By Mike Maley
Let’s talk Christmas trees.
Did you know almost 80% of Americans who decorate with a Christmas tree for the holidays, decorate with a fake tree? According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), you’d have to reuse a fake tree at least 20 times in order to offset its eco-impact. YIKES! This accounts for the fact that fake trees are usually made of plastic materials which are petroleum-based, they are typically made and then shipped from oversees (further increasing its carbon footprint), and at the end of their life, they end up in a landfill and don’t decompose naturally.
The good news for those of you who already have a fake tree – you can reuse it! The most sustainable thing you can do if you already own a fake tree is to continue to enjoy it year after year, and offset its impact on the environment.
The NRDC and other nature conservancy groups are fans of more Americans going the real tree route — So if that’s you, congrats, as this is the more sustainable option of the two! However, freshly cut trees come with their own eco-impact as well. For one, the tree has to be cut down to make it inside. But, unless you’re cutting down a tree from the forest yourself (which we do not recommend) local tree farmers plant seedlings in the place of cut down trees to grow in their places, offsetting that impact. Christmas trees sold from tree farms are grown solely for the purpose of being used for this reason.
The most important consideration for a conscious consumer buying a freshly cut tree is how you plan to dispose of it – because when a tree is discarded into a landfill, it decomposes and releases methane into the atmosphere. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, Methane has more than 80 times the warming power of canon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere. With millions of trees going into the landfill year after year, that adds up to a big annual impact on the planet.
So if you’re using a freshly cut tree, the most responsible thing you can do is have a disposal plan for after the holidays in order to keep your tree from reaching a landfill. Many towns and cities even organize tree pickup services for recycling your trees into mulch, which helps protect local ecosystems. For example, in coastal Louisiana, which is severely impacted by coastal erosion, Christmas trees are used in the wetlands at the end of the holiday season to help rebuild important barriers and habitats. It’s important to note that if you plan to partake in recycling your tree, there are a couple things to keep in mind: First, remove all lights and ornaments, and second, avoid flocking the tree as the materials used to make the white, faux snow-like covering do not breakdown naturally like the tree itself. For tree recycling resources, check THIS out!
The Winner: Real Trees (with a couple caveats)
Unless you already own a fake tree (caveat 1: the best thing to do in that case being to reuse that over and over), the winner between the two options if you’re starting from scratch: go with a real tree cut-down sourced from a tree farm (caveat 2: but make sure it doesn’t end up in a landfill at the end of its life).
This is not only a better impact on the environment, as outlined above, but from a social impact standpoint, your purchase often supports domestic, or regional tree farmers, as opposed to international suppliers and big chain retailers.
A Third Option:
If you haven’t decided on a tree just yet and want to try something new, you can actually RENT a potted tree that you water and care for during the holiday season, and return in the new year! Amazingly, you can even rent the same tree year after year – until that tree reaches 7 feet, at which point it is “retired” and planted in the ground permanently.
Unfortunately, this option is not widely accessible yet unless you live in the state of California. If you do live in Cali, check out companies like The Living Christmas Company (southern California), or Rent Xmas Tree (Northern California). If you’re outside of these regions, you might have luck seeing if a local tree farm would agree to a potted rental.