In 2009, the Tell City (Ind.) Street Department submerged approximately 40 discarded holiday trees into nearby lakes, providing a natural habitat for fish. Photo: Nancy Myers, U.S. Forest Service, Region 9.

By Jenni Spinner

Once a family is done decking its halls and jingling its bells, something has to be done with the Christmas tree.

Gone are the days when most solid waste departments simply lug the old pines away from suburban curbs and toss them into landfills — the behemoth boughs take too much work to haul, and take up too much space in waste vehicles and landfills. In fact, many departments have barred the practice of dumping trees curbside or in Dumpsters. Here are some creative ways to repurpose Christmas trees.

Gone fishing

In Bartow County, Ga., trees are used to create fish habitats. They're collected at the county's recycling plant, inspected (making sure they're free of lights, tinsel, and other baubles harmful to fish and animals), then hauled to nearby bodies of water and sent to the bottom to serve as shelter for aquatic wildlife, which doesn't take long to gather in the pitched pines.

“Pine is the new bait,” says Sheri Henshaw, director of the county's office of environmental programs.

In Tell City, Ind., the street department drops off collected trees with the Tell City Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service. Last year's program saw more than 80 trees submerged in local lakes to serve as refuge for largemouth bass, bluegill, and other species.

Scout's honor

The 2010 holiday season marked the debut of an enterprising program in Mariposa County, Calif. The county still allows burning of discarded trees and other green waste — a tradition for residents — but the resulting smoke affects air quality. Public works encourages residents to drop off trees at its facility for composting; however, the program had not enjoyed much success — last year the facility received only eight trees.

This year, the county increased the number of trees collected by enlisting the help of local nonprofit groups — Boy Scouts of America, church groups, schools, and others.

“We thought if we advertised it as a fundraiser we might get more people to participate,” says Solid Waste and Recycling Manager Michelle Miller. The groups help residents by picking up trees from local homes, and earn money by charging a fee. They then tote the trees to the recycling facility. While a number of groups are participating, the agency still offers residents free drop-off.

Chips ahoy

Chicago's Streets and Sanitation Department has had success with its multisite drop-off program, launched in 1990. Citizens can bring their discarded trees, stripped of trimmings, to one of nearly two dozen sites. The trees are mulched and used for landscaping in park district projects. The 2009 holiday season saw Chicagoans drop off 11,513 trees for recycling.

“We've kept 128,778 trees out of the waste stream since 1990, so this program can have a very real impact on the environment,” says Mayor Richard M. Daley.

A limited amount of the mulch is also made available free of charge to residents for private yards and gardens.

— Jenni Spinner ( is a Chicago-based freelancer and a former editor of PUBLIC WORKS.