Recycling Christmas Trees

Recycling Christmas Trees

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One of the downsides of the season, at least for me, is taking the decorations off the Christmas tree and putting it out back to die.

I feel a little better when I hang treats on the tree for the birds and the squirrels, but the daily sight of a dying tree out my kitchen window is really depressing. By the middle of January, when the holiday season bills start coming in, the brown-needled, shedding tree is a sad reminder of how fleeting the good times really are, and how persistent our day-to-day humdrum existence is (unless we have jobs in the ER or law enforcement, where humdrum is actually a welcome relief from chaos)!

This year, I’m vowing to recycle my tree, if only to avoid looking at it until the significant other cuts it up for firewood or chips it for mulch. Since this doesn’t usually happen until late March, or mud season here up north, and my county offers a recycling program for trees, it feels like the right thing to do if I want to hang on to my sanity through gloomy, chilling February. And the best thing about this county tree recycling program? All one has to do is bring the tree to the recycling depot; there is no fee.

A friend of mine does this every year, getting the tree stripped right after New Year’s Day, before it starts shedding in earnest, and putting it in the back of her hatchback. The mess is minimal, and for at least a few hours the fragrance left in the tree actually overpowers the less pleasant smell of the hanging pine tree air freshener over the rear view mirror.

Most counties offer a similar service, and the tree – which is left to set until all the moisture has evaporated – is usually chipped and added to the enormous piles of mulch and compost that gardeners pick up in the spring for improving soil and retaining moisture around flowers, shrubs, trees and vegetable gardens.

Usually, but not always. Some tree recycling centers (and some sanitation pickups) result in your once-living tree being thrown in the landfill and covered over with garbage. In a decade it may be compost, but by then it is likely buried under five or six feet of refuse, which has in turn been capped by an impervious clay layer so none of the truly toxic ooze can escape (and none of the contents can properly decompose).

When I found that out by calling city hall, I was doubly chagrined. Heck, my significant soul mate could do much better, even if it did take all winter. At least we got mulch and firewood out of the proposition!

Of course, you can’t recycle a flocked tree, so keep that in mind when buying this year. You also don’t want to recycle it yourself, as the resulting mulch will likely harm your plants.

If you are Celtic at heart and hate the idea of killing a tree for your pleasure, buy a living, potted tree. It doesn’t have to be large; in fact, smaller is better. At four or five feet, your living tree will go nicely in your family room and in your yard. If your yard is too small to accommodate a full-grown pine or other evergreen tree – some species of which grow to 50 feet or more – donate your tree to that survivalist/back-to-the-earth friend living on 25 acres.

You can also buy an artificial tree, but the fact that you can doesn’t mean you should. Fake Christmas trees have a large carbon footprint already built into them. First, they are shipped from China. Second, you have to drive to the store to pick one up. Third, as a result of their use of plastic from petroleum and other dangerous compounds like lead, they emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into household air, in a process known as “outgassing.” Real trees, even evergreens, have a negative carbon footprint, since they absorb carbon dioxide, or CO2, as part of their lifecycle.

Your real tree, properly recycled, will be chopped or chipped into compost to help environmentalists re-establish wetlands, fishing rivers, even critical habitat. “Real” being a tree that has been cut from a tree farm, either by you or by a plantation worker, and please make sure it has the Coalition of Environmentally Conscious Growers (CECG) seal of approval. This insures growers are eco-friendly in both the growing and harvesting of their trees.

You could also buy a recycled cardboard Christmas tree this year, saving not only living trees but an ingredient (cardboard, pressboard, etc.) that represents a whopping 41 percent of the stuff in landfills! And, while that sounds truly “green” in a number of ways, I personally can’t imagine it catching on, because Christmas is one of the last of those die-hard traditions that cuts across every demographic, from race to religion to place of origin and age, and even into economic status.

Finally, if you are ready to be truly green, consider not having a tree at all. If you and your better half are empty-nesters, it won’t be that difficult. Put up some holiday decorations, buy or make Christmas cookies, and look forward to a holiday that doesn’t involve stripping a tree down to its naked, dying self.

Yes, Virginia, there is life without a Christmas tree.


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