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3 eco-friendly Christmas tree disposal tips

The holiday season is over and the new year is almost here. It's time to put the past behind you, and that includes that tree still sitting pretty in your living room. Christmas trees aren't as wasteful as one might imagine — you aren't pulling trees from the forest, they are specifically grown to be cut down, and they do absorb and store carbon while growing — but the best way to keep your Christmas experience green as can be is by completing the life cycle of the tree and disposing of it in the most environmentally friendly way possible. Here are some of the options that you can consider to dispose of your Christmas tree while doing the most good (or at least the least amount of harm) for the planet.

Turn it into mulch

The best thing you can do with your Christmas tree is recycle it, and one of the most effective ways of doing that is turning it into mulch. By mulching a tree, you turn it into a reusable resource. Not only is the end result a decorative landscaping material that you can use come spring, but it also has some significant benefits for your other plants and land. Most of the carbon absorbed by a Christmas tree is stored in its wood, and is retained even when you mulch it, according to Bert Cregg, the professor of horticulture and forestry at Michigan State University. That means when you decide to use the mulch, you will be returning the carbon to the soil. According to Young Carbon Farmers, soil organic carbon is "the basis of soil fertility," as it releases nutrients that are essential for plant growth and development. it also provides a buffer against potentially harmful substances that may stagnate a plant's growth. By mulching your tree, the carbon from it will be the gift that keeps giving long after the holiday season is behind you.

Mulching is becoming an increasingly popular option for tree disposal, particularly in large cities. That means there should be plenty of options for getting rid of your tree, even if you don't have a mulcher of your own laying around. Earth911 has set up a handy system to check for nearby tree recycling programs in your area. You can also check with your city or town's parks or public works department for citywide programs. Alternatively, you check for a Home Depot near you. Most Home Depot locations host recycling programs and have chippers on hand to dispose of trees after the holidays.

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Return it to nature

If you opted for a natural Christmas tree this year, you did so with good reason: trees are biodegradable and can make for solid additions to natural habitats after they have outlived their usefulness holding up your holiday decorations. Even if your tree is already dead, it can serve as a useful home for animals and insects. If you have a yard, let birds make a home in the remaining wood of your tree. Otherwise, you can take it off to a wooded area where animals are sure to make use of it.

Keep America Fishing, an advocacy organization for protecting fishing ecosystems, recommends sinking your tree in a nearby fish habitat. While it may seem a little silly, trees actually help to nurture fish life. The trees provide smaller species with cover, allowing them to grow bigger than if they were forced to live exposed to the elements and predators. As the tree decomposes in the water, it also helps to build new vegetation including phytoplankton and algae that are essential for sustaining underwater life. You can find a nearby stream or pond that can be served by your Christmas tree, though you may want to contact your local department of natural resources first — just to be safe.

Donate it

While gifts usually go under the Christmas tree, the tree itself can be a wonderful gift itself if you give it to the right person. For instance, many zoos are happy to take on Christmas trees after the season. They make for wonderful toys for big cats — not just because they are fun for them to toss and roll around with, but because they share a scent that is similar to catnip. Those big cats deserve a treat for the holidays, too!

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It's not just good for the animals, though — the trees can be great for the zoos as a whole. They are useful sources of fuel if the zoo has a biofuel burner, which helps keep enclosures warm during the cold winter months. Trees with roots can also be used to help enrich the zoo's habitats, same as you might use it at home after mulching your tree. You can check the Association of Zoos and Aquariums database to find nearby zoos and contact them to see if they are interested in taking your tree.

Whatever you do, don't burn your tree or send it to a landfill

While it might be most convenient to simply bag your tree and drag it out to the curb or chop it up and use it for kindling, these are two options that you want to avoid. Burning a Christmas tree is going to be largely unsatisfying for you — they don't burn as well as other types of wood and their oils have a habit of coating your chimney and presenting you with an increased fire risk in the future. Plus, burning the tree simply releases the carbon trapped in the wood and puts it back into the atmosphere, defeating the whole purpose of buying a natural tree that can easily be recycled and utilized in an environmentally friendly manner.

Taking your tree out to the curb can be okay if your city has a plan to dispose of it in a proper manner, but if they are just going to take it to a landfill then you're better off getting rid of the tree yourself. The tree will decompose naturally at the landfill, but not particularly effectively. Most landfills are oxygen sucks, depleting the resource that is essential for organic materials like Christmas trees to decompose. Your tree will simply go to waste in this environment.

One of the benefits of buying a natural Christmas tree is that you can provide it with a complete eco-friendly cycle in which it contributes an environmental good throughout its life — from absorbing carbon during its growth to doing good by other living creatures after its death. Make sure you make the most of your Christmas tree, and consider it your gift to the earth. It's the least we can do for it.