As the holidays wind down and the cleanup begins, you may be wondering what to do with your Christmas tree. Whether your tree is live, recently cut, or fake, think about the greenest way to reuse or recycle your tree with consideration for the environment

A palette of potted Christmas trees.

Live trees

The most environmentally-friendly tree is the one that is still living. Whether you dug one out of the ground or purchased a tree in a pot, a living tree has a long and prosperous life ahead. That’s good for the air we breathe, the soil, and our connection to nature. 

Related: What are sustainable alternatives to a Christmas tree?

What you do with your live tree depends on your future goals, as well as your landscape. If you have a smaller tree you would like to bring in to use again next Christmas, replant it in a larger pot and include a bit of compost for nourishment. You can leave it on the deck or place it in a flower bed. 

If the tree is already large or you have no plans to bring it in next year, go ahead and plant it in the ground. Consider the full size your tree can reach when choosing a location, so you don’t find it rubbing up against fencing or buildings. 

If your situation doesn’t support keeping the tree in a pot or planting it on your land, offer the tree up to someone who can give it a permanent home. 

A green Christmas tree.

Cut trees

At the end of the season, your tree likely gets pulled from the stand and moved as far as the side of the house somewhere. Make a decision now about what you’ll do with your tree, so you don’t find yourself dealing with it when you rediscover it in the spring

Many citywide curbside recycling services will pick up trees in the weeks following Christmas. Typically they allow you to put your tree alongside the other waste, recycling, and yard debris receptacles until the middle of January. 

Extra trucks pick up the trees and deliver them to the local industrial yard debris processing center, where they are converted into bark chips or compost. This gives your tree a full life cycle as it is then sold back to the community for gardening. Who knows, your tree might even become the mulch for next year’s food or flower garden.

If you miss the deadline or your community doesn’t offer a tree pick-up service, you can process your own tree by cutting the limbs into small pieces for the compost pile or yard debris bin. Then cut the trunk into sections for campfires or the backyard fire pit. Evergreens are high in sap content, so burn them outside rather than bringing them in to use in a fireplace or woodstove. Allow your rounds to sit for a season to cure before burning. Also, remember to incorporate your fire ash into your compost pile.

In rural areas, you can allow your tree, or smaller sections of your tree, to break down naturally in the woods. The surrounding flora and fauna will thank you. You may also be able to sink your tree in a local lake or pond where fish and other animals can use it as a habitat. Check with your local land management organization to see if this is an option for you.

Regardless of where the tree is headed, take it out to the garden and shake all the pine needles off. The plants and soil will use it as mulch to add nutrients and aid in temperature control. If you have a chipper, send your tree through and use the chips as mulch too. 

A red truck toy with a small tree on the bed.

Artificial trees

Since fake trees are made of a combination of materials, they typically are not recyclable. This makes them the least eco-friendly option on the list. However, there is some value in using the same tree for many years. Consider the water consumption and emissions impact of cutting, transporting and disposing of cut trees during the same 10-year period you’re using an artificial tree, and you can see there’s a bit of a balancing there. But to be real, an artificial tree is a product of manufacturing and, likely, petroleum-based products.

Regardless of how you end up with it, disposing of an artificial tree isn’t a win for the environment. The best thing you can do is keep it out of the landfill for as long as possible. Instead of putting it into the waste pile, donate it to a local thrift shop or offer it up to people in the community. 

An array of wooden Christmas decorations.


Your dead tree can also get new life when you use it to make other gifts and home decor. Your tree is a source of wood, just like that at the home improvement store, so make use of it. Cut portions of the trunk into thick squares and cut a groove into the top to make a cell phone holder for your desk. Grab a saw and cut the base into rounds you can sand down and shape to use as coasters or ornaments for next year. 

Via Arbor Day Foundation

Images via Pixabay