Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
They don’t all have to go into the chipper.
Once the carols wind down, the presents are unwrapped, and the ornaments packed away, what happens to the Christmas trees? Americans buy 25 to 30 million fresh-cut evergreens each year, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. While some are turned to mulch and wood chips after the holidays, many end up in landfills.
That doesn’t have to be the end of the story, though. A used-up tree can take on a whole new life—one that’s less festive but far more environmentally friendly.
Across the country, cities are encouraging people to recycle or donate their discarded trees, which can then be turned into shelters for wildlife, breeding grounds for aquatic life, and even food for goats. The National Christmas Tree Association boasts several different programs, but these are the ones that caught our attention.
Donate your tree to the birds
What’s trash to us can become treasure to a whole family of raptors in Maryland. As part of the Maryland State Park’s Scales and Tales program, which takes in animals that have been wounded or that’s lost their natural habitat, the Department of Natural Resources is collecting discarded trees to use inside aviaries at six state parks.
The trees will provide shade and enriched nesting space for bald eagles, kestrels, owls, and the like. They’ll give the birds “greenery, protection, and a sense of the wild,” ranger Sarah Millbourne told the local radio station WTOP.
Feed the goats
Goats don’t eat everything, but those bleating, wide-eyed herbivores will gladly chow down on your Christmas tree. As part of San Francisco’s recycling program, the landscaping company City Grazing—which rents out goats for weed control—collects up to 20 trees a day in the weeks after Christmas to feed their (non-human) employees. According to the company’s website, the trees provide ample vitamins and minerals for their herd of roughly 80 goats.
Trees are also being collected in Nevada, where Vince Thomas, owner of the company Goat Grazers, told the local news outlet Reno Gazette-Journal that the trees “are like candy to the goats.”
A new life underwater
In several states across the U.S., including California, Louisiana, Ohio, and Missouri, environmental agencies and private companies are turning recycled trees into refuge for fish. Charleston, West Virginia, for example, collects hundreds of trees each year and distributes them among four lakes, where they are attached to anchors and sunk to the bottom. The makeshift reefs—four or five trees bundled together—provide a habitat for local species and a place for young fish to hide from predators. According to the U.S. Forest Service, Christmas trees are especially important because their branching patterns can provide shelter for fish of all sizes and shapes. That’s good for local fishermen as well, because the efforts keep the fish population varied, active, and thriving.
Save the beaches
When the Hurricane Ivan hit the Gulf Coast in 2004, it washed away the dunes on Alabama’s beaches, which housed a variety of animal species. To rebuild them, volunteers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service erected more than 3,000 feet of fencing on the beach, placing Christmas trees donated by a local farmer along the base to trap windblown sand.
Christmas trees came to the rescue once again in 2013, after Hurricane Sandy destroyed the dunes of New York and New Jersey. In Long Beach, New York, roughly 3,000 Christmas trees were lined up to “catch sand blown by the wind, until gradually the dunes grow up around them,” The New York Times reported:
“The trees act in place of natural plant growth,” said Charlie Peek, a spokesman for the parks service in North Carolina, which has been using Christmas trees to spur dune revival for years. “It gives it a little head start, a little bit of a helping hand. In an ideal situation, the plant growth comes in after it and starts building a natural dune.”
Build homes for neighbors in need
Christmas trees can do so much more than light up someone’s living room; they can be used to make an entire house. The nonprofit Habitat for Humanity has for years turned Rockefeller Center’s iconic Christmas trees into homes for the needy. The organization hasn’t said what’s in store for this year’s tree, which is nearly 78 feet tall. But lumber from the 2014 tree, which stood at 85 feet, is currently being used to construct five homes in Pennsylvania.