Every year, Americans buy more than 33 million real Christmas trees for the holiday season. (Plus about 14 million fake plastic trees.)
Then, in early January — depending on how long people feel like holding out — the lights go off, the decorations come down, and most trees are tossed out on the curb, where they're carried off to landfills to rot.
Or at least, most of them are. In recent years, people have come up with some surprisingly novel uses for discarded (real) Christmas trees. A few possible options:
1) Give old Christmas trees to lions to play with
In Cambridge, England, the Linton Zoological Gardens now take donations of old trees for their lions to play with:
According to the BBC, the lions love rubbing up against the trees. "We've already had quite a few trees coming in, which are giving the lions hours of fun," said the zoo's director. Once the novelty wears off, the trees are tossed in a bio-burner to provide heating for buildings.
2) Feed them to elephants and camels at the zoo
The Oakland Zoo does something similar in the United States, accepting a few hundred Christmas trees each year. Back in 2011, workers there noted that elephants love eating the bark off Noble Firs and Fraser Firs. Initially they get fed five per day, though they get sick of them after awhile — and the zoo is picky about what types of trees it accepts (Douglas firs are unpopular):
The Prague Zoo also accepts old Christmas trees. This camel seems happy enough:
Mind you, not all zoos do this — and demand for trees is finite — so you should obviously check before dumping your tree off.
3) Hire a goat to come eat your Christmas tree
If zoos aren't an option, maybe ask a goat. Last month, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported that Goat Grazers, a company in Nevada, will offer its team of 40 goats to come by and chow down your Christmas tree. It looks like this:
Though, again, not everyone lives in Nevada and/or near a merry band of goats. In that case, if you don't want to throw out your Christmas tree, you're left with recycling. The National Christmas Tree Association lists a number of options here (not every city and county has a program).
4) Or recycle old trees into... lingerie?
Some recycling centers simply turn the Christmas trees into wood chips for parks or mulch. In some areas, dried Christmas trees make great soil erosion barriers for, say, wetlands or sand dune areas.
In San Francisco, old Christmas trees are taken, shredded, and burned at a biomass plant for electricity. Useful enough.
But perhaps the most bizarre recycling idea comes from a French company called DoYouGreen, which takes wood and pine needles from old trees, runs them through a non-chemical enzyme bath, and turns them into fabric used to make lingerie. "The line has sweat-reducing properties," ABC News reported last month, "that naturally absorb two-and-a-half times more moisture than cotton."
Are Christmas trees bad for the environment?
In the end, though, most people will probably have to just dump the tree — recycling isn't an option for everyone. And that raises a question: Are Christmas trees bad for the environment?
Maybe a little, though not as much as you might think. Gary Chastagner, a professor of plant pathology at Washington State University, argues that most Christmas trees in the United States are grown like crops and replanted, "so it is really no different than harvesting corn." Yes, people expend energy in cutting down trees and transporting them, and that has an environmental impact. But chopping down the trees themselves isn't a huge contributor to climate change. (Since the trees take a long time to decompose in landfills, most of the carbon dioxide they hold stays locked away for years while new trees grow.)
That also brings up the age-old question of whether real trees or fake trees or better for the environment. It takes a fair bit of energy to manufacture a fake plastic tree, so most studies suggest that you'd need to keep it around for 20 years before you start to see an environmental advantage over real trees. Yet most people toss fake Christmas trees after 6 to 9 years, on average. (What's more, fake trees are extremely difficult to recycle — particularly older ones that are made with PVC — so they sit in the landfill even longer.)