Tall evergreens twinkling against a backdrop of snow are the hallmark of the season, even if you just celebrate Christmas in a secular way. Hailing from factories in China, farms in the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany, and native groves of fir and pine trees, millions of people buy a tree each year. The National Christmas Tree Association (US industry) estimates that 27.4 million real trees were purchased in the US last year alone, and the industry has become a global phenomenon. Like nearly every aspect of the holiday season, sustainability is not top of mind for most consumers, but there are plenty of sustainable options when it comes to trees. When choosing one, there are three aspects at play:
- which tree to buy
- where to buy it, and
- what happens to it after the holidays are over.
1. Cut Trees
Real, cut trees are some of the most popular options and have obvious environmental benefits if purchased and disposed mindfully. Christmas tree farms grow trees just to be cut down, and they replace each felled tree with between one to three saplings to keep a healthy supply of product. If you buy from a tree farm, you’re supporting someone tending to a manmade forest. Furthermore, these forests have the potential to consume 12,000 pounds of CO2 per year.
A 2010 study by Ellipos, a Canadian environmental consulting firm, found that an artificial tree would “have to be reused for more than twenty years to be greener than buying a fresh-cut tree annually.” They used factors such as greenhouse gas emission, use of resources, and human health impacts to make this statement; however, they said this is not universally true. The actual environmental cost would change if the tree or the tree shoppers used excessive transportation. It’s also important to note that they used mass produced PVC trees made in China as the example of a fake tree. These are the most ubiquitous but far from the only option.
However, if the trees traveled thousands of miles to the church or mall where you find them, of if you drive a personal vehicle a few hours to find the tree, it could be less sustainable than reusing a fake one. This is because the use of a personal car has more impact than mass shipping on a large scale; 10,000 families driving 10,000 cars is worse than 10,000 trees packed on 10 flatbed trucks. Try to find a farm in your community or a reseller close to home for that perfect tree.
If you have your heart set on a real tree, be mindful of what happens to it after you’re done with it. Think about how many hundreds or thousands of trees are left on the curb for a municipality to pick up. Many do compost the trees, but for many smaller cities or counties, they are overwhelmed and some simply burn the trees or dump them in a forest. Burning trees releases thousands of tons of carbon into the air, while dumping thousands of trees in a forest will overwhelm the local ecosystem, killing the trees already there. Try to find recycling services that will use the wood or compost the tree. If you live in North America here’s a great resource for finding a place to recycle Christmas trees or more.
2. Live Christmas Trees
Instead of cutting a tree, there are some places that offer the chance to buy a live tree, one with its roots still intact and able to be planted after the holidays. This requires some special care, though, because not all trees are suitable for all climates, and not everyone has access to the space to plant a six foot tree. There are some services near larger metropolitan areas that allow you to rent a live tree for a week; they then collect and replant them. This isn’t available everywhere, but is a very appealing option. If you’re able to plant it and have done research to find the right tree for you, this is more sustainable than a cut tree.
3. Alternative Live Trees
You don’t need to use a huge fir tree at all! Especially if you live in an apartment, using a different kind of tree or plant is more sustainable than cutting a pine tree. I’m partial to Norfolk Island Pines, which are not pines at all but trees native to the Norfolk Island, between New Zealand and New Caledonia. They look Christmassy but can continue living indoors or outside after the holidays are over. This is much more accessible than having to care for a 6’ tree (or multiple over the course of a few years) plus everyone can use more potted plants in their life.
4. Traditional Fake Trees
Most mass-produced Christmas trees are made in China with PVC, a plastic that will not decompose. Unless reused for about 20 years, they will always be the least sustainable option. Not only did the trees likely travel thousands of miles to reach your local retailer, but the production of PVC creates hazardous fumes. If you know you’ll use it for years and can’t, for whatever reason, care for a live tree or recycle a cut tree, try to keep your fake tree for as long as possible.
5. Alternative Fake Trees
Though traditional fake trees are the least sustainable option on this list, fake trees made from recycled material like cardboard or wood are the most sustainable. If you don’t mind using something a little quirky, try making your own fake tree out of upcycled materials or finding an artist or company who makes them in your community. If made from sustainable materials, these can last you years and won’t require cutting down a tree or driving a long distance to find one.
While you need to find what works for you and your lifestyle, it seems like alternative fake trees are the most sustainable, followed by live trees, cut trees, and finally traditional fake trees. No matter what you choose, just make sure you keep in mind how far the tree traveled, how far you traveled to get it, and what happens to it when you’re done. Happy holidays!
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