The holiday season is right around the corner, and for those of us trying to be mindful of our energy use or environmental impact, it can be a very difficult time.
Christmas, in the modern world, means consumption. Americans often hang additional Christmas lights, which raises our energy bills. We also tend to buy indoor décor, wrapping paper, and bows, and that list doesn’t even include the presents and gifts themselves!
Christmastime also means Christmas trees. If you have ever wondered which type of tree is more sustainable – potentially reusable artificial trees or live trees that you cut down/purchase yearly – you are not alone. Trying to reduce your environmental impact can be confusing: plastic ends up in landfills, but can cutting down trees really be good for the environment, either? With so much mixed and unclear messaging, consumers are often left unsure of what the best decision is for their wallet or for the planet.
The good news is that there is a clear answer. Many studies have found that live Christmas trees are significantly less harmful to the environment. And in fact, the growth and purchase of live trees can actually help our planet.
Most artificial trees sold in the United States are made from plastic that is produced in China. The manufacturing and transporting process alone can produce significant greenhouse gas emissions, given that so many are shipped across the ocean from another continent. Artificial trees are also sometimes manufactured with dangerous metal toxins, like lead.
Christmas tree farms, on the other hand, operate differently. For every single tree harvested, between one and three new seedlings are planted the following spring. This makes them a generally renewable, sustainable resource. In fact, out of the roughly 400-500 million trees that are currently growing on tree farms across the country, less than 30 million are harvested each year. And while these farms are not the same as naturally occurring forests, research shows that human-created/well-maintained forests often store nearly as much carbon as unmanaged ones. Planting more trees – even ones that get cut down after a decade – is, according to experts, a key strategy for preventing a climate change catastrophe.
In addition to the front-end environmental impact, artificial trees produce unnecessary waste. Even though some types of plastic are recyclable, trees almost always include non-plastic components, making it impossible to recycle them. In other words: a plastic tree will always end up in a landfill, no matter how well it is cared for or how long it is used. And, as many of us know, plastic takes hundreds of years to decompose, which causes a whole slew of environmental problems. This is not necessarily the case for live trees.
But what you do with your live tree when the holiday season is over still matters. A real tree dumped in a landfill, for example, will produce methane, a very harmful greenhouse gas that makes climate change worse. Luckily, there are other options for what we can do with our cozy and seasonal pines when we are finished with them.
Thousands of municipalities across the country have community sites where trees can be chipped or composted. Wood chips and mulch made from trees, for example, can be spread on gardens to help store carbon, prevent unwanted weeds from growing, and regulate temperature and moisture. Plus, many cities and towns that have tree recycling programs also offer mulch and woodchips for free or very cheap. Composting or ‘recycling’ your tree can help reduce its environmental impact and also give you and your neighbors access to free or affordable landscaping and gardening materials.
There are other creative ways to deal with your leftover holiday tree. The Christmas tree at the U.S. Capitol, for example, was last year recycled to make musical instruments, according to the Forest Service. For those with a yard in more temperate climates, live trees can even be replanted!
Some families also allow their former Christmas trees to dry out and use the wood for fires. While this isn’t the most environmentally friendly option, it still produces far fewer emissions than taking a tree to a landfill and has a carbon footprint that is about ten times smaller than an artificial tree. Bonfires can also make for a fun, cozy, and free winter activity!
If you are thinking of buying a live Christmas tree this year, there are a few things you can keep in mind to ensure you’re making a sustainable and environmentally friendly purchase. First, buying local makes a big difference. Non-local trees are often transported in trucks and trains, which rely on fossil fuels. Luckily, Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states, meaning it is relatively accessible for many Americans to buy trees locally.
Another thing to consider is buying from farms that are certified as using especially sustainable methods. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, farmers can get SERF certified. Christmas trees with the SERF logo are grown with rigorous standards, requiring farmers to conserve water and protect land and wildlife in their growing and harvest process. This is helpful for consumers looking to support farms using the most environmentally friendly methods.
Purchasing a live Christmas tree is just one way that you can help reduce your overall environmental impact this winter. Tree farms are good for our air, our soil, and our planet, and purchasing trees from local farms means even more trees will be planted in the future. Trees sequester carbon and can be reused, composted, or recycled in many ways, some of which can help us save money in the long run!