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Published on December 22nd, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans

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Spend, Ship, Save the Planet: The Great Christmas Tree Debate

Cut tree, artificial tree, live tree . . . which has the smallest environmental impact?  The honest answer depends on a few factors.  While we can’t be at your side to help you pick one out, we can give you some pointers for making the most informed earth-friendly choice for your holiday tree selection.  On with the search for the greenest Christmas tree . . .

Artificial Trees

On the bright side, an “unreal” tree spares the planet from fossil fuels being spent transporting Christmas trees, year after year, from the tree farm to your home.  And they require no pesticides or herbicides!  But artificial trees are made with PVC (polyvinyl chloride), polyethylene, and toxic lead products, and they are shipped from as far away as Asia.  Most are thrown out within five years, tossed out to add to already overflowing landfills.  Nope, not too green.

Cut Trees

The upside: Tree farms often use marginal land that cannot be otherwise cultivated.  The trees are in the ground three to five years, during which time they provide wildlifeLive Christmas Tree habitat, produce oxygen, absorb CO2, and stabilize soil.  Plus, cut trees are a biodegradable, renewable resource . . .

The downside: Most tree farms use pesticides and herbicides.  Transporting trees from distant farms uses fossil fuels.  Disposing of them by burning them causes air pollution.  So exactly how green is a cut tree?

  • From an organic tree farm in your own county, followed by post-holiday recycling: pretty darn green.
  • From a non-organic tree farm two states away, followed by a bonfire or disposal in a landfill: not very green.

To flock or not to flock? A flocked tree has had a mixture of cellulose, spray adhesive, and fire-retardant sprayed on it to look (more or less) like snow.  With the exception of cellulose, these are not earth-friendly ingredients.  A flocked tree cannot be recycled, and thus they don’t make the cut in our search for the greenest Christmas tree candidate.

Recycling your cut tree. Cut trees can be chipped and used for mulch or they can be used in entirety for wildlife habitat enhancement or erosion control.  If these aren’t possible at home, most municipalities offer Christmas tree recycling.  You can also enter your zip code to search the Earth 911 recycling center database for local centers that accept Christmas trees.  Earth 911 also provides a Guide to Starting a Christmas Tree Recycling Program.

Living Trees

A living Christmas tree sounds pretty green (and it is), but to be kept successfully, a living tree will take both more forethought and more work than either of the above options.  Living Christmas trees come in two different “pots,” one of which may be just the ticket for your sustainable holiday celebration:

A small tree that lives in a pot year round. Its home is outdoors and it is brought indoors briefly once a year to be a holiday celebrity visitor.  No fossil fuels, pollution, or petroleum products are involved.  However, the species must be chosen with some knowledge—few forest conifers thrive in pots—and someone must have a sufficiently green thumb to keep it alive year in and year out, as potted trees require far more care than planted trees.

Choose a dwarf conifer species adapted to your climate—ask about them at your local nursery.  Keep it indoors as little as possible, as they really prefer the outdoor life.  A slight, still-seasonal modification is to buy an indoor-compatible houseplant that resembles a Christmas tree, such as a Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla), or even one that doesn’t, like a Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina).

Potted Dwarf TreeA tree to plant in the ground after the season is over. Giving the planet the gift of a breathing, earth-healing tree is as green as holiday giving gets.  These are sold either potted or “B & B” (for balled and burlapped—grown in the ground, dug up, and the ball of roots wrapped in cloth).  These living beings will need both thoughtful acclimation and a minimal-length visit to your home.

Learn more about introducing a live tree into your home at About.com.

Of course, most evergreens sold as live Christmas trees are dauntingly large at maturity.  What if you don’t have a good place to plant one?  Check to see if your city already has a program to accommodate taller trees.  San Francisco, for example, will sell a baby street tree to residents before Christmas and afterwards plant it for them in a low-income neighborhood.  Perhaps your neighborhood park or another local recreation area needs one.  Your city parks department might be able to help you organize a tree planting party for New Year’s!

Outside-the-Box Solutions

Have fun making your own Christmas tree from recyclable materials.  Who says artificial trees have to exactly mimic real ones?  Here a couple of ideas to get you started:

  • Australian design firm Buro North’s plywood Christmas tree, which they claim uses 80% less resources than a cut tree.
  • If you need more inspiration, take a look at this annual German Christmas tree display with hundreds of versions of Christmas trees ranging from silly to wildly artistic.
  • Take a walk in a local forest with pruning loppers and cut a few branches of mixed evergreens.  Take them home and arrange them in a bucket of wet sand.  They may need a bit of refurbishing over the next few weeks to stay fresh, but the branches can be decorated just like a tree.  No trees die, no plastic is used, no fossil fuel is required.  And they smell just like Christmas . . .





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