You don’t need a calendar to tell you when the holidays have ended—just take a look outside to see if rows of skimpy, dried-out Christmas trees are lining the curb. Each year, roughly 33 million live Christmas trees are purchased in North America, many of which end up rotting in landfills once the new year arrives. But making our days merry and bright isn’t the only thing a felled evergreen is good for. Here are some ways Christmas trees continue to serve a purpose long after their decorations have been packed away.
1. THEY’RE USED AS LUMBER FOR HOMES.
The tree that’s erected in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center each November is arguably the most iconic Christmas display there is. It’s also one of the largest, reaching up to 100 feet tall and often weighing more than 10 tons. That’s a lot of lumber, and luckily, Habitat for Humanity makes sure it’s put to good use. Every year since 2007, Rockefeller Center has donated its tree to Habit for Humanity International after taking it down on January 9. From there, the festive behemoth (usually a Norway Spruce) is divided into sections in the plaza before it's shipped to a mill in New Jersey for additional sawing. It’s eventually made into 2-by-4 and 2-by-6 beams used in construction projects around the country. Homes in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Morris, New Jersey, and Philadelphia all contain pieces of what was once the world’s most famous Christmas tree in their walls.
2. THEY’RE MADE INTO UNDERWATER ECOSYSTEMS.
If you were to walk along the bottom of Lake Havasu between Arizona and California long enough, you’d eventually come across the site of a Christmas tree graveyard. What may be a creepy scene to holiday lovers is a lush utopia for fish—the branches of the spruces, firs, and pines provide a hiding place from predators and attract food for the fish to nibble on.
The 875-acre artificial reef resting on the lakebed consists of PVC pipe, cinder blocks, concrete sewer pipe, brush, and thousands of Christmas trees weighed down with sandbags. Decades of decomposed plant matter have built up a healthy layer of moss and algae around the non-degradable structures. This green coating attracts insects, which in turn attract fish looking for a snack. The end of the holiday season marks the introduction of 500 new trees to the reef, each of which will take about five or six years to break down completely.
3. THEY’RE USED TO BUILD SAND DUNES.
Spend a day on the beach in summertime and Christmas trees will likely be far from your mind—but on at least one beach along the East Coast, there are thousands of abandoned conifers buried in the sand. That’s because Bradley Beach, New Jersey depends on recycled Christmas trees to build its sand dunes. Discarded trees are laid out on the beach and held in place between two parallel fences. Sand that blows in from shore gets caught in the branches, eventually packing into a full sand dune over the course of several seasons. Unlike piles that have been pushed together with bulldozers, sand dunes that are allowed to build naturally over time provide a more stable barrier against storm surges. When the time is right, the town plants dune grass to give the structures even more stability, with the vegetation's hairy roots anchoring trees in the sand.
4. THEY PROVIDE ENRICHMENT TO ZOO ANIMALS.
An elephant plays with a Christmas tree at a zoo in Germany. Image credit: Odd Andersen // Getty Images
In the wild, many animals encounter plant life that changes with the seasons. The Oakland Zoo in California hopes to simulate this seasonal variety in captivity with annual Christmas tree donations. Each year, a local Christmas tree lot hands over whatever’s left of their inventory at the end of the season. The zoo’s residents are more than happy to take the trees that others didn’t want—zebras munch on the needles, squirrel monkeys swing from branch to branch, and otters play games of “smell and seek” with treats hidden in the trees by zookeepers. Oakland’s zoo isn’t the only one to take advantage of the surplus of trees at the end of year. The Staten Island Zoo, the North Georgia Zoo, the Linton Zoological Gardens in the UK all accept tree donations.
5. THEY HELP RESTORE MARSHLAND.
Christmas trees are a key tool in the fight to save Louisiana’s marshland. The state loses 25 to 35 miles of coastal wetlands a year to advancing ocean tides, and one thrifty way to prevent further damage is by building fences around the marsh’s perimeter. Since the Santa Saves the Marsh project began in 1986, over 1.5 million Christmas trees have been used for this purpose. Following the holiday season, bundles of timber collected from around the country are flown in via a helicopter on loan from the Army National Guard and dropped into the wetlands below. These trees are used to stuff pre-built wooden pens surrounding the bayou. Today, more than eight miles of Christmas tree fencing lines the vulnerable habitat, and it’s already proven valuable: When Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana’s southern coast in 2005, the shoreline behind the barricade was better protected.
6. THEY’RE USED AS AN ENERGY SOURCE.
Christmas trees likely aren’t the alternative fuel source of the future, but that hasn’t stopped Burlington, Vermont from ringing every watt of energy they can get from their seasonal haul. The Joseph C. McNeil Wood and Yard Waste Depot collects hundreds of unwanted trees from households and Christmas tree lots at the end of each holiday season. That organic waste gets fed to a wood chipper, and part of the mulch that comes out is sent to the local power plant where it’s tossed into a boiler. The heat generated from the boiler evaporates water into steam that's used to power the turbine in the plant's generator. Each tree that's incinerated amounts to about 36 cents worth of energy for the town.
The Merry Mulch Project isn’t able to produce enough fuel to keep the plant running on 100-percent Christmas tree power (for that, the boiler would need to be fed the equivalent of 100 trees per second), but luckily, Burlington uses other renewable resources like wind and water to keep the city running throughout the year.
7. THEY’RE MADE INTO PATHS FOR HIKING TRAILS.
It’s hard to go for a hike through Dunbar Cave State Park in Tennessee without trampling on ghosts of Christmas past—all of the mulch used to cushion their trails is made from old Christmas trees. A thousand trees are mulched by the park as part of their annual Trees to Trails program and laid along pathways by volunteers. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, Friends of Dunbar Cave board member David Boen said they stick to Christmas trees exclusively because “by definition they don't have any invasive species or seeds.” In addition to making them easier to walk on, mulch also protects trails from damaging water run-off.
8. THEY’RE TRANSFORMED INTO ART.
Since 2012, artist Michael Neff has installed a seasonal art project in New York City. “The Suspended Forest” started with a handful of forgotten Christmas trees hung illegally beneath an overpass in Williamsburg. The most recent iteration included 40 floating trees harvested from sidewalks and tree lots after Christmas. They were on display in a warehouse in Queens through the month of January (this time around, Neff had actually received permission to put them there). He hopes to keep bringing the exhibit back to New York and potentially re-imagine it for different cities in the future.
9. THEY PROVIDE FREE MULCH TO GARDENERS.
If a Christmas tree doesn’t end up hanging in a warehouse, decomposing on a lakebed, or providing festive scenery for a landfill, it’s most likely turned into mulch. Plenty of towns pulverize their discarded Christmas trees for use in parks and public spaces, but San Diego does something a little different with theirs. For decades the Miramar Greenery has invited city residents to pick up free mulch and compost for use on private property. After dropping off unwanted trees at locations around town or dumping them on the curb, families can visit the Greenery later in the year to collect the mulch they helped contribute to. In a single year, the recycling program can make mulch out of nearly 1000 trees, making the city’s Christmas trees the gifts that keep on giving.