The Guilt of Trees

Last week in Stockholm was tossing-out-your-tree week. Those Christmas trees (and not Holiday trees) have served their purpose and, although still green, are suddenly worth as much as a Middle Eastern ceasefire agreement.

The thing is that the Swedes like to toss their trees out on the nearest street corner. I thought this was a cute tradition, until I read in the papers that nobody is actually prepared to pick them up, and that everybody just does this out of sheer laziness.


The local authorities in Stockholm are complaining loudly about this, and are annoyed that they have to use up extra resources to schlepp those trees off the streets.

The thing is: this happens every year. And when you notice that something happens on an annual basis then you should actually be prepared for it. You can pour as much guilt on the public as you want, but if they are not presented with an easy way to solve a problem, then people will FIND an easy way – that is, tossing the trees onto the street.

Now this is a reflection of a very basic fact of human nature, and a thing that reaches into most problems faced by humanity: we do what is easiest for us.

And there are, you see, 2 things you can do when faced with something that everybody does and that is seen as “problem behaviour”.

The first thing is try and get people to change. To do this you can offer incentives (usually economic); you can make and enforce laws; or you can try and make people feel guilty. Only the first two of these work. The environmental lobby has been trying the third one for years and while it may work partially, for a time, there will always be a backlash. Because, simply, people get bored with constant guilt. It’s a pain in the arse.

The second thing you can do is to realise that if you cannot change human behaviour then you instead embrace it and exploit it. Now this one is more difficult to do, although it can be done. For example (and this comes from the excellent, life-changing book Cradle to Cradle), if you notice that people toss their paper coffee cups from the train and they end up all over the countryside, then you could changed the material the cups are made from to something biodegradable which feeds the soil, plus you put a seed in each one, so that a new tree will sprout where they land.

For the tree problem, you might heartily encourage people to throw their trees on the street on a certain evening. You make it a big event, like a party, and drive a few trucks around to receive them. Or you might instead give a small bounty for each tree brought in and get the school kids to do it for you.

Guilt is counter-productive; just ask any ex-Catholic. And keep in mind that any argument starting with the phrase “if only everybody would” is doomed to failure. Because everybody won’t, and you damned well know it.

/ paddy


18 thoughts on “The Guilt of Trees

  1. Dot-com’s comment vastly amused me. I guess the concept of fake trees in a country like Sweden- well, the English have a phrase about taking coals to Newcastle!!

    I absolutely agree with you, paddy, people won’t change that sort of behaviour, so install tree re-cycling bins for the month after Christmas!

  2. An enterprising landscape gardener where I life collects the trees, chips em and sells the mulch as a weed suppressent (no I cant spell that). and it smells NICE!!
    Wow….. the Irish being more environmentally friendly than ther Swedes… shock!!

  3. Ditch your tree-event sounds like a brilliant idea! In DK we’re for once ahead of the Swedes… there is already a ditch your tree event but no party attached :( you just leave your tree out before a certain date where they are collected. Smoothly in the dusk of morning, one day all the Christmas trees are gone. As is Christmas.

  4. I live in California and I seem to remember that all trees purchased at IKEA, would receive cash back if returned to them for recycling. Does that exist in Sweden? I loved the YouTube video.

  5. Christmas trees were thrown out into the street as long ago as in the 1940’s and 50’s when I was a child. I well remember a special ‘ throwing out Christmas’ party I went to were all the children sang the last verse in a particular Christmas song, which was all about Christmas being over. Then, when we had finished singing we stamped our feet, first quietly, then as hard as we could on the floor until the noice was tremendeous. Whilst we did this we used our voices , also quietly at first but then louder and louder until we literally howled. That was when an adult would pick up the tree and throw it out the window. Great fun!
    So, as you can see, to throw out your Christmas tree in the street is a tradition in Sweden. :)

  6. Can it be true that trees are just left to rot on the streets of Stockholm? Someone removes them coz they are not there for months on end… Out here in the burbs of Stochkolm we use them for firewood, or leave them out to decompose and make mulch in specially designated areas, or take them to the dump where they are then recycled to make furniture and loo paper.

  7. Mr Of Mulroy: Shocking, I know.

    christina: We can call in Tree-Day.

    Gutsy Writer: No, and its terrible since the Swedes invented the damned thing. IKEA, I mean.

    Lillan: Now all we have to do is to get the authorities to remember!

    ladyFi: Inner city yuppies, all of us.

  8. Once I heard that people could bring them to some squars in the city, and then people assumed that they could bring the trees to all open places. And very seldom I see people throw them on the streets, but they bring it to a open space and after a while a little hill appear and people think its ok and do it every year. So they are not lazy, but there are no place for us in the city to throw things, yes glas and paper we can recycle, but not bigger stuff like sofas and an old computer. You need a car to take them outside the city or call the service to pic them up, and both cost a lot. In the surb there are almost a room for that kind of garbage in all buildings, but people are so lazy, uneducated, mental or what, becuase they put their crap on the street anyway. Maybe a human behavour.

  9. H: I don’t blame the people at all, I blame the assholes in “charge” who try to make the public feel guilty because THEY have not organised things properly. And they assume that everybody has a car. Let’s just dump them all at the city hall next year instead!

  10. This seems like a study in human nature to me. Do people not use wood for fires in Sweden? Or do people not make fires?

    Just seems like a waste of good wood to me. But the country could create jobs and have the council pick them up, right?

  11. Ha! Know what you mean about counter-productive guilt.

    This tree-tossing thing would never happen in Japan. A Japanese trash-monitor neighbor would inevitably drag the tree from the trash area, knock on the door of the (non-Japanese) offender, and kindly mention that said person had “dropped something” and might want it back. Into the back of the van it would go, to be dropped off a cliff in the countryside under cover of darkness…

  12. Weird. Just about everywhere I’ve lived in the States, except out in the country where everyone has a big spread that you can just lose a dead Christmas tree on, the local government has had a regular pickup, sometime between Epiphany and Martin Luther King Day. It’s coordinated by the same people who pick up the trash.

    I know this is a stupid question, but do you have regular trash pick up in the city?

  13. Po: Give people MONEY to do menial and necessary work? Now that would never work in Sweden!

    dianeinjapan: Or set free in a forest, to join its wild brothers.

    Kaleberg: Yes, the Swedes are very proud of their trash collection and recycling. But occasionally they are not good with accepting reality.

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