Christmas trees serve a purpose after the holiday

It turns out most Christmas trees have an afterlife. Most of the trees people buy for their homes are recycled, then turned into mulch.

The iconic Christmas tree does more than just help bring beauty and spirit to the holiday, it also does some good once it's primary task is complete.

Many unsold trees are also put to use, but how can vary depending on where you live.

“For example, in coastal areas, there are two very interesting ways they get used. One is, where there are dunes, where the wind blows the sand and the landscape shifts, the trees are actually placed in areas to stop the wind erosion and water erosion,” said Tim O’Connor with National Christmas Tree Association.

Another purpose - some trees are put into lakes to create protective habitat for fish.

Even the giant tree at New York's Rockefeller Center has had a productive second-life over the years.

“Forexample, the Rockefeller tree I know is cut into lumber. It’s a very large tree, and that lumber is then used by Habitat for Humanity to build homes,” said O’Connor.

In the East Bay, many unsold trees end up at the Oakland Zoo. It doesn't accept trees from individuals, but partners with retailers and received a donation of 200 unsold trees on Tuesday.

They're given to animals, big and small, for play, as a meal, or both. The biggest consumer, literally, the elephant, getting two trees a day.

“So, for our elephants for example, they will eat part of the tree and then they'll just play with it and rip it apart,” said Ann Marie Bisango, Zoological Manager at Oakland Zoo.

Nearly every real tree is re-purposed in some natural way, which is why the National Christmas Tree Association says the real deal is superior to the alternative.

“There’s only one thing you can do with that PVC plastic tree and that’s put it in a landfill and it’s going to sit there for a thousand years because it does not decompose,” said O’Connor.

The numbers aren't in yet for 2019, but in terms of which is more popular, real or fake trees. Last year Americans bought 32.8 million real trees, compared to 23.6 million fake ones.