Old Tannenbaum

Partnering with recyclers to keep Christmas trees out of landfills.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), between 28 and 30 million natural Christmas trees will be sold in the United States during this holiday season. And, according to a national survey conducted by the organization, after Santa has come and gone and the New Year has been rung in, 93 percent of consumers will recycle their trees.

Rick Dungey, NCTA's public relations manager, says there are myriad uses for a recycled Christmas tree. Some are collected and chipped for mulch, while others wind up in large composting operations. Since 1986, Jefferson Parrish, La., has used Christmas trees to construct underwater “fences” that prevent saltwater incursions into fragile freshwater marshes. Many states use the trees to create fish and bird habitats. They're deployed to slow erosion on beaches and riverbanks. A Canadian pharmaceutical company has even discovered a way to harvest a key flu vaccine component from the conifers. And, many trees are simply processed in the backyard, with the limbs placed in a brush pile and the trunk cut into firewood.

“Some people recycle their tree and they don't even realize it,” says Dungey, explaining that many waste haulers form partnerships with tree recyclers, collecting trees on their routes and keeping them separate from regular trash.

All options are preferable to depositing trees in a landfill where any potential benefit they might provide is lost, says Anne Reichman, director of Earth 911, an environmental information clearinghouse that has partnered with the NCTA to promote Christmas tree recycling or “treecycling.” As part of that mission, Earth 911 maintains a searchable national database of more than 3,500 Christmas tree recyclers and collection events (accessible at www.christmastree.org) and a toll-free information line. Reichman points to Georgia's “Bring One for the Chipper” program, and successful treecycling programs in San Diego and Phoenix as models.

Despite the large number of trees being recycled, Reichman and Dungey say there are still many communities — especially in rural areas — that do not have mechanisms in place for collecting trees at the end of the holiday season. Reichman says anyone can start a treecycling program, be it a local government organization, a waste firm or a private citizen. To help, the NCTA and Earth 911 published a detailed, 32-page guide to establishing a treecycling program. It can be downloaded at www.christmastree.org/recycle_start.cfm. Reichman says the guide covers “what questions to ask, what different options you have in terms of handling your trees, the expenses associated with them, and how to foster partnerships and recruit volunteers.”

Establishing recycling programs is important, Dungey says, as sales of natural Christmas trees continue to trend upward. “I think it's just a function of people wanting to get back to a more traditional experience, and they get that by going out as a family or with a group of friends and picking out a tree each year,” he says. “I think it's also a function of people wanting to get back to making an eco-friendly choice. They choose a natural product over a manufactured product when given the option.”