Unless you still have a 7-foot-tall, brown-needled fire hazard gracing the corner of your living room, Christmas tree recycling is probably the last thing on your mind at the moment.

In ravaged-by-Sandy coastal communities across New York and New Jersey, however, discarded Tannenbaums remain a hot commodity. Saved from being unceremoniously chucked into local landfills, the retired trees are being repurposed to aid in the rebuilding of coastal dunes, the protective mini-mountains that serve as Mother Nature’s first line of defense against the destruction unleashed by powerful storms.

In the particularly vulnerable city of Long Beach, N.Y., alone, more than 3,000 recycled Christmas trees have been arranged on the beach, a beach that lost more than half a million cubic yards of sand during October’s catastrophic storm. Resembling a “large pod of exceptionally fuzzy seals” in the words of the New York Times, the Christmas trees help to catch sand blown around by the wind and, in turn, speed up the natural formation of dunes. Normally, grasses help to anchor the dunes and keep the sand from blowing away or being swept back out to sea. But in Long Beach and other heavily damaged coastal towns in the Northeast, the assistance of seasonal shrubbery was needed to kick-start the regrowth process, a process that can take two to three years following a major storm.

Explains Charlie Peek, a spokesman for the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation: “The trees act in place of natural plant growth. It gives it a little head start, a little bit of a helping hand. In an ideal situation, the plant growth comes in after it and starts building a natural dune.”

Peek is familiar with the process as North Carolina is just one coastal storm-prone state where Christmas trees have long been brought in to help foster dune reformation and control erosion on decimated beaches.

In Long Beach, the scheme to repurpose Christmas trees as sand-catching beach buffers was proposed by local residents who also donated the trees once they’d been stripped of their baubles and trim. A local Home Depot store also stepped in and donated old trees as well. Following the collection process, a team of around 100 volunteers worked to strategically arrange the trees on the beach, a process that Long Beach city manager Jack Schnirman describes as “a very nice healing thing for residents to do to contribute to our protection.”

Adds Alison Kallelis, a Long Beach resident who helped to launch the idea: “There are so many things bringing this community together, which is great.” She also hints that this unique method of Christmas tree recycling could become an annual tradition: “Every year you keep adding more trees and keep building it up higher and higher.”

Good stuff, and certainly a departure from the mulch-centric fate that awaits most recycled Christmas trees after the holidays have come and gone. Coast dwellers: Have you donated your old Christmas tree to a dune rebuilding project such as the one in Long Beach?

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