From holiday cheer, to keeping our streams clear: the use of discarded Christmas trees in Greater Toronto Area stream restoration projects

Blog by Ashley Smith, Photos provided by Ontario Streams

Throughout the environmental industry, stream restoration professionals have been incorporating bioengineering practices into streambank erosion control projects. As you may have guessed, these bioengineering techniques involve the use of natural materials such as debris from trees, logs, and shrubs, but did you know that your real Christmas trees can be used too? After spending a long winter inside your home, when their job of providing holiday cheer is over, they often end up on curb sides, waiting to be picked up and disposed of. Instead, why not donate them to a great cause, where they can be incorporated back into the natural environment as a tool for erosion control and habitat enhancement in your local watersheds?

Streambank before installing discarded Christmas trees.

But wait, why I should care about streambank erosion? Isn’t it a natural process?

While streambank erosion can be caused by a number of factors it is most commonly the result of urbanization and development. Increased watertight surfaces such as parking lots and roads (also known as impervious surfaces) cover previously sponge-like soils and lead to a surge of water flowing into neighbouring streams every time it rains. This increase in water volume also increases the speed the water moves through the watershed, essentially acting as a pressure washer against vulnerable streambanks. Large chunks of streambank can be washed away as a result, causing increased sediment deposits in the stream, and artificial widening of the stream channel. Increased sediment in the streams means sensitive aquatic species habitat becomes unsuitable and the effects are seen throughout the entire watershed.

And where does my Christmas tree come in?

Ontario Streams, a non-governmental, non-profit charity based out of Aurora, Ontario uses recycled Christmas trees in their restoration structures, and have had great success doing so. By securing the trees to the stream bank within an eroded area, sediment becomes trapped in the branches, creating a steady platform upon which vegetation can grow. Once the vegetation establishes a root system, it provides stability for the stream bank, resulting in a healthy, naturalized bank, which assists in healing the natural meandering pattern of the stream. When the trees capture the sediment, they provide a clear and healthy stream habitat for Species at Risk such as redside dace, and also preserve suitable spawning habitat for salmonid species, such as Atlantic salmon.

Streambank after discarded trees added for stability.

So next year, before you kick them to the curb, consider donating your tinsel-free Christmas trees to a good cause, and help return them to the environment that provided you the tree in the first place. By practicing sustainability and restoration within our watersheds we can conserve our vital aquatic species, and continue to enjoy clean water for generations to come.

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