When the winter holidays are over and it’s time to take down the holiday décor, some decorations can be packed away and saved for next year, but that may not be the case with your tree. Both real and artificial trees have limited shelf lives, but your Christmas tree will need to be tossed out before it covers your house in pine needles. If your artificial tree is past its prime, it may be time to let it go as well.
As you begin post-holiday cleanup, remember that live trees usually can’t be thrown into general trash bins and Christmas tree trash pickup services vary widely depending on where you live. Use our list of disposal options and recycling tips, as well as input from Doug Hundley of the National Christmas Tree Association, to easily get rid of your tree.
Although real and artificial Christmas trees may serve similar decorative purposes, the processes to get rid of them are very different.
Since live trees are biodegradable, they can be safely composted, mulched, or disposed of with other yard waste. On the other hand, artificial trees are commonly made with plastic that does not break down in landfills and can’t easily be recycled with single-stream waste like plastic bottles.
Several types of evergreens are commonly used as Christmas trees, including Balsam and Douglas Firs, White Spruce and various pines. If your tree was freshly cut when you bought it, it can last four to five weeks before rotting, giving you ample time to find a next step for your Christmas tree.
If you’re planning to use your city’s regular garbage pickup services, check with your local service department directly to find out when your bulk pickup day is. Depending on regulations where you live, you may be able to put your tree directly on the curb for pickup. Christmas tree bags are a common option for making curbside disposal easier and can be found at most hardware and home goods stores.
This also depends heavily on where you live and the regulations maintained by your local collections service. You’ll want to contact your city or township’s public services department to make sure live trees are accepted as standard waste.
If you manage a business with multiple trees to throw out, such as a hotel or office building, a roll off dumpster can be a helpful cleanup tool. However, some landfills restrict what can be disposed of as mixed solid waste, so make sure to ask if you’ll need a yard waste dumpster.
If you live in an apartment building or complex with shared front load dumpsters, roll off bins or trash compactors for general waste collection, you’ll need to check with your landlord or front office to confirm what can and can’t be thrown in these containers.
Treecycling is a process that grinds old, unwanted live trees into other useful materials, mainly mulch. This can be done by specialty yard waste recyclers, but some municipal service departments offer this option as well. The City of Raleigh, for example, not only picks up Christmas trees at the curb, but also mulches them for use in local parks.
Pro Tip: Be aware that some Christmas trees are sprayed with pesticides, paints and other chemicals. Donation and recycling services may have restrictions on trees contaminated with these substances. The free farm or vendor you bought your tree from can offer more information on what chemicals your tree may contain.
“In many small and large towns, the Solid Waste programs will set up Christmas tree recycling programs for the production of mulch by chipping the leftover trees. I’d speak with local County and City Solid Waste Departments or garden centers who would be interested in mulching the trees.”
Doug Hundley | National Christmas Tree Association
This is only an option if you bought your tree with the roots intact. Replanting a tree can be tricky, but it’s possible with the right preparation. Heather Rhoades recommends that you don’t keep your tree inside for more than a week or two. This is because Christmas trees are cut down when they are dormant. If you leave them in your warm house for too long, they may leave dormancy and be unable to adapt to the cold outside.
If your tree still has intact roots and you want to replant it outside, follow these steps:
Even if you’re done with your live tree, there are several organizations that would be happy to put it to use. Real Christmas trees can be donated to wildlife preserves or wetland restoration efforts after the holidays are over. Placing old trees in a lake helps form new fish habitats and curbs erosion of lakeshores and riverbanks.
You can reach out to your local government to see if there are groups in your area who can use your donated Christmas tree to better the environment.
"Real Christmas trees are often utilized for wildlife habitats such as being sunk into ponds and lakes for fish cover. You can call the local or state wildlife commission where you live to get other ideas."
Doug Hundley | National Christmas Tree Association
The evergreen boughs from your Christmas tree are an ideal base layer for compost piles. Branches allow airflow at the bottom of the pile as they decompose slowly over time, providing the oxygen and heat necessary for the upper layers of the pile to decompose. Give branches a trim as needed to fit in your pile or bin before stacking them a few inches high. Once this layer is in place, add kitchen scraps and compostable items as usual.
Trees that have been sprayed or chemically treated with pesticides can be composted in small amounts, but may require extra time to break down before being reintroduced to soil as finished compost.
While these last longer and require less maintenance than the live variety, artificial Christmas tree disposal is more difficult. Artificial trees can’t be mulched or recycled for environmental uses, but there are other options you can look into when it’s time to replace a fake tree.
Many cities accept artificial trees, whether made of plastic or metal, as curbside bulk items if they don’t fit into your standard containers. According to your location, you may need to either wait until bulk pickup day or break your tree down into smaller pieces that fit into your curbside collection container.
Since artificial Christmas trees usually count as general household waste and not yard waste, they can be thrown out in front load dumpsters at most apartments. However, it’s still a good idea to check with your rental office or landlord to make sure these bulk items are accepted by your trash hauling service. For larger households or buildings, a roll off dumpster can be rented to haul synthetic trees.
Chances are, there are multiple places that will accept used fake Christmas trees near you following the holidays, such as:
While live trees can be easily recycled in a variety of ways, artificial trees are often made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) which isn't recyclable and won't break down in a landfill. Also, most artificial trees are built with decorative fibers that are glued of otherwise fixed to metal frames, which can’t be recycled.
Unfortunately, no. Artificial Christmas trees are made with PVC and other materials that can’t be recycled. However, some manufacturers and local recycling programs can process artificial Christmas trees and other decorations into reusable materials. You can contact one of these organizations for more information about keeping your tree out of the landfill.
With some creative handywork, an old artificial tree can be cut, bent and reshaped into a decorative wreath or garland. It can also be made into a table-top centerpiece or even a set of napkin ring holders. Research project and craft ideas for inspiration and find a new purpose for your old tree. Be sure to remove light strings before altering the tree and take caution not to cut any electrical wires.
If you no longer need your Christmas tree, chances are it could be reused by someone else. Some thrift stores, nursing homes and charity organizations in need of extra holiday cheer will often accept and repurpose artificial Christmas trees.
Before donating used decorations, be sure to remove all tinsel, ornaments or additional lights that aren’t permanently attached to the tree.
When the season turns and it’s time to put the cheerful decorations aside, don’t let the cleanup chores get you down. Refresh your home to welcome the new year on the right foot, whether it’s with curbside pickup, taking your Christmas tree to a disposal site, donating or repurposing it.
While you’re throwing out your Christmas tree, it might also be a good time to organize your other holiday decorations.
Doug Hundley works for the National Christmas Tree Association in Chesterfield, MO which represents over 700 active Christmas tree member farms that produce three-quarters of farm-raised Christmas trees in the U.S.
The association works with over 4,000 affiliated businesses that grow and sell trees, or supplies and services, and is located across North and South America as well as Europe. The NTCA works with one voice to protect and advocate on the industry's behalf.