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Christmas Tree Recycling

Explore these unique Christmas tree recycling ideas for when the holidays are long gone and you have a Christmas tree to move on. Besides left-over Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas trees are just about the easiest holiday remnant to recycle and re-use.

For those who celebrate Christmas, it’s hard to imagine celebrating the holiday without a decorated Christmas tree in their home. Once January rolls around, however, those once-cherished Christmas trees are banished to the curb for waste pickup. Instead of simply throwing your tree into the landfill this year, why not try one of these eco-friendly and creative Christmas tree recycling ideas?

First, let’s discuss some environmental impacts associated with Christmas trees, both real and fake.

Real vs. Fake Trees

indian rock tree farm

Fake trees may be convenient and clean, but they are not good for the environment.

Artificial trees are made of non-renewable and non-biodegradable materials such as metals and plastics. Although they are bought with the intention of years of reuse, the average family only uses their fake tree for six to nine years before sending it to the landfill, where it will likely remain for centuries. Most are manufactured in Chinese factories and imported to the U.S., and some may even contain toxins like lead.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, purchasing a real tree from a farm is actually the more sustainable option.

Because most Christmas trees are grown on a farm, they are a renewable resource. Christmas tree farms occupy around 350,000 acres in the U.S., preserving green spaces, stabilizing the soil, protecting water supplies and providing refuge for wildlife throughout the year.

When one tree is chopped down, farmers will plant as many as three new seedlings for future harvest. Most tree farms even re-use the same tree stump year after year. If cut high enough, a tree can re-grow itself over and over again using the same root system. There are some massive tree stumps that have been used to grow Christmas trees at Indian Rock for over 40 years. Pretty cool, huh?

Read more about the unique and sustainable live Christmas trees on the accompanying post here.

Indian Rock Tree farm from above

Why Recycle Your Christmas Tree?

Real trees also provide us with clean air, are biodegradable and can be recycled in so many creative ways.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association (yes, this is a real organization and no, it’s not run by Santa Claus), around 25-30 million real Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. every year. Although they are biodegradable, why waste such precious green material in a landfill when you can use it to create something new?

Recycling your tree means contributing less waste to your local landfill and instead, allows you to put that material to good use. Keep reading to discover the many ways in which you can recycle and reuse your Christmas tree this year.

Find Your City’s Christmas Tree Recycling Program

The simplest idea is to check to see if your city has a Christmas tree recycling program in place. There are more than 4,000 local Christmas tree recycling programs throughout the country. Most have locations where you can drop off your tree, and some even provide curbside pickup services.

Before your tree is picked up or dropped off to be recycled, it should be cleaned of all decorations, tinsel, and lights. Make sure to also remove the tree stand. Generally, anything non-organic, including leaves that have been flocked, must be removed.

San Francisco is a prime example of the good a city can do with all of its recycled Christmas trees. In 2011, the city recycled nearly 500 tons of trees, generating enough energy to power around 20,000 houses for a month. Go SF!

Some recycling centers will turn your tree into mulch, which may be free for you to pick up after. In many cities, Home Depot has begun collecting Christmas trees for recycling, for free. Here is a website for California residents that lists all the Christmas tree recycling programs by county.

Use As Firewood (with exceptions)

Because of its highly flammable turpentine oils, Christmas trees make great wood to burn in an outdoor bonfire or pit. Of course, please exercise extreme caution when having an outdoor fire if you live in California or another area with high fire danger warnings.

It’s generally not a good idea to burn Christmas trees in an indoor fireplace or wood stove. The turpentine oils and sap in pine trees, firs and spruce may contribute to creosote buildup and cause a chimney fire.

Buy a Live Root Tree

Rooted Christmas trees
Photo Credit: NC State Extension

An alternative to buying a freshly-chopped tree is to buy a rooted tree, so that you can plant it in your yard when the season is over. These living trees usually come with their roots in a ball contained in a burlap sack or in a container. If you are considering doing this, it’s a good idea to pre-dig the hole where you want to plant the tree in the late fall, while the soil is still soft. Then plant the tree as soon as the holiday is over.

NOTE: Living trees are more likely to survive in mild climates, but if you live in a cold climate, you could always wait until the spring to plant it in the ground. This article will give you some advice for how to care for your living Christmas tree.

Repurpose in Your Own Backyard

There are so many ways to repurpose your tree in your own backyard. Here are just a few ideas.

  • Protect your garden: You can use the tree limbs to insulate the garden over winter. Cut off the branches of your tree and lay them on your garden bed, the boughs will protect your plants from winter freezes and spring thaws. By laying them on your garden, you’re giving your plants a steady temperature for the cold months. The limbs also work well as a garden edge.
  • Mulch: Start by placing a tarp underneath your tree to collect fallen needles for mulch after they are almost all the way decomposed. After Christmas, the branches can be removed and the entire tree chipped for mulch. Adding mulch will keep your trees healthy and moist during the cold winter season. It’s best to apply garden lime on the mulch to counter the acidity and allow your soil to breathe.
  • Path/garden edgers: Cut the trunk into small round pieces and use them as an edge for your garden. Cut off all the branches to your Christmas tree, and you can use it as a tree stake or as a natural looking trellis. You can also use the wood shavings from your tree to create a pathway

DIY Christmas Tree Arts and Crafts

Pine needle sachets
Photo credit: Cook Quilt Make and Bake

There is a Pinterest-load of great recycled Christmas tree projects to do with your kids over winter break. It is best to work with the tree after it has completely dried out if you plan to use the wood for crafts or decor projects.

  • Cut the trunk into one-inch wood coasters. They’re beautiful, easy to make, and will protect your wood tables from pesky water stains. Sand the coasters and give them a coat of natural linseed oil.
  • Use the smaller rounds cut from your tree to create these adorable wood-burned ornaments. To turn this into a more kid-friendly craft, pull out the paints and markers instead. Throw on a quick coat of sealant after to make sure these ornaments stay beautiful for years to come.
  • Simply slap a magnetic strip on the back of a small wood round and now you’ve got yourself a rustic magnet. These work as great gifts year round.
  • Make a smaller version of this unique planter box on Etsy with the largest rounds from your tree.
  • Make potpourri by collecting and drying out the pine needles. Mix the needles in a bowl with any of your favorite spices and scents, from dried orange rinds, cinnamon sticks, fresh rosemary, rose hips to nutmeg. Once you’ve assembled your ingredients, stick them in small porous bags and make fragrance sachets. Alternatively, toss your fresh ingredients in a pot with water and simmer them throughout the day to scent your home and keep the holiday aromas flowing!

Involve Your Community

Man chipping an old Christmas tree
Photo credit: Matt Fowler
  • Host a chipper party. Rent a wood chipper and invite your friends and neighbors to bring over their Christmas trees for a wood-chipping bonanza. Not only is this a great way to recycle old trees, but it is a way to visit with friends while creating mulch for whoever needs it. As always, follow safety guidelines and don’t drink while operating machinery.
  • Organize a Christmas tree recycling drive. Use your own truck or convince a friend to help you haul the Christmas trees to a local recycling center. Charge a small amount for the service, and donate the money to a local charity of your choice. Your neighbors will gladly join in to support a good cause and you’ll ensure the trees in your area get recycled!

Support Local Nature + Environment

Reusing Christmas tree as a bird feeder
Photo Credit: Arbor Day Foundation
  • Fish habitat: If you live near a pond or remote waterway, you can sink your tree and create a refuge and breeding area for fish. As algae begins to grow on the water-logged tree, it becomes transformed into a valuable habitat for fish, both feeding them and protecting them from predators. Submerged tree also help prevent soil erosion. First, check with local officials to make sure this is allowed, and make sure your tree is free of all chemicals and decorations before submerging it in a water source. This is one I used to participate in with my dad as a child.
  • Bird feeder: Move your Christmas tree to the backyard and use it as a bird feeder and sanctuary. String up popcorn, orange slices or pine cones coated in peanut butter and birdseed, and watch as the birds come flocking. They will be able to take shelter in the branches and you can enjoy the early-morning chirping. Cut off the top two feet of your tree if you want to create a playground for squirrels as well! As always, make sure your tree is free of all decorations and hooks before placing it outside. 
  • Soil erosion barriers: In some communities, local resource conservation groups will use your Christmas tree to prevent soil and sand erosion along beaches, rivers and lakes. Your discarded trees are placed along the shoreline, where they will collect sand and be prevented from washing away.
  • Maintaining Hiking Trails – Some counties will also shred discarded Christmas trees to use as natural, eco-friendly path material.

There are endless ways in which you can reuse your Christmas tree. Dropping it off to be recycled requires is a simple way to ensure your tree is being put to good use after the holidays. With a few willing helpers, you can create beautiful handmade crafts from the wood or give back to nature.

Share Your Own Christmas Tree Recycling Ideas

Have an idea for Christmas tree recycling we missed? Share it with other environmentally-conscious Christmas tree lovers in the comments below!

Christmas tree recycling infographic

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15 Unique ways to recycle your Christmas tree
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