Fish and houseguests, a great Pennsylvanian once wrote, begin to smell after three days.
The freshness window for Christmas trees is, admittedly, a bit longer. But by mid-January, even the most committed procrastinators have to admit: it’s time for last year’s tree to go.
For those of us who’ve been too busy hacking through ice or fighting off hypothermia to confront what amounts to a six-foot tower of indoor yard waste, there’s good news: many municipalities and counties in Pennsylvania make it easy for residents to responsibly dispose of trees, wreaths, garlands, and seasonal greenery well into the new year. Be advised, though — depending on where you live, you may be running out of time to take advantage of these services.
The environmental benefits of choosing a fresh-cut tree over an artificial one should be fairly obvious: one is biodegradeable and renewable, while the other is inevitably destined for the landfill. Where the manufacture and distribution of fake trees is energy-intensive and polluting, live trees are carbon sinks. They also contribute to watershed health by removing nitrogen from the soil.
But those benefits can be offset or negated altogether if the natural tree isn’t properly disposed of. A 2010 American Christmas Tree Association study shows that natural trees, if incinerated rather than dumped or composted, are actually a net contributor of CO2. And though natural trees will decompose anywhere, hauling them to a landfill still burns fuel, costs money, and takes up needed space.
That’s why cities often find it worth their while to collect and process Christmas trees locally. Why dump all that perfectly good biomass in a landfill, when public works and parks departments can almost always find a use for free, locally-sourced mulch and compost?
Where and how
Unfortunately, many communities don’t offer curbside pickup of bulky yard waste. Others will pick up your Christmas tree as part of regular trash collection, but send it to the landfill along with all your used wrapping paper and unwanted fruitcakes.
Actually recycling a tree requires a little (not much) effort on the consumer’s part. You’ll have to remove the stand and any decorations and, in most cases, bring it to a designated collection center. Most programs ask that you don’t bag, bind, or bundle trees either.
Disposal options vary widely from one area to the next, so you’ll need to research what’s available in your neighborhood (here’s an extensive, if not entirely up-to-date, list of local tree disposal programs & policies across PA).
For residents of Pennsylvania’s two largest cities, it’s pretty straightforward:
The Streets Department collects trees for recycling daily at six locations through January 13th. Residents can also bring trees to one of 23 Saturday drop-off sites.
Trees can be dropped off Monday through Saturday at six collection sites hosted by the city’s Public Works Department. Three of these locations are open year-round, but the rest are open during January only.
Out with the old, in with the new
Buying a natural Christmas tree and recycling it after use are both good environmental practices. But why not go one better?
In April, PEC staff and a few hundred of our closest friends will converge on three reclaimed mineland sites to plant thousands of new trees. It’s a reprise of last year’s wildly successful Earth Day tree-planting events in northeastern PA, where a small army of volunteers led by PEC and DCNR helped to reforest fifteen acres in Weiser and Pinchot State Forests.
This year we’re returning to those sites, and adding a new one — in Moshannon State Forest — to the list.
Details are still being finalized, but save the date for Earth Day weekend, April 20-21, and watch this space for information on how to get involved.