To put it frankly, it is hard to imagine Christmas without a Christmas tree. That’s where much of the trimming goes. Under it is where the presents go. And, for a month or more each year, the tree becomes a focal point in the house, either occupying a prominent window or taking over as the centerpiece of the living room. It goes without saying that a Christmas without the tree would feel pretty odd, but we also have to face facts: Something has to be done with all of these trees after the holiday is over.

While fake trees provide the opportunity to reuse a tree for years, many people are Christmas tree purists, meaning only the real thing will suffice. In the case of real trees, come January they are dried piles of kindling, waiting for trouble. Sending them to the landfill is a terrible option because our dumps are already overfilled, and the tree is organic matter, able to feed the earth rather than contribute to damaging it. In the case of fake trees that are past their prime, we also have to consider how to responsibly dispose of them.

For those who are looking for more efficient and thoughtful ways of dealing with their waste, luckily there are several options for dealing with Christmas trees.

The Real Tree Options

While real Christmas trees produce more trash annually, they are also easier, more productive, and possibly more ecologically friendly to deal with. Chemical-free organic matter should never really be a huge problem, so it is worth having that in mind when buying a tree: Forget the frost and let it go au naturel.

Making Mulch

Trees, dead or alive, are good for gardens. Pine needles make fantastic mulch for plant beds, so those can be collected and spread around. Limbs and trunks can be sliced up and thrown into rougher garden areas to rot down over the coming year, which means they are naturally feeding the soil as opposed to becoming contaminated in landfills. If the neighbors are interested in splitting the cost, a rented wood chipper could make a lot of mulch out of the whole neighborhood’s trees, or there are often tree-cycling set-ups near recycling centers.

Sprucing Up the Garden

Mulch isn’t the only garden option for old trees. Another option is to slice the trunks into discs and make garden borders. If the Christmas tree is still fairly healthy, the branches can be cut and used to shelter perennial plants from snow and frost. Finally, branches can be used as plant stakes — for tomatoes, green beans, etc. — in the coming year.

Feeding and Sheltering Animals

Old trees can be an opportunity to help out and attract wildlife. In the yard, old trees can be left in their stands, dotted with bird feeders, such as peanut butter pinecones, to attract birds. Or, for those who have a pond or access to one, an old tree can be used to create habitats for fish and a surface upon which algae can grow to feed the fish. Obviously, an excess of fallen trees in a pond isn’t great but done moderately, the trees will simply rot away as would happen in nature.

Heating the Patio

Pine isn’t a particularly good firewood as it creates creosote build-up, but it can be used safely in an outdoor fire pit, where that isn’t an issue. For those who have an outdoor fire pit, old Christmas trees go up quickly, so they could be used over time for kindling or for a quick-burning fire. Either way, they are fairly easy to chop up and stack for firewood.

Woodworking Projects

Again, pine isn’t a particularly wonderful wood for woodworking projects, but if the resource is there to use (or it will become garbage), we should make the most of it. Sliced trunks can be sanded and sealed to create coasters or trivets for putting hot pots or dishes on. Just remember that they will exude sap, so they need to be sealed before putting dishes or cups on them. These would work especially well for picnic table settings. The same discs could be used as stepping “stones” through the yard or garden.

Repurposing Fake Trees

As for fake trees, the best we can hope to do is repurpose them. Charity shops will often happily accept them and re-sell them to people. Otherwise, the trees can be dismantled to create other holiday decorations, like wreaths or garlands. A pine branch, artificial or not, always comes in handy during December, so rather than toss them in the trash, start imagining how they might become new items.

Environmentally speaking, the debate between real trees and fake ones is complex. It’s probably not a great thing for the environment to grow huge monocultures of Christmas trees to be cut down rather than mixed forests to grow old. But, it equally isn’t great to use petroleum products for Christmas trees as they’ll eventually be non-biodegradable trash.

Likely, our best ecological option is to simply plant a Christmas tree in the yard and use it each year, but admittedly, that has some holiday limitations. Perhaps buying a potted tree and planting it somewhere each year is a more realistic tradition. That works even better!

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