Those dreaming of a white Christmas may participate in the tradition of flocking — spraying the Christmas tree with a fake snow substance so it looks more like winter.
But if you purchased a real Christmas tree this winter and decided to have it wear white after Labor Day, you’re going to be in for a surprise when it’s time to dispose of it. Flocked trees are rarely accepted for recycling.
What Is Flocking?
Flocking itself has a long history, but became popular in the 1950s when General Mills sold the Sno-Flok kit. The technique is most popular in areas that don’t get snow in the winter, such as the West Coast and Southern U.S.
As for what goes in each can of flocking spray, that depends on the manufacturer. If it comes in an aerosol can, it’s likely a mix of fatty acids plus chemical emulsifiers, binders, solvents, and propellants. Some companies make flocking spray out of paper and corn starch rather than fatty acids.
Other than aesthetics, there are a few benefits to flocking a Christmas tree. Flocking spray contains flame retardants, which reduces the risk of your tree catching fire. The tree will also take longer to dry out, meaning you won’t need to water it as much. The flocking spray even acts as an adhesive, helping to prevent needles from falling to the floor.
You can also search around Pinterest and find plenty of options for creating your own flocking spray using soap flakes, laundry detergent, or glue. While this may achieve your desired “snowy” tree look, you won’t receive the additional benefits mentioned above.
Disposal of Flocked Trees
After New Year, most people look to dispose of their Christmas tree. The most popular option is treecycling, where municipalities collect trees via curbside pick-up or at events, and mulch them, compost them, or toss them in a body of water for habitat restoration.
For all of these environmentally friendly disposal options, the tree breaks down into its organic components. With flocked trees, a non-organic component has been introduced that affects this process. Understandably, most tree recyclers don’t want to risk adding harmful chemicals to their mulch, compost, or wildlife habitats.
However, you will occasionally find cities that accept flocked trees. In those cases, the temperature of the compost facility where the trees are taken is high enough to break down flocking spray, similar to how some commercial composters are able to break down bioplastic bags. But that is not the case with the majority of commercial composting facilities in the U.S.
However, in general, if you flock your tree, it’s safe to assume you won’t be able to recycle or compost it at the end of its life.
When to Flock
So let’s say you miss those Midwest winters and flocked trees provide the perfect reminder of home. Do you really want a flocked tree? Consider buying and flocking an artificial Christmas tree.
Artificial trees are not recyclable, as they are made from PVC plastic and often stabilized with lead. If you spray an artificial tree with artificial flocking, it will last several years before you eventually need to throw it away. You’ll get five to seven white Christmases before it ends up in a landfill, versus one with a flocked real Christmas tree.
If you’re looking for a more sustainable Christmas tree, read 4 Ways to Have the Greenest Christmas Tree.
Originally published on December 21, 2017, this article was updated in December 2021.