Here’s how and where to recycle your Christmas tree


This year and any year, when you toss out your tannenbaum don’t think of it as trash.

Recycling programs for live cut Christmas trees have greatly expanded in the past couple of decades, and more cities and counties offer — and even prefer — pickup or drop-off recycling programs over stuffing discarded trees into trash bins or cluttering up the curb. Trees can clog garbage truck compactors or crowd landfills before a slow decomposition.

“Having a live tree during the holidays is a great way to celebrate the season, and knowing how to recycle them afterward is a great way to celebrate the Earth,” says Dan Lambe, president of the Arbor Day Foundation. “We hope to encourage people to find out different ways they can positively impact the environment by recycling their trees.”

“Having a live tree during the holidays is a great way to celebrate the season, and knowing how to recycle them afterward is a great way to celebrate the Earth.”

The traditional live tree is a relatively expensive holiday addition to begin with, so it makes sense to stretch its use: for your own backyard; community hiking paths; cozy fish nurseries; or even as a food source for farm animals — and adventurous human diners, as this quirky restaurant trend reveals.

The National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) expected roughly 46.9% of American households to buy a Christmas tree in 2021. All told, we probably spent $6.1 billion on some form of festive evergreen this year, paying an average of $83.39 for each real tree and $118.08 for each artificial tree.

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Many communities will advise on smarter ways to dispose of your live cut Christmas tree, or any live wreaths and garland. In fact, local ordinances and facilities may vary greatly, so it’s best to search the specifics in your area — for instance, here’s what St. Louis, Chicago, New Orleans, Boston and Washington, D.C. offer this year.

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New York City, for one, has made a ritual of Christmas tree reuse, promoting “Mulchfest” through its festival listings. Many parks participate, so it’s increasingly convenient to find a pal and march your tree over to the collection point. The resulting mulch is used in parks across the city, and some locations offer take-home bags.

“Inwood Hill Park is right across the street, and Mulchfest always smells amazing,” a newsroom colleague says. “They scatter most of the mulch around the park, so it smells like Christmas trees when you walk through there for weeks.”

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It’s also important to remember what to avoid when tossing out your tree. Be courteous if you share a trash and recycling area, meaning don’t limit others’ access with your discarded 8-footer. And, never burn your Christmas tree in a fireplace or wood stove. The sap can flare, but there are other reasons.

Consider these tree-recycling options (provided by the NCTA and gardening and nursery experts):

Curbside pick-up for trash or recycling: Many providers will collect trees during regular pick-up schedules during the two weeks following Christmas. NCTA counts more than 4,000 such recycling programs across the country. There are often requirements for size, removing ornaments, flocking, etc. Your hauler will notify you of pick-up dates in your area, or be sure to check yourself, as dates may be limited.

Take your tree to a drop-off recycling center: Most counties and cities have free drop-off locations. Often, you may take up to two trees to a location at no charge.

Tree recycling/mulching programs: Check with your local department of public works or park service for information. These departments often chip and shred the trees, then make the mulch available for use in your garden. Mulch itself is a natural weed suppressant that cuts down on chemical use.

Nonprofit pick-up: Some Scout troops, schools or other charities may fundraise with a pick-up service for a small donation.

Leave your tree as-is, for a bird feeder: Place the intact Christmas tree in the garden or backyard, and use it as a bird feeder and sanctuary. Fresh orange slices or strung popcorn will attract the birds, and they can sit in the branches for shelter. Make sure all decorations, hooks, garland and tinsel strands are removed. Eventually, typically within a year, the branches will become brittle and you can break the tree apart by hand or chip it by machine.

Start a new compost pile: A layer of thin evergreen branches makes a sound base for a new compost pile, home repair and design site The Spruce advises. The branches allow for airflow at the bottom of the pile, although keep in mind the branches will break down more slowly than smaller organic materials. Just trim the branches so they fit in your bin, and stack them four to six inches high. Then start adding your kitchen scraps and other compostables.

Community-minded

Soil erosion barriers: Some communities use Christmas trees to make effective sand and soil erosion barriers, especially for lake and river shoreline stabilization and river delta sedimentation management.

Fish feeders: Sunk into private or public fish ponds, trees make an excellent habitat and feeding area for fish. In fact, these created “reefs” act as protective nurseries where smaller fish can take refuge.

Paths for hiking trails: Some regions use shredded trees as a free, renewable and natural path material that helps the environment and meets the needs of hikers.

Feed for farm animals (with permission): Pine needles contain small amounts of nutrients, antioxidants, minerals and fiber. They’re also a natural de-wormer. Goats, in particular, are fond of the firs. Massachusetts-based Channell Homestead has some advice: make sure the trees haven’t been sprayed with pesticides or fire retardant; the tree must be alive as goats and other farm animals won’t eat dead trees; and make sure every last bit of tinsel or other decorations are removed.

Roots and all? A thought for next year

Living, rooted trees are another consideration, although planning and muscle are necessary, so don’t endeavor for a true “live” tree on a whim.

In this case, shoppers source a rooted (ball and burlap or containerized) tree, decorate it for indoor use during the peak holiday season (note that some gardening professionals say to limit that indoor time to about two weeks, shorter than the time that most cut trees are up), then plant the tree in the yard. The replanting marks an opportunity for families to extend their holiday joy and learn more about tree species and gardening.

In colder climates, it’s a good idea to dig the spot in the late fall while the soil is still soft, then plant the tree into that hole immediately after Christmas. Living trees brought from the inside-out have a better survival rate in mild climates. About eight in 10 trees survive when planted outside after Christmas, says Virginia-based Meadows Farms. They offer more tips on planting, including adding a “saucer” sled under the heavy tree for easier mobility from outside to inside and back again.

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However, some experts say the “green” impact of an uncut Christmas tree over a cut tree isn’t as cut and dried as we might think.

Most of the 15,000 Christmas tree farms across the U.S. are family-owned, so when you buy a real cut Christmas tree, you are supporting local economies and contributing to a $1.3 billion per year industry that provides more than 100,000 jobs, industry data shows. Plus, these farms are always replanting, which adds more carbon-absorbing trees, even for their relatively short life. Carbon emissions
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of course are a major driver of global warming.

And there’s more to consider.

“The cut tree is planted as a small seedling, low impact, grown for about seven years, harvested and trucked to market,” Rob Moody from Moody’s Nursery and Garden Center told the Bangor Daily News of Maine. “A live tree is grown from a seedling, low impact, harvested with specialized equipment, trucked to a retailer [and] fewer trees per truckload can be trucked at once, then specialized equipment is used to unload it, [which is a] higher impact” on the carbon footprint.

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