ecology of christmas: christmas trees

December 1, 2007

in Environmental issues

Real or fake?  Every year, folks try to decide whether to get a live Christmas tree, or put up an artificial tree.  This topic has been fairly well covered on several green blogs, so I will offer an overview and resources.

Umbra at The Grist sums up the verdict on artificial trees:  They are made mostly of PVC (sometimes stabilized with lead), a product that is essentially toxic from cradle to grave.  And they are likely made overseas, probably in China. Triple Pundit actually did the math on which type of tree — real or fake — was more carbon-neutral. Real tree won again.

Still, a real tree, if you have to have a tree at all, should be chosen with a lot of care.  Two things to keep in mind: find an organic grower, because most tree farms use a hell of a lot of noxious pesticides and chemicals. Second, make sure your responsibly-grown tree is grown close to home.  Why would you want to buy a tree that has been trucked across the country?

Here is some background reading:

 While you're at it, replace your old incandescent holiday lights with energy-sipping LEDs. LED lights use 1/10th of the energy of mini-incandescents, and 1/100th of the energy of traditional holiday bulbs, are cooler and safer, and extremely durable. Exact savings depend on how much you pay for electricity (you can get an idea from this calculator) but for your typical indoor tree you're looking at a dime versus ten bucks for the holiday season. Multiply that by other decorative lights, especially outdoors, and it adds up.

More importantly, it reduces greenhouse gas emissions. According to a New York Times article, the St. Paul, MN incandescent city tree is responsible for 18.7 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, while the LED-lit tree in Rockefeller Center only a tenth of that amount (any at all for a non-essential display seems too much to me, but that's another issue). LEDs cost more up front, but will also last 200,000 hours, versus 2,000 for the average incandescent. Check to see if your municipality, local power company, or nearby retailer offers recycling for old bulbs, or coupons or incentives to switch to LEDs. Update: Here's the be-all, end-all post on holiday LEDs.

Plenty of my friends decorate their homes quite lavishly — one friend with heirloom items — without a tree, which makes a whole lot of sense to me. Personally, I've completely opted out of holiday decorating, although I've considered consulting this book and then erecting a Festivus pole. It goes well with all the Airing of Grievances I do around this time of year, anyway.


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