What becomes of your recycled Christmas tree?
Stormy weather heralds the start of a new year for much of the UK, but as we head back to work the remains of last year’s festivities might still be lingering in our homes. Traditionally, the twelfth day of Christmas is the day to take down your tree (either the 5th or 6th of January, depending on who you ask), but perhaps more important than when you do it is what you do with it.
The Local Government Association estimated in 2016 that every 40 trees going to landfill cost the taxpayer £100. Given that around six million trees could be thrown out this year, the pounds quickly add up. Not only this, but in landfill both artificial and real Christmas trees produce a staggering amount of greenhouse gases (GHG). According to the Carbon Trust, the carbon footprint of a fake tree is equivalent to 40kg of CO2 - but even real trees produce GHG equivalent to 16kg during decomposition.
If you’ve opted for a plastic tree, research suggests that it will need to be reused for a minimum of 10 years - some sources say 20 - to bring its carbon footprint in line with that of a real tree. Extended reuse is the only environmentally-friendly option for the artificial firs, as their combination of metals and plastics makes them too difficult for recyclers to accept - although charity shops may accept them for resale.
For the real thing, the options on offer from local authorities vary, so it’s always best to contact your council directly - some will collect your tree from the kerbside on a specific day, some ask you to cut up the tree and place it with compostables or garden waste, while others may require you to take the tree to a designated collection point or to your local household waste recycling centre (HWRC).
Additionally, a number of charity ‘treecycling’ schemes are available; JustHelping brings together teams of volunteers, in aid of 30 hospices across the country, to collect and recycle real Christmas trees on the first and second weekends of January. If there’s a collection in your area, there’s still time to register your tree on the website to be picked up and taken to a local recycling centre.
The Local Government Association has previously endorsed the Carbon Trust’s advice to burn your Christmas tree on a bonfire, as this produces less GHG than in landfill, but it must be noted this is not an alternative to recycling, where the tree can be shredded and used for a multitude of new purposes.
So what happens to recycled trees?
At wood recycling centres across the UK, Christmas trees are granted a variety of possible afterlives. Once a tree has been put through the chipper, it might be used for woodchip pathways, animal bedding or as feedstock for biomass boilers, or turned into soil improver or compost, as at the Mays Hill Industrial Estate in Yate, where Phoenix Green Solutions transforms Bristol’s used trees into compost for crops over an 8-10 week period.
Some councils find even more unusual uses for discarded trees: in 2017, Denbighshire Council used around 300 trees to bolster eroded sand dunes at Barkby Beach, Prestatyn. The dunes, a natural sea defence designated a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) due to their biodiversity, were damaged due to trampling, and the trees helped to reinforce the sand, allowing marram grass to be regrown on top. Elsewhere, unused Christmas trees have been utilised by the Environment Agency to stabilise river banks in Cheshire and Cumbria, as well as providing new habitats for wildlife.
The possibilities for the future of a recycled tree are vast, and it seems that more and more people are becoming aware of this: though figures are scarce, Hammersmith and Fulham Council has recorded the tonnage of Christmas trees collected every year since 2011/12, and reports a 43 per cent increase in recycling over that time, reaching over 75 tonnes in 2015/16.
And there is one final option for next Christmas: follow the advice of Darran Messem, the Carbon Trust’s Managing Director for Certification, who said: “The best thing you can do at Christmas is to keep a tree alive and breathing.” Opt for a potted tree with a root ball, and it can be replanted in the garden for the rest of the year, potentially for many more Christmases to come.