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.


{ 6 comments }

Jenn December 2, 2007 at 2:47 am

My two cents:

1) Artificial trees shipped in from other countries sometimes use real wood for the "trunk" part, and have occasionally been found to be harboring non-native insect pests such as boring beetles.
2) What about buying a rooted tree in a pot for planting after the holidays are over (a species appropriate for your neck of the woods, of course)? One tree farm I went to did this but of course the cost was much higher and I was a poor grad student back then, so…

Clare December 2, 2007 at 5:02 pm

Without trying to be too much of a blog ho, you can go to this post of why I have an artificial tree. And that doesn't take into account the fuel First Air uses to get it here.

http://kiggavik.typepad.com/the_house_other_arctic_mu/2005/09/what_im_going_t.html

Ellen December 2, 2007 at 5:05 pm

What about the related problem of holiday cards? I have been sending really nice electronic cards, but I am old enough to know that people really enjoy receiving nice cards, and I always feel as though I am missing part of the holiday "thing" – which may sound odd when you consider that I don't DO the holiday "thing" – except for the cards. Well, OK, if you waterboard me, I'd admit to buying MYSELF a present or two…Anyway, the cards are a waste of paper and waste of fossil fuel to transmit around the world…but…

Phantom Midge December 4, 2007 at 7:19 pm

What if you inherited your Gramma's old, nasty-but-still-serviceable fake tree? It would kind of be recycling…maybe? (I think there are shards of tinsel on it from the 1950's era).

Ed Furlong December 11, 2007 at 11:42 am

If you live near a U.S. National Forest, cutting a wild tree can be a sustainable means of having a tree and minimizing your impact. It has become a tradition in our family, even as our kids have hit their teens and twenties. When we go to the National Forest, we look to take a tree in a way that (we hope) results in better conditions (more light less competition) for the trees that remain. It usually means we put up what my spouse refers to as a "skinny-ass" tree with lots of room for ornaments. This year we were able to cut our tree from a stump that had been cut for a tree about 30 years ago, and which had given rise to two parallel trunks off the stump. We took the trunk which looked more likely to have problems later, leaving the stronger trunk to grow with more light and a strong root system. This was in effect coppicing.

We also use every bit, and since these tall thin trees often have a lot of trunk, that means extra boughs for swags and wreaths, and an extra trunk section that gets cut up and added to next year's woodpile. After Christmas the tree gets put on its side near our feeds as a shelter for ground birds and mammals, and in the spring we cut the trunk up for firewood and chip the boughs for mulch in the garden.

I know this solution is not available to everyone, but particularly in the Western U.S., National Forests are in reasonable proximity to many urban areas and formal Christmas Tree cutting programs are in place. Our permit cost $10, but the fun to be had wading through the snow collecting a tree in a way that may help the forest is priceless.

Nuthatch December 11, 2007 at 1:36 pm

Wow, that's interesting, Ed!

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