Here's how to reuse and recycle your Christmas tree after the holidays

Done with your Christmas tree? There's an environmentally friendlier way to ditch it.
Image: Children decorating Christmas tree
Whether your tree is real or artificial, there are a number of alternatives to leaving it on the curb.Tom Merton / Getty Images
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By Julie Compton

The timeless Christmas carol “O Christmas tree” is an ode to the cherished tannenbaum whose boughs “stay bravely green in wintertime.” But Christmas trees don’t last forever unlike the joyful memories they help create. As much as we may love them, the time comes sooner or later to say goodbye.

Whether your tree is real or artificial, there are a number of alternatives to leaving it on the curb. Here are some ideas and recommendations from experts on what you can do with your tree after the holidays.

Real trees

Most cities and counties recycle real Christmas trees, according to Doug Hundley, a spokesperson for the National Christmas Tree Association. Usually, they are turned into wood chips to create pathways in parks, he says, or are returned to owners for landscaping.

“It depends on what you’re going to do with it,” Hundley tells NBC News Better, “and if you talk to your city or county government about what they have set up to take left over real Christmas trees, you’ll just follow their instructions.”

Before you put your tree on the curb, be sure to remove all the lights and ornaments, which can hinder the recycling process, Hundley says.

Donate your real tree to habitat sanctuaries and restoration projects: Depending on the city or town where you live, you may be able to donate your tree to help nature preserves and wildlife. For instance, some municipalities and organizations will sink them in ponds to create fish sanctuaries, for use in stream restoration projects, or to build dunes along seashores. Call your local municipality to see if there are any groups or organizations who are involved in these types of projects, advises Hundley.

Create a backyard bird sanctuary: If you aren’t ready to let go or your tree just yet, you can turn it into a backyard bird sanctuary, says Hundley. Put the tree next to a bird feeder a safe distance from your house, he says, and watch birds nest in the branches.

“A lot of people I know will just take their tree outside, leave it in the stand, and feed the birds the rest of the winter by putting peanut butter and other materials on the tree,” says Hundley.

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Artificial Trees: Reuse, reuse, reuse

Most American families hold onto their artificial Christmas trees for about ten years, according to Thomas Harman, founder and CEO of Balsam Hill Christmas Trees. He says artificial trees should be reused until they are no longer in good shape.

“If the tree is still serviceable, then the best thing that someone can do with that tree is give it to someone else,” says Harman.

You can give your tree to a family member or friend, donate it to charity, sell it, or even use it to make crafts, says the CEO.

Sell your artificial tree: If your tree is relatively new, and you spent a decent amount of money on it, it will probably fetch a good price on eBay, according to Harman.

“If you paid $200 for a tree, and it’s less than 5-7 years old, I would think, absolutely, sell it,” he says.

There is a big market for vintage trees (around 40 years old or more), says Harman, especially those made from aluminum. If your tree is vintage, he recommends taking it to a local antique or vintage shop to see what it might be worth.

But if your tree is run-of-the-mill, the selling price may not cover the cost of shipping, he says, in which case it’s best to simply donate it or give it away to a friend or family member.

Donate your artificial tree: National charities like the Goodwill and the Salvation Army will usually take an artificial tree that is in good shape, Harman says. But before you donate your tree to a national charity, you may want to check if a local church or charity is taking used artificial trees, Harman says. Local charities that sell artificial trees often use the money in ways that help their communities, he explains.

Use your artificial tree to make crafts: Many people re-use artificial trees for crafts, says Harman. Depending on the age and type of tree, you can turn the branches into wreaths and other Christmas decorations, he says.

“You can cut lengths of the artificial tree branches and use those to tie a garland up on the banister or on the fence, and it looks better than using a zip tie because it blends into the garland,” says Harman. Pinterest and YouTube are great sources for craft ideas, he says.

Recycle your artificial tree: If your artificial tree is too shabby to be sold, donated, or used for crafts, you should recycle it, says Harman.

Your local municipality may recycle artificial trees left on the curb, or you may need to take your tree to a recycling center yourself, depending on the town or city where you live, he says. Call your local municipality, he says, and follow their instructions on how to properly dispose it. As with real Christmas trees, be sure to remove all the ornaments and lights from your tree before you recycle it, he says.

Harman stresses that artificial trees should be reused as much as possible before being sent to a recycling center.

“With an artificial tree, reuse it, reuse it, reuse it,” he insists.

NEXT: A better way to store those tangled-up Christmas lights

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