How to Recycle Your Christmas Tree

The New York Times

This article originally appeared in The New York Times, on December 28, 2018

By Steph Yi

Twinkling pine, spruce and fir trees bring holiday cheer to homes around the world. But with the end of festivities comes the not-so-jolly chore of disrobing and discarding these unwieldy house guests.

You don’t want your Christmas tree to end up in a landfill, where it will take forever to decompose. So what’s the most responsible way to get rid of a Christmas tree?

Take a minute to search the internet for what your town recommends, or call your local trash haulers. Many communities will collect Christmas trees curbside for two or three weeks after the holidays.

Not only is this method most efficient (better to have a few garbage trucks driving around than a bunch of individual cars), but municipalities often use the trees for parks or habitat restoration, piling them into barriers against soil erosion or sinking them into ponds to provide habitat for fish. Some beachside towns use Christmas trees to rebuild sand dunes, a tactic that came in handy after Hurricane Sandy.

In New York City, the Department of Sanitation will collect your tree for mulching and “treecycling” from Jan. 2 through 12. Another option is to haul your tree to a MulchFest event, where you can watch it get chipped and bring home a bag of mulch.

Before you drag your shrub to the curb, make sure to strip the lights, ornaments and tinsel. If you wrap the tree in a plastic bag to get it out of the house, take the wrap off once it’s outside.

“If you leave anything on, the whole thing is garbage,” said Friday Apaliski, a sustainability coach based in San Francisco. Metal or plastic on trees can also damage choppers, and potentially harm people running that machinery, she added.

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Try to find a friend with a wood chipper who can shred your tree for you. “It makes wonderful compost,” said Todd Larsen, executive co-director of Green America, an environmental nonprofit based in Washington D.C.

Alternatively, visit Earth911 and search your ZIP code for places that recycle Christmas trees. Many Home Depots, Boy Scout troops or local nonprofits will take Christmas trees at no cost.

Another good place to check is your local zoo or animal sanctuary, which might want trees for animal enrichment or food. One Michigan petting zoo, for instance, wants to turn your Christmas tree into a nutritious snack for its twin goats, Bubba and Gump.

If you’re feeling crafty, you can recycle parts of your tree to make wreaths, candles, coasters and fragrant sachets.

Finally, if you live in a rural area, you can simply put your tree out on your land and “return it to nature,” said Eric A. Goldstein, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Trees fall on their own all the time and become good habitat for birds, rodents and other wildlife.

The big no-no is to chuck your tree in a bag and have it go to the landfill.

Landfills are packed so tightly that there’s no oxygen, which organic materials need to decompose, said Jessica Davis, the director of the IUPUI Office of Sustainability in Indianapolis. Also, the lack of oxygen means that when your Christmas tree finally does decompose, it will release methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

It’s not great to burn your tree either, Mr. Larsen said. Sap and dried needles tend to crackle, pop and explode when they burn. Moreover, fir, pine and spruce trees contain a highly flammable tar called creosote, which produces soot and can lead to chimney fires.

Many experts agree that buying a cut tree (particularly from a local, organic farm) and recycling it is better than using an artificial tree, which can’t be recycled at the end of its life. But even better than a cut tree is a live tree that can be replanted in your yard or donated to a nearby park. Some places even rent living trees that can be returned after Christmas.