The Great Christmas Tree Debate: What’s the Most Sustainable?
Five or 10 years ago, some green-conscious consumers felt confident that an artificial Christmas tree was a better alternative to cutting down a live tree.
Today, the prevailing wisdom suggests that artificial trees produced with harmful PVC plastics have a bigger carbon footprint than a cut tree. At the same time, purchasing a sustainably farmed Christmas tree involves decisions similar to that of buying an apple (i.e., organic versus pesticides). For others, native versus non-native species is an important consideration in terms of the impact on sustainable habitats. In other words, there isn’t really one right answer.
So, as the debate continues over what Christmas tree is best (especially for you and your family), consider these options.
Option #1: Live Tree
A live tree can be used for the holiday and then planted in your backyard — providing years of enjoyment (and environmental benefit). But if you are going to take this route, be sure to first read up on species suitability, and think about using alternative species that are more acclimated to the area in which you live.
For instance, in Northern California, alternative “California Christmas tree” species like Water Gum, Marina Madrone, Bronze Loquat, Podocarpus or the aptly named New Zealand Christmas Tree are ideal.
Pros and Cons of a Live Tree
Pros: A live tree is the most sustainable option if you want a fresh tree. While it may require some extra strength bringing it into the house, the potted tree can be planted after the holidays are over.
Cons: Most live trees can only survive indoors for seven to 10 days before they begin to suffer. Many traditional Christmas tree species are not appropriate for our climate. Planting and caring for your tree after the holidays requires skill and commitment beyond digging a hole in the ground: Is the site and soil appropriate for your tree? Are you committed and prepared to caring for your young tree?
Best Practices for a Live Tree
And don’t forget to water your live tree! These trees are young, which means they’re very thirsty. Also, use Christmas lights that are smaller to prevent any damage to the tree from the heat of the bulbs.
And then when the holidays are over, before planting it, make sure to move it outside to get it acclimated to the weather for a day or two. Here are some simple tips on best-planting practices.
Option #2: Rent a Tree
Not ready to care for your own live tree? Since as early as 2009, there’s been a growing trend in the Christmas tree world that involves simply renting one and giving it back after the holidays. That’s right, companies are renting Christmas trees, and when the big day is over, they take the trees back and promise to plant them in local communities.
The Living Christmas Company in Los Angeles; Our City Forest in San Jose, Calif.; and Rent-a-Christmas in New York are just a few examples of organizations leading the trend.
Option #3: Cut Tree
According to the National Christmas Tree Association, approximately 25 million to 30 million cut trees are sold in the U.S. alone every holiday season. That also means that there are more than 350 million trees growing on Christmas tree farms all year-round.
Seasonal lots for pre-cut trees spring up in many towns and "cut it yourself" farms can also be found in many areas.
Pros and Cons of a Cut Tree
Pros: While Christmas trees are being grown, they contribute to green space and digest carbon. Christmas tree farms also help stabilize soil, protect water resources and provide ecosystem services. After the holiday, recycling options such as mulching are also beneficial to the environment.
Cons: Cut trees are often grown with harmful chemicals. The availability of sustainably farmed trees (organic, local, biodiverse) is limited.
Finding Sustainably Farmed Trees
Yes, sustainably farmed trees are limited, and you have to do your research to find one near you, but they are out there.
Check out the LocalHarvest database to find your closest farm implementing sustainable growing practices, or Green Promise has a list of tree farms from 22 states that are certified organic or practice organic methods.
Christmas Tree Recycling
Many municipalities and local businesses offer options for recycling your cut Christmas tree. Check with your city or county, or search for a recycling solution in your area via Earth911.
General tips for recycling include removing all lights, decorations and tinsel. In some cases, the tree must be cut into 4-foot lengths in order to fit in compost containers. If you have a yard waste pickup program in your community, you can cut the tree into even smaller pieces to fit into your container to be ready to go for curbside pickup.
Of course, if you have a garden and have the resources, it might be worth checking out mulching programs in your community. The organization will chip and shred your tree into mulch that you can then use in your garden.
Note: While the idea of reusing the wood from your tree is a sound one, never use it to burn in a fireplace or wood stove. Evergreen trees tend to have a high content of flammable turpentine oils that can lead to possible chimney fires.
Option #4: Conventional Artificial Trees
In recent years, artificial trees have become more popular than live or cut trees. Quality has improved and companies have found innovative ways to make decorating and storage ever more convenient. Many consumers believe that buying a fake tree will help the environment by sparing the lives of several year's worth of real trees. But fake trees carry a much larger environmental impact than many people consider.
An article from 2010 published by The New York Times goes into great detail about why the environmental impact of real Christmas trees is much less than that of artificial ones. The American Christmas Tree Association, a trade group for artificial tree makers and retailers, even admitted in the article that its own study reported it took 10 or more years of use before an artificial tree became better for the environment than a real one.
The negative environmental impact of real Christmas trees, whether live or cut, is likely less than that of artificial trees. That said, if you opt for a fake one, invest in a high-quality product that can last for many years.
Pros and Cons of an Artificial Tree
Pros: Artificial trees can be used for a number of years, ranging from six to as many as 20.
Cons: Ninety percent of conventional artificial trees are produced in China with petroleum-based PVC chemicals and lead, and will not decompose in the landfill.
Option #5: Alternative Artificial Tree
Alternative eco-friendly artificial trees are beginning to emerge on the market. Options include cardboard trees, plywood trees and creative do-it-yourself projects. Here are some fun examples from Apartment Therapy.
While these eco-chic Christmas trees on the market may intrigue you, consider the overall carbon footprint before you whip out your credit card.
Making Your Peace
Remember, whichever type of tree you decide to celebrate with, caring for the earth and being conscious of your consumption is worthy work that can be practiced throughout the year. Happy holidays!
This article was originally published on Canopy's blog. Palo Alto, Calif.-based Canopy plants and cares for trees where people need them the most. Its mission is to grow urban tree canopy in Midpeninsula communities for the benefit of all. It envisions a day when every resident of the Midpeninsula can step outside to walk, play and thrive under the shade of healthy trees.
Still looking for a unique gift? Consider the gift of trees!