimore blizzards this century, "there were people out there bringing their trees back," store manager Mike Lahey chuckled.

Pub Date: 1/12/98

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