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Recycling and repurposing: Holiday trees live on

The holidays have ended and a new year has begun. With a new year comes a clean slate, a fresh start and a wave of resolutions that may or may not be fulfilled 12 months from now.

The new year also brings the post-holiday letdown: The decorations need to be taken down and returned to their boxes in the attic; the wrapping paper needs to be stashed in a safe place that won’t be uncovered by small hands. And then there is the daunting task of stripping down the tree so it can be removed from the living room and the furniture can be returned to its usual layout. 

Instead of simply hauling it out to the curbside to be picked up with the rest of the trash on trash day, consider these alternatives for recycling the holiday tree. 

For 25 years, the Lake County Forest Preserves has arranged eight drop-off sites throughout the county for families to come and drop off their holiday tree. Open daily from 6:30 a.m. to sunset, these sites collect donated trees, which are then shredded down to woodchips. These woodchips are used for trails and landscaping. 

The drop-off sites include locations in Fox Lake, Vernon Hills, Waukegan, Wauconda and Wadsworth. 

Greg Townsend, superintendent of maintenance and operations for the forest preserves, said they receive between 500 to 800 trees a year. 

“(Trees are) a usable source,” he said. 

By allowing the forest preserves to recycle the trees, Townsend says families avoid “filling our landfills with material that takes a long time to decompose.”

The drop-off sites will continue accepting donated trees until Feb. 1. 

Other organizations have found creative ways to repurpose holiday trees. 

Chicago’s ABC7 on Jan. 3 photographed animals at the Brookfield Zoo enjoying their festive treat. A polar bear and African painted dogs were among the animals who munched on the trees.

Lambs Farm in Libertyville started accepting donated trees last year after discovering other farms and zoos were feeding holiday trees to their animals as treats. 

“We decided it was a great idea for our animals, too,” said Jodi Miller, farmyard manager for Lambs Farm. “It’s a nice form of enrichment for them and a different kind of snack.”

Miller said the farm received about 25 trees last year, and so far this year, they’ve received seven trees along with several wreaths and ropes of garland.

The trees are given to all the animals, but the goats seem to like their winter snack the best. 

“It’s kind of boring for (the animals) right now because no one’s visiting,” she said. “They have food in front of them all the time, but it’s cold and there’s not much for them to do. But (the trees are) a way to get their brains and their tummies working at the same time. They devour it as soon as we give it to them.”

Miller said the new program allows community members to interact with the farm even during the offseason. 

“(The farm has) been around so long and it’s near and dear to a lot of people who have grown up coming here and now they bring their kids here,” she added. 

Sarah Surroz is the director of Lake County programs with Openlands, “a nationally recognized land conservation leader.” As of Jan. 1, Openlands has merged with Conserve Lake County. 

Surroz said while Conserve Lake County had no official program to recycle or repurpose holiday trees, it did have conservation programs for private property owners, some of whom recycle holiday trees on their property. 

Several property owners convert their holiday trees into wildlife habitats, Surroz said.

“The caution I guess I would share is that some trees have been treated with sprays and dyes and such,” Surroz said. “So some people might want to pay attention to that if they’re going to be adding those trees to the compost pile or to their backyard brush pile.”

Both the forest preserve and Lambs Farm remind the public that all ornaments, tinsel and garland must be removed from the trees before they are dropped off for donation. 

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