Sustainable Holiday Tips and Real vs. Artificial Christmas (or Yule) Trees

sustainable holidays

Bundled up tight and clutching mugs of hot chocolate, we wondered thoughtfully through the fragrant pine forest. Finally, just as the snow started to pick up, one of us would spot it – the perfect tree. It was always my brother or me who spotted the tree, but somehow I’m sure my dad pointed us there (or maybe we just spotted every tree until we got the nod). When my dad crouched beneath this magical tree with his saw, I never failed to feel a pang of guilt. Surely we shouldn’t be cutting down a tree? Trees are important. Didn’t we just plant a tree on Arbor Day?

As a child, these pangs of guilt were short lived and immediately washed away by the warmth and glitter of decorating day. As an adult, though, the environmental impact of my choices is important to me.

A 2011 study revealed a neck-and-neck (or trunk-and-trunk, if you will) race between real and artificial trees for environmental supremacy. In the long run, the habits of the individual consumer have weigh much more into the sustainability of either option than do the trees themselves.

Drive Time and Tree Transport

Transportation is one of the most significant environmental impact factors in the holiday tree industry. It seems obvious to say that an artificial tree shipped from China will have a greater impact than a US grown real tree, but this isn’t always the case. Mass shipping practices are much more efficient than personally owned vehicles.

Cumulatively, long family trips in search of a real tree may have a greater carbon footprint than mass shipping of artificial trees. So the first consideration consumers should undertake is comparing the distance to the tree farm or Farmer’s Market versus the distance to wherever they might purchase an artificial tree. This will also need to be coupled with how many times one plans to make such a trip – every year for real trees, less often (presumably) for artificial trees. Which brings us to:

Storage and Disposal

Both real and artificial trees contribute to our already overburdened landfills. The methods consumers choose to dispose of their trees, as well as how long they choose to keep and use their artificial trees, also figure into calculations of which is the more sustainable option.

A consumer needs to reuse an artificial tree for 5 – 10 years in order to establish an environmental impact lower than that of real trees. One study stated an artificial tree would need to be re-used for 20 years to have this effect.

On the disposal side, real trees seem to come out ahead. Artificial trees are generally non-biodegradable and will languish in a landfill for centuries, laced with petroleum-based chemicals. When disposing of an artificial tree, consider donating it to a charity, a needy family, or a re-sale store. There may also be recycling possibilities available depending on where you live.  Still, the more than 50 million artificial trees in use in the US (as of 2010) have to go somewhere at the end of their lives, and they, unlike real trees, cannot become mulch.

Just because real trees are biodegradable does not mean the landfill is an environmentally conscious disposal solution for them. Items in a landfill biodegrade very slowly and take up precious space. With real Christmas trees, there are many “Treecycling” options.

When I was a kid in western Michigan, we had a Christmas tree graveyard in the woods behind our house where our holiday trees when to await their fate as firewood. When I lived in New York City, a good friend sought out real trees to be chunked up and given as toys to the orangutans at the Bronx Zoo. At Eastern Market in Detroit, any unsold Christmas trees as the end of the season are turned into mulch for the farmers. There are several options out there. The landfill should not be one of them.

Pesticides vs PVC

The most common indictment levied against artificial Christmas trees is the fact that they usually contain PVC and often lead. That is enough of a concern for me; I don’t want my baby crawling around beneath a tree that might contain lead (or PVC).

But what about pesticides? Christmas trees are farmed just like any other crop. The plus side of this is that when you cut down a live holiday tree, you’re not contributing to deforestation, you’re simply harvesting a crop grown for that purpose. The downside is that many tree farms use “contemporary” farming practices – meaning pesticides and chemical fertilizers. I don’t really want my baby crawling around in that, either.

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