While most municipalities take their residents’ old Christmas trees to a landfill to be recycled, Carolina Beach uses them for a different purpose: to help build sand dunes on the beach.
A partnership between the town and the Cape Fear Surfrider Foundation brought the project to fruition in 2014, both as a way to reduce the number of trees going to the county landfill and as a way to build more protection on the shore.
“We thought a nice way to divert those trees from going to the landfill would be to use them as natural and biodegradable sand fencing,” said Ethan Crouch, chair of the Cape Fear Surfrider Foundation. “The town pays to turn those trees into mulch, so this saves the town some money and also helps the environment.”
Members of both groups worked with people from the Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA), which is run by the state, to come up with a way to use the trees to capture sand and help it accumulate.
According to Crouch, the trees, which are cleaned of any remaining tinsel or other plastic, are positioned facing downward at a 45-degree angle no more than 10 feet apart from each other. They are then staked down with untreated wood and tied with hemp twine – all natural materials.
“The needles of the branches catch the sand and it starts to accumulate,” said Crouch. “As the tree biodegrades, it provides nutrients to the other plants and organisms around it.”
Once the trees are laid down, they are left completely exposed except for the tips, which are covered in sand. After about six months, the trees are mostly covered, and after a year it is hard to tell where they are, according to Crouch.
“When we started the program, I was shocked at how well it worked,” said Crouch. “I thought it would take a few years to build up, but I can’t even find the trees that we planted just last year anymore.”
For the last two years, Cape Fear Surfrider Foundation and the town have chosen locations on the north end of the beach to place these natural “sand traps.” Due to the coastal storm damage reduction project taking place in that area this year, Crouch said they will be rebuilding about 200 yards of dunes near the Tennessee Avenue beach access south of Carolina Beach Lake.
“The way the dune structure works, this doesn’t work everywhere,” said Crouch, who said he scouts out possible areas months in advance.
He noted he does not know of any other coastal towns in the area that have used Christmas trees to rebuild dunes, but said places in New Jersey and Florida have done it.
On Saturday, Crouch said he’s expecting around 50 volunteers to help with this year’s process, which will involve 70 to 80 trees (up from 60 last year). According to Helen Buckley, who is also a member of the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, several surfers and surf groups and other local organizations will be helping out with the unique project.
“It’s amazing what happens to trees when you put them the right way and watch the sand fall around it,” said Buckley, who will be participating in the event for the first time. “I’m really excited to be a part of it.”
Those looking to get involved can meet the group at the Tennessee Avenue beach access in Carolina Beach at 10 a.m. A tent will be set up and volunteers will be organized there. For more information about the project, visit the event page on Cape Fear Surfrider’s website.