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What’s The Most Ethical Kind Of Christmas Tree?

What’s the most ethical kind of Christmas tree? Reusable plastic? Evergreen? We investigate

By Jody McCutcheon

It’s the most iconic marker of the holiday season: a proud, sparkling Christmas tree. But what’s the most ethical kind of Christmas tree? You might be surprised to  learn that even something as festive and innocuous-seeming as a Christmas tree – real or  artificial – has the potential to produce a noticeable environmental footprint.

We here at Eluxe have made a list and checked it twice, a list examining the pros and  cons of real trees versus those of artificial ones, to answer the question: what’s the most ethical kind of Christmas tree you can buy this season? The answer depends largely on three factors: “tree miles,” length of ownership, and disposal methods. And for those of you already uncomfortable with having either natural or fake trees, we’ve  found some nice eco-friendly Christmas tree alternatives.

Real Christmas Trees

There’s something oh-so-rustic about cutting down your own tree, dragging it back to the homestead  and setting it up inside. Not to mention drinking a cup of Kahlua-spiked hot chocolate while decorating  it, of course. Not everyone has that opportunity, though. Many people buy their pine from Christmas tree farms–which is better than city slickers flocking en masse to the countryside and chopping down myriad, nonrenewable conifers that probably end up adorning curbs and  dumpsters in a month’s time.

If you’re truly conscientious about your tree consumption, it’s important to keep a few things in mind.

First, purchase it locally to minimise the  environmental costs of transport. Secondly, choose a certified organic tree to avoid pesticides and other  harmful chemicals; look for an organic harvester in your area. While some may feel bad cutting down a real tree for the short holiday season, we should consider that trees eliminate pollen, pollution and dust from the air, while absorbing carbon dioxide and producing  oxygen, and that applies to Christmas tree farms, too.

In fact, an acre of Christmas trees on a farm absorbs about six tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, while a single farmed tree absorbs one tonne of carbon dioxide in its lifetime. So yes, Christmas tree farms actually do their part to reduce global warming, and so these pines are therefore possibly the most ethical kind of Christmas tree you can buy. Furthermore, an acre of Christmas trees produces enough oxygen for the daily needs of 18 people.

Chopping down your own tree can actually help other plants in the forest grow, according to forest management experts in the USA. There are some guidelines for this to be the case, though: the tree trunk has to be smaller than six inches in diameter and must be within 10 feet of another tree.

But there’s more good news, too: tree farms are also sustainable: for every harvested Christmas tree, at least one new tree  is planted. And the “treecycling” trend is growing, particularly in the US. According to a study by the University of Illinois, the USA has more than four thousand Christmas tree recycling programs. The recycled trees are used to make mulch, wood chips and erosion  barriers, among other highly useful things. After you’ve gazed at your lovely tree for the holidays, it’s important to look for a tree-recycler in your area when you dispose of it. Before recycling your tree, though, remember to remove any non-biodegradable decorations.

There are some drawbacks to farmed Christmas trees, however; namely the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers. Pesticides from Christmas tree production have been found in both ground and well water. One class of pesticides called pyrethroids are lethal to fish and other marine life, and more recently, pyrethroids have been implicated in several human pesticide-poisoning incidents in the US. Not good.

Another drawback is the accumulation of miles in delivering a tree from farm to living  room (or from your own car ride to pick up your tree). The more “tree miles” accumulated, the larger the carbon footprint. Local and organic is always best for the environment, and your own health, as well.

How Ethical Are Christmas Trees?

Artificial Trees

For those who have preferred not to cut down an actual tree or simply had no access to  one, artificial Christmas trees were created. Often resembling the standard Norway Spruce, artificial trees today are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and other toxic petrochemicals, aluminium and other metals.

Some older models actually contain lead, which can disrupt cardiac, kidney, neurological and reproductive functioning in people.

The positive element of fake trees is that they can help stop deforestation. At some point in the nineteenth century, so many people were cutting down pines for Christmas in Germany, families had to start dying goose feathers green and making some of the first faux trees to stop the forests from disappearing. There are still parts of the world where cutting down trees for the holidays is threatening forest health, though – which is why getting yours from a sustainably managed source is vital.

Some argue that artificial trees can benefit those with allergies to terpene, which is found in the sap of pine trees. But of course, the problem with artificial trees is that they have the potential to cause even more health problems for even more people, due to what they’re made of.

For example, the production and  incineration of PVC emits carcinogens like dioxins and ethylene dichloride; these toxins pollute the environment around factory sites. Plus, artificial trees aren’t fire resistant; and  despite plastic or metal makeups, they’re not recyclable. They may last five or more years  in your house, and you may even buy one second hand, or one that’s made out of recycled plastic materials. But the truth is, no matter what kind of fake tree you get, it’s likely to sit in landfills for centuries after you’ve used it.

But you know what? You can get creative with your fake Christmas tree! I mean, almost anything can act as one. Think: tall houseplants, for example. You can also buy a laser-cut, recycled cardboard tree to decorate, which you can use year after year, such as the one below.

So, what’s the bottom line, then? What’s the most ethical kind of Christmas tree?

It seems pretty clear that if you must have a tree for the season, the best bet is an ethically farmed, all natural one.

But even if your tree’s as green as can be, the decorations may not be. Here are a few tips on how to fix that.

Eco Friendly Tree Decorations

The whole point of having a Christmas tree is to decorate it, but often the decorations are the most ecologically harmful element of the tree. For example, why bother using energy with lights, even LED ones, when there are so many pretty things you can hang from the branches of your Christmas tree?

Here are just a few suggestions:

  • Little boxes made from recycled paper tied with string or salvaged ribbon
  • Strings of snowy white popcorn alternated with red cranberries
  • Edible gingerbread cookies in the shape of stars or snowmen
  • Candy canes. So easy to hang!
  • Pine cones. Works in nature…
  • Dried slices of oranges or lemons. Smells good, too

The worst thing you could put on your tree is probably spray-snow. This often contains a cocktail of nasty chemicals, such as polyvinyl acetate, acrylates, methylene chloride, sodium chloride, dimethyl ether and isobutane, all of which can trigger dizziness, asthma, headaches and other illnesses. Note that spray snow is far from vegan-friendly, as one of the main ingredients is palmitic acid, found in animal fat and palm oil (and let’s remember that palm plantations are destroying rain forests globally).    

Second runner up for toxicity is tinsel-it sometimes contains lead; it can be harmful to pets if they eat it, and in the best case scenario, it’s just nasty plastic. Avoid!

Best of the holidays to everyone!

Jody McCutcheon

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