It’s that time of year again – the presents are opened, the extended family is gone, and your Christmas tree is slowly crumbling into a pile of pokey pine needles.

But before you toss that tree into the nearest garbage bin, remember that recycling your real Christmas tree is so easy in the U.S. that Americans recycle an impressive 93 percent of them every year through the nation’s 4,000 available recycling programs.

To get into the true Christmas spirit and recycle your own tree this year, just complete these three easy steps.

First, remove all of the tree’s accessories, including the stand, lights, tinsel and ornaments. If these items are left on, they could contaminate the recycling process.

Second, check out the collection and drop-off dates for tree recycling in your area so that you don’t miss the deadline. A simple web search with “Christmas tree recycling” and the name of your town should do the trick.

Third, don’t put your Christmas tree in a plastic bag for recycling. Instead, to avoid getting pine needles everywhere, simply wrap the tree in a blanket for temporary transport to the nearest recycling drop-off.

Okay, now that those three things are taken care of, all that’s left for you to do is to go to the Earth911 site where you’ll find tree-recycling options near you. Earth911 is the premiere “treecycling” resource where you’ll find anything from locations of Christmas tree drop-off centers to names of local service organizations that will pick up your tree for you, free of charge!

Different states and cities have different options for recycling Christmas trees, so it’s best to first punch in your zip code on the Earth911 site and then go to the specific government or organization’s web site to verify the information.

In addition, a handful of community groups, such as the Boy Scouts of America, will deliver your tree to the recycling center for a small donation.

And in the off chance that there is no local tree recycling option available, Earth911’s site even has tips on how to start your own recycling program. 

So what happens to your tree once you recycle it? Well, a lot of things, actually!

Though recycled Christmas trees are often ground up for mulch and used for landscaping purposes, in recent years many communities, governmental organizations, businesses and nonprofits have come up with a number of other ways to creatively reuse or recycle your old tree.

Here are just a few of the ways that recycled trees have been put to good use, courtesy of the National Christmas Tree Association:

Dune restoration
When Hurricane Ivan hit Alabama's Gulf Coast in September 2004, the pounding waves of the hurricane pulled sand away from the beaches and destroyed dunes that are home to a number of animal populations.

To rebuild the dunes and restore the fragile ecosystem, volunteers put up more than 3,000 feet of sand fencing with a Christmas tree at the base of each fence. A local tree farmer donated the Christmas trees after the hurricane wiped out his crop.

Rebuilding coastlines
Each year, Louisiana loses 25 to 35 square miles of coastal wetlands, which protect the area against hurricane surges, provide natural treatment for storm water and provide a rich nursery ground for fisheries. To help fight against the encroaching ocean, nearly 1.5 million Christmas trees have been used as tree fences to combat erosion and slow wave action since 1986. 

Since its inception, the program has created 8 miles worth of tree fences and restored 250 to 300 acres of marshland. The trees even helped protect the shoreline during Hurricane Katrina.

Heron homes

Herons and egrets began to overcrowd the Baker's Lake Nature Reserve, owned by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, after being forced out of their native habitats by development. In the process, the birds also destroyed much of the natural vegetation at the nesting site.

To recreate a home for the birds, the District, in cooperation with the Citizens for Conservation, uses Christmas Trees to create nesting structures that attract hundreds of pairs of great blue herons, great egrets, cormorants and black-crowned night herons to the rookery.

Free mulch
San Diego’s tree mulching program provides free fertile mulch to residents throughout the year. The program, which has been offered since 1973, allows city residents to drop off their Christmas Trees at 18 locations or leave them outside for curbside collection. All trees are then recycled into high-quality mulch and compost, which is then made available to residents.

“By recycling your Christmas tree, you are doing your part to reduce the amount of material in the landfill and help the environment by giving your holiday tree a second life as compost, mulch or wood chips,” said Elmer L. Heap Jr., director of Environmental Services Department.

Each year, Packaging Corporation of America hires a contractor to grind up Christmas trees dropped off at a yard waste site by citizens of Tomahawk, Wisconsin. Once completed, the materials are loaded up and taken straight to the company's environmentally friendly mill.

"We use it as a boiler fuel to power our pulp and paper mill plant," says John Piotrowski, environmental manager at PCA, which manufactures containerboard and corrugated packaging.

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Additional photo credit: Stu Spivak/Flickr