For many families, the centerpiece of Christmas celebrations is the luminous, awe-inspiring tree set up with care in the living room. But with all the options now available, how do you know which Christmas tree is the greenest choice for the environment?
Should you go for a real, fresh tree, as nearly 29 million households do, according to the National Christmas Tree Association? Most Christmas trees are now raised on established farms, meaning deforestation isn't an issue, but they must be shipped, often from long distances. They do require pesticides and fueled vehicles to maintain, and may end up taking up space in landfills.
On the other hand, most artificial Christmas trees are made in China, typically from oil-derived, pollution-releasing polyvinyl chloride (PVC). A number have been found to contain lead. Once finally disposed of, artificial trees will last for centuries in landfills. These days, roughly 70% of Americans choose artificial.
Advocates of "going artificial" point out that a one-time purchase of a fake tree can save gas otherwise used for annual trips to a tree farm or shopping center, not to mention for cross-country shipping of the tree to point of sale. If your family keeps the faux fir for many years, even generations, the oil savings could certainly add up to more than what it took to make and ship the product in the first place. But that is an "if," and all too often people upgrade to a fancier model, or abandon their old one after a move or after the boughs get bent in the attic.
So on balance, what's the greenest Tannenbaum? It depends on a number of factors, including where you live, how you celebrate and precisely what you buy. So there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Going with a real tree? Try to choose something locally and organically grown. You'll cut down on CO2 emissions and help prevent the environmental degradation wrought by pesticides on big conventional operations. Local Harvest features a list of beautiful live Christmas tree providers across the country. If you like, you may even be able to cut your own! When you are finished with your tree, make sure it is converted to mulch or compost.
Going with an artificial tree? Then try to find one made in the U.S., which greatly decreases the chances for contamination with lead or other toxins, preserves domestic manufacturing jobs and reduces shipping. For example, check out Holiday Tree and Trim Co. of New Jersey. If you must get rid of your artificial tree, check with local charities, shelters and churches to see if they can use it. Most recycling programs do not accept them, and they'll take many centuries to degrade in landfills.
Want an even more "clear cut" answer? Buy a living, plantable "bulb" tree. Inside, the tree can wear ornaments and garland, and after Christmas it can be transplanted outdoors. You'll be adding to the planet's lungs and fighting global warming, as well as providing wildlife habitat. If you live in an apartment, or don't have room in your yard for an evergreen, see if you can donate it to someplace in your community.
Related: How to Plant Healthy Trees
Or save all your money and simply decorate an outdoor tree for Christmas. True, unless you live in a warm climate, you aren't likely to want to open presents in your yard. But you may be able to decorate a tree that's close enough to a window to set the mood. You can also fashion your own "tree" from natural materials like driftwood, pine boughs, felled branches and the like. You won't be contributing to any new resource use and will be giving your own creativity a chance to flourish.
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