By STEPHANIE MOY
January 1, 2018
“However, with 78% of American households displaying Christmas trees each year, prohibiting the tradition is not realistic. Instead, environmentalists should focus on the carbon footprint of each tree, the number of years it will be used, and the methods of disposal.”
You’ve got Home Alone playing on TV, candy canes galore, warm eggnog in hand and Frank Sinatra singing in the background. Now all you’re missing is the Christmas tree. But wait – how does the environmentally conscious consumer choose whether to purchase a live tree or a giant hunk of plastic?
One could argue that the most prudent move would be to eradicate the tradition altogether. However, with 78% of American households displaying Christmas trees each year, prohibiting the tradition is not realistic. Instead, environmentalists should focus on the carbon footprint of each tree, the number of years it will be used, and the methods of disposal.
Now that the Christmas season is over and people are piling up last year’s trees on the sidewalks, people need to think about the after-effects of their choice of Christmas tree. It’s easy to think that you’re leaving a smaller carbon footprint – the environmental impact of your lifestyle, behind by investing in a fake tree that you know you’ll use for around five to ten years. After all, you wouldn’t want to chop down a tree just to celebrate a holiday right?
The choice to buy a real tree versus an artificial tree is not clear cut from a sustainability standpoint. However, Christmas trees are one aspect of a holiday tradition that is not going to change anytime soon. It’s worth exploring the costs and benefits of both real and reusable trees to the environment and wallet.
Generally, objects that are thrown out after one season (live Christmas trees) are less sustainable than objects that could be reused indefinitely (plastic trees). Artificial trees are not recyclable and end up in a landfill where they will not decompose. For artificial trees to “live up” to their promises of reduced carbon footprints, they would have to be reused for approximately 12 years.
Ideally, our plastic trees would indeed hold up for decades and could be passed down from generation to generation, like large family heirlooms. Unfortunately, we live in a consumerist society, in which planned obsolescence is fabricated within our materialistic items. If they didn’t, companies that make plastic trees would not be very successful.
Artificial trees are often produced in China, and are made almost entirely out of PVC–strong but lightweight plastic–chemical covered plastic leaves, metal skeletons, and are strung with numerous LED lights for your decorating convenience. With that in mind, it’s important to think about how these trees are being produced, the kind of labor being put to use and the transportation and packaging costs to the environment.
To produce artificial trees, factory workers in China are usually exploited in order to keep production costs low to gain higher profit margins. In addition to that, becaste these trees are going to have to be imported to the US, there is more packaging as trees are being bought and sold in bulk for many retail stores.
With that in mind, the transportation for such bulk items creates a negative environmental impact as greater fossil fuels will be emitted when crossing international waters. To help keep these emissions down, it is important to know where the artificial trees are being produced, should you decide to purchase one, and to try to have everything locally sourced to minimize waste.
Christmas trees are actually crops – their purpose for being planted is to be sold seasonally to anyone celebrating Christmas. While the trees are being grown, they digest carbon and contribute to providing green spaces for regional farming. And because they are crops, the trees are biodegradable – capable of being decomposed by bacteria and can have new life even after the holidays.
Real trees have the potential to be used for elephant food, fertilizer, and mulch. However, many larger tree farm companies use pesticides and other harsh chemicals when planting their trees, leaving harsh pollutants in our atmosphere. As of now, buying any kind of Christmas tree has some kind of negative environmental impact, no matter what you decide to invest in.
When buying real trees, a better alternative would be to buy locally sourced trees. Most real trees in the US are imported from Canada or Europe. The environmental and financial cost to safely package and ship these trees would lead to greater fossil fuel emissions. Fossil fuels are limited natural fuels, such as coal or gas, formed by the remains of living organisms, when burned they create greenhouse gases.
Throughout the years, consumers have been using fossil fuels at an exponential rate, and that needs to stop. Although fossil fuels have been a reliable resource for many of our demands, they are non-renewable forms of energy and will run out eventually. Continual exploitation of such fossil fuels will lead to a greater increase in heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere, leading way for greater global atmospheric temperatures. Knowing where your trees are coming from and who is producing them allows you to better understand how they were grown as well.
With support from the American Christmas Tree Association, artificial trees are being marketed as the more convenient, and in some cases, the more environmentally conscious option. However, when thinking about the immense amount of fossil fuels that go into creating and transporting these trees, especially with their growing demand in the market, $100-$300 for an artificial tree suddenly doesn’t sound so appealing. Although real cut trees do require a lot of labor and, at times, harsh chemicals in their growth or transportation, there are at least better recycling options for them.
Real Christmas trees can be reused and recycled in many different ways. Many places, such as local parks or botanical gardens, offer tree recycling or mulching programs that allow for the trees to be used as mulch – coverings around plants, to insulate or enrich soil for other plants. Many states also offer free curbside pick up from thrown out Christmas trees.
If you decide to invest in an artificial tree or have to dispose of one, keep in mind that it is possible to recycle them in unconventional ways. Rather than just tossing them to the curb for the landfill, you can always donate your tree to a local family or organization in search of one for the holidays.
For anyone interested in DIY projects, you can find ways to reuse certain parts like the metal from the skeleton of the artificial trees. For example, if you find that your artificial tree can no longer serve its purpose as a tree, you can always break it down and repurpose it to become a different kind of decoration, such as a wreath or garland.
So do you get an artificial tree that you’ll use for a couple years, or go out and find a real one that you’ll have to throw away once Christmas is over? For anyone concerned about their holiday expenses financially or environmentally, this is the real dilemma of the holiday season. In the end, it’s understandable that having a tree is an important tradition for the celebration of Christmas. However, whether you choose to invest in an artificial or real tree, it’s important to think of the ways you can give new life to them after the holidays. After all, the world becomes a better place when we value our environment.