According to the National Christmas Tree Association, there are 20 million real Christmas trees sold in the United States each year. Each of these trees is decorated for a few weeks, only to be disposed of when their needles start to turn brown or the holiday season passes.
But, instead of letting a majority of these trees decompose in landfills, municipalities across the nation have started more than 4,000 local Christmas tree recycling programs.
One of the most common forms of this program is to transform the Christmas trees into mulch.
“It’s really a win-win for everyone,” explained Tim O’Connor, executive director of The National Christmas Tree Association. “It takes the cost of buying mulch out for the park district and lets them keep everything looking really nice, and it gives the trees a really good second life.”
The parks and community services department in Euless, Texas, is one of the many locations that puts on this type of tree recycling program.
Euless first started its Christmas tree recycling program in 1988 as part of the city’s commitment to Tree City USA. Each year, residents drop off between 50 to 100 trees to be recycled instead of thrown away.
The department then hosts a Christmas tree recycling event each year. At the event, the department puts on a tree mulching demonstration and gives away bags of mulch and tree saplings to residents. The rest of the mulch collected is used in landscaping beds around the town that can tolerate a more acidic product.
“Residents drop off their tree either before, during or after our three-hour event. Our parks department runs the trees collected through our tree chipper and then distributes the mulch to the citizen so that they can use it in their landscaping beds,” explained Ray McDonald, director of the Euless Parks and Community Services Department. “Our horticulturist is on-hand the day of the recycling event to answer any questions (residents) might have regarding how to use the mulch.”
Each year the event is well attended, and this program is one that the town hopes to continue to put on for years to come.
“It strengthens our relationship with the community, saves our landfill from getting overrun with trees and helps fulfill our commitment as a Tree City,” explained McDonald.
McDonald encourages other municipalities leaders who do not yet have a tree recycling program to consider starting one.
“Encourage your park board to get behind the cause and help promote the program throughout the community,” said McDonald.
If a municipality doesn’t have a large need for mulch or wants to get more creative with their program, there are plenty of other options out there.
“There are communities where they have sand dunes along coastal areas where they use the trees — they anchor them into the areas where there’s erosion — and then the trees, they act as snow fences essentially,” said O’Connor. “There are areas that have waterways, where they use the trees along the banks of streams. Those become staked into the banks, where the streams are eroding and they help with the erosion of the streams. There are places where they have fish habitats, mostly lakes, where they put the trees out on the ice when (lakes are) frozen, and as they thaw, the trees submerge and become a habitat for fish … I’ve even seen some communities where there are zoos that give the trees to the large animals to play with.”
Pine Knoll Shores, N.C., is one of the coastal municipalities that uses its Christmas tree recycling program to help prevent erosion.
“We don’t have quite as bad winter erosion as further north in the state, but we certainly have massive significant erosion during storms. In fact, (Hurricane) Florence removed a considerable amount of sand,” said Brian Kramer, town manager of Pine Knoll Shores. “We have several things that we do and one of them is this program, which is to take Christmas trees and place them anywhere we see that the secondary dune network has a gap in it.”
The town first began this program 10 years ago after Kramer heard about it during a conference.
“Christmas trees are perfect. You put them down, and for a couple months, they still have their needles and they trap a lot of sand,” said Kramer. “And the best part about it is it’s natural, so they just erode away. There’s no issues of debris left.”
Residents are asked to drop off their trees at a public beach access parking lot. Normally, the town brings in around 150 trees, with some being collected by another nearby municipality. Then, the public works department spends around one week placing all the trees in mid-January.
While there is no education portion to the program, the residents are informed about the final use for the trees before dropping them off.
Kramer explained this program goes right along with the town’s mission of “inspiring appreciation and conservation of North Carolina’s aquatic environments.” “If you have an object that you were going to dispose of, rather than going to a landfill, having it used for a good purpose, for protection of the town … is just a net positive. It’s a win-win,” said Kramer. “People don’t have to worry about trees unnecessarily going to the landfill, we don’t take up landfill space and we make good use of them for protection of the beach and creation of dunes.”