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It's the clearest signal that Christmas is over. Now that the gifts are put away and the Christmas cookies have been devoured, the only thing left to do before 2015 heats up is to dispose of the Christmas tree.

Many people still still take the ornaments off the branches and haul the dried up old evergreen out to the curb for the garbage dump, but a growing number of the 38 million-or-so American Christmas tree buyers are helping the environment by recycling. Spoiler alert: Recycled trees are generally ground up but, depending on the region, that surge of mulch has become essential for conservationists and environmental groups.

Step One: Get Going

Tree-disposal programs usually last from Dec. 26 through the second week of January. That might sound like a lot of time, but once the holiday rush is over, the last thing most people feel like doing is doing more work. Find out when waste-management experts are making the rounds in your community, or determine what groups (like the Boy Scouts) are willing to make a special trip to your home.

Step Two: Remove The Decorations

Considering skipping the worst part? Think again, recycling centers only accept trees that come free of tinsel, ornaments and tree stands. From there, the tree is ground into mulch and used for gardens, to prevent erosion and to re-soil outdoor areas affected by severe weather.

Step Three: Don't Burn It

Dead Christmas trees, when set ablaze, light up so fast and produce so much heat that every year there are multiple headlines about fires that destroy homes, or worse. Resist the temptation.

Step Four: Give Yourself A Pat On The Back

Seriously, do it. It can be a chore to dispose of a Christmas tree in the responsible way, but by putting in a little bit of extra effort you're not contributing to an annual cycle of destructive waste.

“It's all about reduce, reuse, recycle,” Jacqueline Buck, executive director of the green advocacy group Keep The Midlands Beautiful, told WLTX News in South Carolina. “It's about giving new life whether it be through mulch and giving a beautiful reuse around your house, around your flower beds, around your vegetable gardens. There is just no reason for them to end up in landfills.”