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By Meghan Godby

In 2017, the City of Wheat Ridge turned 1,500 real Christmas trees into mulch. The mulch, which was used throughout city parks, was also available to local residents for use in their own gardens and landscaping. But what about artificial Christmas trees?

  I spoke with Rachel Nathan, Director of SustainAbility, a local recycling organization that serves the greater metro area. She explained that artificial trees can’t be recycled. The reason is twofold, but cross contamination is the biggest contributing factor. Artificial Christmas trees are made up of many different materials, including paper (which makes up those convincing artificial pine needles) and wire.

But that’s not the only problem.

“Plastics recycling in the United States is very lacking. A lot of low-grade plastics used to go to China. Now that China has cut us off [...], the U.S. is not allowed to send the majority of low-grade plastics out any longer.”

This is all part of the National Sword Initiative, a recently implemented policy in China that bans 24 types of solid waste, including the types of plastics that Nathan mentioned.

So, what can you do? Perhaps the most obvious suggestion is to donate your unwanted tree to a thrift store or local charity. After all, artificial trees are designed to last many years, not to be replaced from season to season.

Thankfully, not all is lost – you can still recycle your Christmas lights locally. SustainAbility accepts all types of lights, as long as large (golf-ball size) bulbs are removed.

Nathan explained that the lights, which contain copper wiring, are sent out to “metal smelters in the Denver area.” These facilities melt down the lights, which are then converted into copper wiring. She goes on to say that recycling metal is extremely important.

“It’s the easiest thing to recycle,” she explains, “and can be recycled over and over again. There is no end life.”

This is in sharp contrast to paper, which can only be recycled about six times before it “turns into sludge.” Yet although paper cannot be recycled indefinitely, it’s still important to extend its longevity as long as we can. After all, trees and lights aren’t the only waste leftover after a holiday season.

“We try to educate [the public] that wrapping paper is recyclable,” Nathan shared. “Most people think it’s not. Shiny paper is not recyclable because of the foil, but matte, regular paper, that can be put in recycling.”

The holiday season places a strong emphasis on consuming, and even well-intentioned traditions can generate a lot of waste. As consumers, it’s our responsibility to ensure that we properly dispose of the things we can, and try to find a home for the things we cannot. Because after all, the season of giving back should include taking care of our planet, too.