Christmas tree lying on sidewalk

Christmas is over and the tree may be starting to look a little sad. But how do you dispose of the tree? Christmas tree recycling, or treecycling, is the responsible way to dispose of cut live trees at the end of the holiday season.

Why not just have the trash haulers put it in the landfill? Organic waste in landfills slowly degrades, creating methane, a potent greenhouse gas. But that old fir tree can become mulch or compost; or be used to help prevent erosion or provide wildlife habitat. So, as you get ready to undeck the halls, here are a few helpful tips to guarantee your Christmas tree doesn’t end up in a landfill.

1. Ask the Important Question

What happens next to my tree? The truth is that just because someone picks up your tree, it doesn’t mean it won’t end up in a landfill. Unless you ask before the tree leaves your property, how will you know for sure where it’s headed?

Plus, when you recycle your tree, you may actually get some freebies. In cities such as New York, Denver, and Austin, Christmas trees are mulched, and the remaining material is made available to the public free of charge. Your community may also offer the tree mulch to residents, saving you money on garden supplies in the spring.

2. Be Timely

Are you the neighbor who keeps the Christmas lights up until March? With Christmas trees, timing is of the essence because most recycling programs only last a few weeks into January.

If your curbside collection program accepts trees, it likely only does so for two or three weeks, because it often requires a separate truck to haul the extra waste. Plus, many yard waste facilities operate under special hours in January, as there isn’t a lot of yard waste to compost when trees are bare and there’s snow on the ground. If you’re late on recycling your tree, your curbside program may consider your tree to be “bulky waste,” thus requiring an extra fee.

A good rule of thumb is once you flip the calendar to January, start packing up the lights and ornaments and get your tree ready to recycle.

3. Keep It Simple

The value of recycling Christmas trees is that they are considered organic waste, which means they can be composted or mulched.

But the tree is only organic if you restore it to its original form. In other words, remove all the lights, ornaments, and tinsel. Another recycling nightmare is the “flocked” tree, in which the tree is spray-painted white for a more “wintry” feel. Flocking pretty much guarantees that the tree will end up in the landfill, so consider this while you’re dreaming of a white Christmas.

If you’re recycling the tree in a curbside program, make sure it doesn’t block your other bins, because there are typically different trucks that haul each type of waste. For larger trees, cutting them in half will make them easier to transport.

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Spend

You may be asking yourself: “I’m doing a good thing for the environment, so why should I have to pay for it?” The answer is that it takes money to turn a Christmas tree into something usable, whether it’s mulch or compost. If you’re dealing with a recycler that isn’t paid by taxes, it’s only logical to pay for disposal.

Often, you can find Boy Scout troops that will collect trees from your curb and take them to a recycler for you. In most cases, this is a fundraiser for the troop, so the money you spend will support Boy Scout programs.

If you are taking your tree to a yard waste facility, you will probably pay a fee, based on weight. The posted signs are usually based on per-ton charges, so don’t be scared away when you see $20+. Once your tree is weighed, it will likely cost less than $5 to recycle.

5. Recycle It Yourself

Can’t get your tree to the curb on time or just don’t want to pay fees? There are plenty of responsible ways to dispose of the tree on your own without a treecycling program.

  • Chop it into firewood and kindling. A standard noble fir tree can be turned into more than 13 pounds of firewood to keep you warm this winter. Just make sure you give it plenty of time to dry first (six months to a year, depending on climate) so that it burns cleaner.
  • Improve water quality. If you have a pond or other body of water on your property, tossing in your Christmas tree helps the fish by providing shelter and nutrients. Be sure to remove all ornaments and tinsel first. Many communities have drop-off locations near bodies of water for this purpose. If you do not own the body of water (such as beach-front properties), you must get permission before disposing of your tree in this way.
  • Make your own coasters. If you’re ready to get crafty, shake off the needles into your yard to use as mulch, then cut the trunk into rustic coasters.

Is your tree ready for treecycling? Use Earth911 recycling search to find a location for Christmas tree recycling options near you.

Need help cleaning up the rest of your holiday waste? Check out Post-Christmas: The Eco Way to Dispose of Holiday Trappings.

Feature image courtesy of 8moments, Pixabay. Originally published on Dec. 27, 2010, this article was updated in December 2021.

By Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.