Recycle Your Christmas Tree

Christmas tree

Over the past three weeks, we have spoken with waste officials in more than 40 states while compiling Earth911’s Christmas tree recycling directory, and we noticed some reoccurring trends.

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. Considering the EPA estimates 20 percent of our municipal solid waste is already organic, it’s worth the time to properly dispose of your tree.

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 will be recycled or composted. It could very well end up in a landfill, where it will take additional time to biodegrade.

And this doesn’t only apply to the small rural communities. With a population of more than 200,000, residents of Richmond, Va. will tell you that Christmas trees are collected and not recycled curbside, but you can bring your trees to a yard waste facility for recycling. So, the moral of the story is, unless you ask the person taking your tree, how will you know for sure where it’s headed?

But if that’s not enough incentive, what if we told you that you could actually get some freebies? In cities such as New York and Denver, Christmas trees are mulched, and the remaining material is made available to the public free of charge. Your community may also offer to redistribute the 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.

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, mulched or even converted into fuel. But the tree is only organic if it’s stripped down to its original form, which means removing all the lights, ornaments and tinsel.

Another recycling nightmare is the “flocked” tree, in which the tree is spray painted white for a more “wintery” feel. Flocking pretty much guarantees that the tree will be landfilled, so consider this while you’re dreaming of a white Christmas.

If you’re recycling the tree in a curbside program, you’ll want to make sure it doesn’t block your other bins because there are typically different trucks that haul each product. For larger trees, cutting them in half will make it easier during 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 even landfill cover. If you’re dealing with a recycler that isn’t paid by taxes, it’s only logical to pay for disposal.

This year, Boy Scouts troops across the U.S. 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’re spending will cover gas costs and support Boy Scout programs.

If you are taking your tree to a yard waste facility, you’ll likely be charged a fee that is based on weight. The posted signs are usually based on per-ton charges, so don’t be scared away when you see $15+. Once your tree is weighed, it will likely cost less than $3 to recycle.

5. Recycle It Yourself

If you’re completely opposed to paying fees, or are worried about getting your tree to the curb on time, there are plenty of ways to take care of the tree on your own without a recycling 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. The needles can be used for art projects or as mulch in your backyard.
  • Improve water quality—If you have a pond or other body of water in the backyard, tossing in your Christmas tree actually helps the fish by providing shelter and nutrients. Many communities have drop-off locations near bodies of water for this purpose. If you do not officially own the body of water (such as beach-front properties), you must get permission before disposing of your tree in this way.

Feature image courtesy of Sergé

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Trey Granger
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  3. I live in Davie Florida and I’m still learning and reading about the process of recyling or planting your xmas and I’m totally interested in being a part of this but having a hard time finding a place that does this ..

  4. I must comment on your suggestion to recycle Christmas trees by using them for kindling and burning them. We have always been told that burning pine is a no-no because of dangerous creosote it produces in the chimney. Also, isn’t burning wood a pollutant and really bad for the environment? I like the mulching idea much better. We have a local tree service in town that collects them and chops them up…….and how about putting the tree outside and decorating it with suet and bird “snacks”.

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  9. Sustainable Holiday Trees and Wood Burning
    Being green doesn’t mean getting rid of the beloved traditions in our lives. It means making new traditions, and really thinking about how we can green those traditions. Basically you have three options for your holiday tree listed here in order of sustainability: 1) purchase a live tree to transplant outside, 2) employ a synthetic tree that can be reused, and 3) buy a cut tree that can be repurposed at your home. If like many you choose the later consider buying it from an organic tree farm and using the six methods below to put it to greatest use when ready to dispose.
    1. Cut the branches off and lay them over perennials in your garden. This will provide protection from temperature fluctuations and prevent the plants from heaving out of the soil.
    2. Once you’ve used all the branches, you’ll be left with a trunk. Don’t get rid of it! I’ve used the trunks from a few of our holiday trees to make teepees to grow beans on, rustic fences, and as supports for shade covers and floating row covers.
    3. You can cut the branches up into smaller pieces and use them to mulch your beds or garden paths. Don’t think you need a big, gas-guzzling chipper for this! I use a pair of trusty bypass pruners, and snip a few branches into pieces each time I go out into the garden. It takes a little more time, but it’s free, easy, and doesn’t have any impact on the environment.
    4. Provide a home for the birds. Once you’re done with it indoors, remove the decorations and place your tree, stand and all, out in the yard. Birds will find it and use it as shelter during the winter months. In spring, once the birds don’t need it anymore, either chip it up or lay it on its side in a part of your yard where it can serve as a brush pile for other backyard wildlife.
    5. Cut the branches off and use them at the base of a fresh compost pile. It’s a good idea to have coarser materials, like tree branches, at the bottom of the pile because it helps increase air flow to the pile.
    6. Once dry, use the cut branches as kindling for a wood burning stove.

    Now that we are on the subject of wood burning, I’d like to share some insights with you that may save you a lot of money heating your home. The efficiency of wood heating is the ratio of the useful heat provided to the space, divided by the heat content of the wood being burned. The best woods have the highest heat content and low ash, such as live oak with about 35 million BTU’s per cord, eucalyptus at 33, and birch or walnut at 25. Other woods like pine, cedar, and white fir and willow typically have less than 20 MBTU per cord.

    The other factor is the amount of the available heat that is useful, rather than lost up the chimney. Most fireplaces without doors or inserts actually have negative efficiencies, meaning they send more heat up the stack than that provided by the burning wood. While you may feel warm standing close to the hearth due to its radiant glow, you may actually be cooling your home overall, and/or increasing the burden on your heating system. The most efficient wood stoves have efficiencies exceeding 70% by drawing combustion air directly from outdoors and employing catalytic converters and heat recovery devices to increase the combustion and heat transfer efficiencies. While high efficiency wood stoves may cost thousands of dollars, the savings in wood costs can quickly offset the expense and substantially reduce particulate emissions if you frequently heat with wood.

    Never burn unseasoned wood and avoid chemically treated or painted wood. Unseasoned wood will use much of its combustion heat to vaporize water and add to the creosote and otherwise damage the metal surfaces of the stove and flue. Any chemicals in or on the wood will be vaporized and released in your home and surroundings, often with toxic effects.

    Finally, when enjoying the comfort of efficient wood heat, maintain the flame to comfortable levels by carefully moderating the amount of air you provide for combustion. Keep the stove doors closed except when lighting or loading, and open the interior room doors to let the heat warm all the living areas of your home.

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  13. My Christmas wreath looks like Christmas tree material. What do I do with it in January ?

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  16. Thank you, Trey, for your Christmas tree recycling suggestions. As a Christmas tree grower here in Oregon, we work hard to insure that our farm practices are environmentally sound and Christmas tree recycling is an important part of that cycle. Our farm practices have been inspected by the Freer Group of Seattle, Wa and certified by the Coalition of Environmentally Conscious Growers. In Los Angeles, our primary market, the City of L.A. has established an excellent drop off program that diverts real Christmas trees out of the landfills and grinds them into mulch.
    Your suggestion of tossing your Christmas tree into a pond needs a bit of clarification. Christmas trees float, but sinking them by attaching some sort of weight does indeed provide for fish habitat and support the aquatic food chain. Be careful not to overdo it in small bodies of water to avoid upsettiing the oxygen balance as the trees decompose.
    Growing Christmas trees is extremely labor intensive compared to most modern farming, providing stable employment in rural parts of the US, and is a decent and honorable way for us to make a living from our land. Providing our customers with a way to responsibly handle the tree after Christams is an important part of that.

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