Choose a real Christmas tree
Holiday revellers bought over $512 million worth of live Christmas trees and imported almost $150 million of artificial trees (from China) in recent years, making Christmas tree purchases one of the biggest in American holiday budgets. While artificial trees are long-lasting and reusable, when compared side by side to real trees (cut as well as live), they are far from eco-friendly. Real trees support an industry that naturally removes greenhouse gases from the Earth. On average, it’ll take seven years for a Christmas tree to mature, and during that time they absorb carbon dioxide (CO2)—which is stored in leaves, stems, and branches—and add oxygen to the atmosphere; they provide habitat to wildlife; and their roots protect soil from erosion. So this year if in doubt, go for the real McCoy.
What to consider when buying a "real" tree
- Go organic (or choose Certified Naturally Grown): Although pesticides and other chemicals are used to a lesser extent on holiday trees than some other crops, the use of these chemicals is still deadly to fish and beneficial insects, and can cause chest pains and nausea in farm workers. An average Christmas tree will be treated with approximately one-quarter of an ounce of pesticides over its eight-year life, mostly to preserve a pleasing cosmetic appearance. Although organic trees may be harder to find, there are a few resources that may help you in your quest for a green tree: Green Promise, EcoBusinessLinks, Local Harvest, and The Green Guide. You can also search your local business directory for “U-pick farms,” “markets,” “Community Supported Agricultural farms,” and “Christmas trees” and then call around to see if there are any that produce organic trees.
- Buy local: One of the easiest ways to reduce your tree’s carbon footprint is to buy a tree grown locally. The National Christmas Tree Association has an interactive map that can help you find a local farm (search by state and tree species).
If you choose a cut tree, keep some handy tree maintenance tips in mind to prolong your tree’s life and avoid fire hazards. And when the festivities are over don't forget to recycle your Christmas tree.
How do you go even "greener" with your tree?
- Grow your own: Want a way to enhance your landscape? Why not grow your own crop of Christmas trees? By planting one or two new trees every year, you’ll cultivate your own little forest which you can either decorate in place or harvest from each year. There are numerous books on the subject, and if you need a little extra help, contact your Christmas tree association for advice.
- Choose potted: If you can’t grow your own, why not buy a potted, plantable Christmas tree? These live trees will survive indoors with proper care (not too warm!), after which you can plant it outside in your yard to enjoy for years to come! (For tips on when and how to install your new tree in the great outdoors, check out American Forests’ guide on How to Plant a Tree). Alternatively, if you don’t have a yard of your very own, donate the tree to a park, community center, or a school.
- Rent-a-tree: Believe it or not, two companies (Friends of the Urban Forest in San Francisco and The Original Living Christmas Tree Company in Portland, OR) will rent you a living tree for the season. Pick up one of these potted beauties, take good care of it for a few weeks, and then let the company pick it up for re-planting in parks or open spaces.
How to make your artificial tree more eco-friendly
If you’ve already purchased an artificial tree, don’t abandon it for a real one, make it last as long as possible to delay the day when you have to take it to the landfill.
- Sturdy legs: Get a good quality stand to ensure your tree won’t get knocked over by the cat or curious children. This way you can avoid broken branches or bent trunks that will ultimately shorten your tree’s life.
- Replacement parts: If you’re missing a few branches, scour garage sales for Christmas trees similar to your own for spare parts to repair yours. You may just be able to revitalize your current tree with extra fullness!
If your tree has reached the end of its life, consider reusing its parts for new holiday decorations.
Find it! Grow your own tree resources
Wanna get in on the grow-your-own movement? Check out these resources, keeping in mind that a drought-tolerant, native-to-your-community species is always the wise choice:
If you’re looking to grow your own Christmas tree, get your hands on this book to prepare yourself for the green Christmas adventure. It includes advice for how to handle bad weather, pests, and diseases, how to propagate and harvest, and more.
Add a little fun to your holiday festivities with this grow-your-own Christmas tree kit! It contains peat moss and seeds, an instruction book, as well as ideas for decorating once your tree has finally grown.
Grab one of these little tree-to-be kits and start to grow your own Scotch Pine for future holiday celebrations. Kit includes seeds, seedling pot, growing medium, stratification wafer, and reference guide and comes in a natural fiber bag. This tree grows best in USDA zones 3-7.
Choosing a green Christmas tree helps you go green because...
- It supports the growth of ecologically important trees.
Live Christmas trees have several important advantages over artificial trees. Most importantly, when grown organically and sustainably, real trees can slow climate change, protect wildlife, and reduce soil erosion. In 2008, close to 45 million trees were planted in North America, adding to the total of over 400 million trees growing nationwide. One acre of land planted with Christmas trees will produce enough oxygen for 18 people, and since there are over 500,000 acres of land in production for Christmas trees across the US, these farms produce enough oxygen for almost 28,000 people.
Artificial trees, on the other hand, are made from petroleum byproducts and are therefore non-renewable. The most commonly used material in artificial tree construction is PVC (polyvinyl chloride), a soft plastic used commonly in consumer products that poses severe environmental risks throughout its life cycle. The manufacture of PVC creates toxic pollution, threatening the health of both factory workers and the communities surrounding factory sites.
PVC is not recyclable, nor is it biodegradable. When disposed of, lead, phthalates, and other toxic additives contained in the PVC can leach into the ground and drinking water supplies from landfills. Lead levels in the environment have increased by 1,000 times in the past few hundred years.
Incineration of PVC products is also problematic since it produces dioxins and furans, which are among the most toxic environmental contaminants and are known carcinogens. PVC also contains health-threatening phthalates. In fact, 90 percent of phthalates in production are used to make PVC.
Related health concerns
PVC contains lead, which can cause developmental and learning problems, lower intelligence, behavioral problems, cancer, strokes, high blood pressure, kidney problems, anemia, cavities, and delayed puberty. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that lead exposure may be linked to almost 300,000 cases of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children. Phthalates used in PVC can cause reproductive problems, premature birth, early onset of puberty, impaired sperm in men, genital defects, and reduced testosterone production.
Although growing Christmas trees commercially in large mono-crop farms does amount to a greater number of trees absorbing CO2, this industry can actually detract from the environmental benefits if sustainable principles aren’t practiced. According to Brent Sohngen of Ohio State University, single-species pine plantations don’t encourage the lively, diverse growth found in natural forests and therefore don’t retain carbon as well. As a result, when natural hardwood forests are cut down to make room for these plantations, it can contribute more to climate change than just leaving the forest as is.
- US Census Bureau - The 2007 Holiday Season
- NC State University - Christmas Tree Production and the Environment
- National Christmas Tree Association - Quick Tree Facts
- The Center for Environmental Health - An Unnecessary Poison: Babies, Bibs, and Lead
- Center for Environmental Health - Target Agrees To Reduce Use of PVC, a "Poison Plastic"