Many of the 400,000 Christmas trees that adorned Irish homes during the festive season are currently being recycled through various, conventional means. Local authorities play a useful role in taking in trees for shredding, mulching or composting, but thrown out or unsold Christmas trees can also have other uses.
In parts of the US trees are helping to create habitat for fish in otherwise barren lakes. The trees are taken to a different lake each year, where volunteers bundle them and secure them to the lake bed. Within days, the newly-denuded branches become covered with algae which attract aquatic insects, fish and, ultimately, anglers.
Christmas trees are perfect for the purpose — just the right size and weight, according to Pete Alexander, fisheries programme manager for the East Bay Regional Park District, in Oakland, California. He says the idea is catching on and similar projects are taking place around the US.
Most retailers have their unsold trees turned into mulch or wood chips. In New Orleans, trees have been used to restore coastlines destroyed in hurricanes. But aquatic habitat projects have become increasingly popular destinations for leftover Christmas trees.
The trees last about five years in the lake and fish “use them like crazy”, reports Lee Mitchell, a natural resource specialist for the US Army Corp of Engineers, who is leading a similar campaign this year in Illinois. “And the fishers really like them, too,” he adds. To lure volunteers for the work, Mr Mitchell offers an incentive: “If they help, we give them the GPS coordinates of the trees. You can go right to the spot and it’ll be good fishing there.”
In Ireland, discarded Christmas trees can end up on streets, ditches, roadsides and laneways. Green party waste management spokesman Tom Kivlehan has called on people not to dump trees onto roads where they create traffic hazards, especially in bad weather. He has even seen them on the M50 motorway and has urging people to use local authority recycling services.
“There’s no need to dump trees, considering the excellent recycling facilities available and recycled Christmas trees will be put back into the environment as organic fertilizer,” says Mr Kivlehan who adds most recycling centres will accept Christmas trees until the end of January.
It takes a Christmas tree between seven and 10 years to grow to a height of two metres.
The Irish Christmas Tree Growers’ Association has 100 members and between 400,000 and 500,000 trees are produced for the home market each year. Around 300,000 trees are exported to other EU countries in a business is worth €12 million.
About 70% of the trees are Nordmann Fir, which has grown in popularity because it does not shed its needles. Coillte, the state forestry service, is phasing out large-scale Christmas tree production, but will still produce more than 30,000 trees this year for sale from its 16 depots around the country.
More people appear to be using artificial Christmas trees, often as a second and smaller tree in their houses. Such trees offer definite advantages, have no needles to shed and can be used for many years. A downside is that artificial trees are made from a petroleum/plastic material with greenhouse gases emitted in the production process. They have to be transported vast distances around the world from countries such as China. They can also give off toxic fumes if they catch fire.
As for natural trees, a key advantage is that greenhouse gases are reduced and they are, invariably, produced locally which results in a reduction of pollution from transport. When finished with, they can also be converted into compost or wood chips.
Some of the disadvantages include the shedding of needles (in some cases) and the use of chemicals and herbicides by some growers in tree cultivation.
The debate on natural versus artificial trees is sure to continue, but it looks as if there will always be a market in Ireland for the real thing. Buying the tree is an annual ritual for many families, a real part of a day-out when Christmas shopping and or, indeed, a reason for a special excursion.
Admittedly, the design and appearance of artificial trees have improved greatly and, depending on the amount of seasonal spirits consumed, it can be difficult at times to know the difference.
But, is there anything like the scent of the real tree in the room?
There’s that feeling that when it’s standing in the usual place in the corner, with lights flickering and decorations hanging, that Christmas is here again.