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How Green Are Christmas Trees?

By Jody McCutcheon

Sure, your Christmas tree is green. But is it, you know, green? 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: how green are Christmas trees? The answer depends largely on three factors: “tree miles,” length of ownership, and disposal method. For those of you already uncomfortable with using either, we’ve found some nice eco-friendly Christmas tree alternatives. If you’re unsure how eco-gentle your tree is, this is the perfect article to be reading right now.

Eco-Friendly Christmas Trees

What beats going out and cutting down your own tree, dragging it back to the homestead and setting it up inside? Drinking a cup of Kahlua-spiked hot chocolate while decorating it, of course. Not everyone has that opportunity, though. Many people buy 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, purchase locally to minimise the environmental costs of transport. Choose certified organic to avoid pesticides and other harmful chemicals. Look for an organic harvester in your area. Think of Christmas tree farms as habitats for birds and other animals. Also consider that trees eliminate pollen and dust from the air, while absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. An acre of Christmas trees absorbs about six tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, while a single farmed tree absorbs one tonne of carbon dioxide in its lifetime. Tree farms do their part to reduce global warming. Furthermore, an acre of Christmas trees produces enough oxygen for the daily needs of 18 people.

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. Recycled trees are used to make mulch, wood chips and erosion barriers, among other things. Look for a tree-recycler in your area. Before recycling your tree, though, remember to remove any non-biodegradable decorations.

 Another Christmas option is a potted tree. This is grown in the ground and transplanted into a pot, so it isn’t just real, it’s alive, doing its part to absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. You can enjoy a potted tree over several Christmases, and during the year simply leave it in the pot or plant it in your yard.

One drawback of farmed Christmas trees is the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers. Pesticides from Christmas tree production have been found in ground- and well water. One type, called pyrethroids, are lethal to fish and other marine life. More recently, pyrethroids have been implicated in several human pesticide-poisoning incidents in the US.

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 is always best for the environment.


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 petrochemicals, aluminium and other metals—some older models actually contain lead, which can disrupt cardiac, kidney, neurological and reproductive functioning in people—cardboard, wall stencilling, even optical fibre. A nineteenth-century German example, using goose feathers dyed green, was a response to ongoing German deforestation, underlining even back then the eco-conscious raison d’être for artificial trees.

Besides the obvious advantage of having real trees, artificial also benefits those with allergies to terpene, found in the sap of Christmas trees. But of course, the problem with artificial trees stems from what they’re made of. 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, but they’ll sit in landfills for centuries. When you’re finished with yours, why not take it apart and put the pieces to other uses? Those branches would make great pipe and toilet cleaners, for example.


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 things 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 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.

Apart from decorations, you can also get creative by making your own Christmas ‘tree’. Stencil an outline on a wall, or fashion one from wood or other materials. It needn’t be “traditional”—construct it any way you want, out of whatever eco-gentle materials you prefer. The idea is to create something that’s reusable, with a low carbon footprint, and which eliminates the need to cut down trees. If you haven’t time to make something, green alternatives include rosemary trees, cardboard trees and or even decorating houseplants

Once you’ve figured out what kind of decoration you’ll be enjoying in your living room over the next couple weeks, all that’s left to do is bring out the hot chocolate. And the Kahlua. And remember the true meaning of the season.

Best of the holidays to everyone.

All images: Wikicommons

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    Jan 18, 2016 at 3:14 pm

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