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Your Christmas tree could have more than one use — with recycling

Christmas tree recycling at Spring Ledge Farm in January 2012.
Christmas tree recycling at Spring Ledge Farm in January 2012.

News brief

As people start to take down their Christmas trees, some community leaders and advocates are pushing for recycling.

There are more than 4,000 recycling programs for the trees across the United States, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. Most community programs turn the trees into mulch that can be used by residents for a garden or yard.

That’s the focus of Denver’s Treecycle program. For most of January, city residents can drop off trees at 11 sites and receive free mulch in May.

“We want to make the art of recycling it just as much of the tradition as going and collecting the tree to begin with,” said Vanessa Lacayo, a city spokesperson. “It's kind of bringing that full circle of sustainability.”

Last year, of the 180,000 Denver recycling customers, 20,000 participated in Treecycle, Lacayo said.

The city also offers a Christmas light recycling program since the trees have to be bare for the mulching process. Last year they collected 4,352 pounds of lights, according to the city’s website.

“I think it is really important in … closing the gap in terms of the items and things that we use every day,” she said. “And we encourage everybody who lives in Denver to participate and to recycle.”

Artificial trees cannot be recycled for mulch. But they can still be “recycled” if you use the tree for a long time or give it to a friend, says Bill Ulfelder, executive director of the Nature Conservancy in New York.

“Maybe you know someone who could use the artificial tree. Maybe for whatever reason, they just can't get a real tree because of an allergy, or maybe it's too expensive,” he said. “Maybe you give the artificial tree to someone you know who needs it. Then you use that opportunity to go out and get yourself a real tree and be doing that year over year.”

Other common re-uses for trees involve shredding them to create material for hiking paths or submerging them in ponds to provide habitats for fish. In coastal cities, trees are often used to maintain sand dunes.

When I was growing up, I visited my grandparents on the Massachusetts shore,” Ulfelder said. “We'd be riding out to the beach. And you could just see all the old Christmas trees out there protecting the dunes.”

For some, driving across town to recycle a tree could seem exhausting. But Ulfelder says just dumping it is a waste of a tree.

“The issue with putting it in the dumpster is it goes to the landfill and there's the problem of it taking space there,” he said. “It doesn't give back. It simply decomposes.”

Christmas trees take forever to decompose, and when they do, methane is released back into the atmosphere. Ulfelder believes recycling is an easy way anyone can make a difference.

“I think the fact that we can even recycle trees is a testament to the value and importance of real Christmas trees over fake plastic Christmas trees because after Christmas, a fake tree will wind up in the landfill, or you might use it for a few years, it looks shabby, and then it's going into the landfills,” he said. “There is life after Christmas for real Christmas trees.”

Many other Colorado cities participate in recycling efforts, including Arvada, Longmont and Boulder.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I'm the General Assignment Reporter and Back-Up Host for KUNC, here to keep you up-to-date on news in Northern Colorado — whether I'm out in the field or sitting in the host chair. From city climate policies, to businesses closing, to the creativity of Indigenous people, I'll research what is happening in your backyard and share those stories with you as you go about your day.