5-Step Guide to Treecycling

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As of Dec. 26, Earth911 has collected treecycling information for more than 85 percent of the U.S. population for the nation’s largest Treecycling Directory.

Treecycling is an easy way to return a renewable and natural source back to the environment instead of disposing it in a landfill, where decomposition rates are slowed due to lack of oxygen. Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911

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

So, 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.

[holidaySearch type="recycle" what="Christmas trees" whatlabel="Christmas trees"]

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.

Earth911 reached out to every city with a population of more than 30,000, the team has already contacted 52 percent more cities over 2009 and increased the number of treecycling records by 30 percent. Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911

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 “wintry” 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.

Approximately 33 million real Christmas trees are sold in North America each year, according to the U.S. EPA. Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911

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.
  • http://www.gasp-pgh.org Jamin

    Great information, Trey, until the last bit of advice about using your tree as firewood. I would only ask that you recommend that the Christmas tree wood is properly aged before being burned–for 6 months, off the ground, covered, and through a summer. This will ensure that the wood burns hotter, and cleaner. Wood smoke is quite toxic and causes a lot of discord in neighborhoods, and I’d like to see it done as cleanly as possible, if at all. Otherwise, great piece

  • Ellen McRae

    I thought I had heard zoos recycled trees for their animals to play with?
    Can’t find anything on the zoo website.
    If not, how do you get a # for boy scouts?
    Thanks, Ellen.

  • Ellen McRae

    Does the city want trees for their lakes, ponds?

  • http://bayshorerecycling.com James

    Our facility in New Jersey grinds and turns christmas trees into chips for mulch and compost. Anyone wishing to get more information feel free to contact us. 732-738-6000

  • http://www.brgov.com/recycle Bob Dillemuth

    All good points. In Baton Rouge, La., we are running our Curbside tree collection from January 7th – January 18th as many residents leave their tree up until the end of Epiphany on January 6th. We also have drop off sites open from December 27th – January 27th. If your landscape can accomodate it, the trees also make good wildlife cover and nesting material for the birds. We also allow fisherman to pick up the trees to sink in bodies of water at their fishing sites and camps.

  • Vickie

    The very best thing to do is what we did this year – buy a tree with its roots intact and plant it in your yard in the Spring!

  • Linda A.

    Technically, Christmas isn’t over — yet! Secular Christmas is over, but true Christmas goes from December 25 through January 5.

    I agree with Jamin, Trey. Lots of good tips until the end where you suggest using the tree as firewood. (Me, I haven’t had a real tree since Christmas, ’82.)

    Good tip, Vickie, about buying a live Christmas tree and planting it in your yard after Christmas, but the average residential yard has only so much room for planting trees, and, unless you have acres and acres of land, you couldn’t do that every year. It would be nice if there were some program that would collect live Christmas trees after Christmas and plant them in state/national parks, state/national forests, etc.

  • Kelly

    And, if you are in a community that has Boy Scout Troops removing the trees to recycle – see how much of the fee they charge is tax deductible. It will be considered a charitable donation and most Troops will give you a receipt.

  • Sue

    Hello Trey,

    For the longest time I’ve always had a live Evergreen tree for the holidays. However, as you know the pine needles do fall off after a period of time. And for that reason I was talked into getting an artificial one but it hasn’t been my first choice in christmas trees.. I realize asymetrical branches and no smell don’t really make for a better tree.

    I was always of the impression that if I put my live tree out for the curb it would become mulch, but haivng read your article, it seems to me you can’t be too sure if it’s going to be recycled or not especially if you are relying on others to see it through. I just assumed that when it was tossed out it would be handled responsibly.

    Thank you for a great article.

    P.S.-How would you recommend disposing of an artificial tree without it being a hazard to the environment? Love to know.