Where Did Your Christmas Tree Come From?

family putting a star on top of a christmas tree
December 11, 2020
The holidays are a wonderful time of year, and you can make them even better by your choice in Christmas tree. Minimizing your contribution to waste in any way possible during this time is helpful, and making informed decisions about where your decorations, such as your Christmas tree, is a great place to start.
According to the National Christmas Tree Association, in 2017, Americans purchased 27 million real Christmas trees and 21 million new artificial trees.
If you want to include a Christmas tree in your holiday celebration, here are some sustainability considerations:

Artificial Christmas Trees

Artificial Christmas trees are the least expensive option and can be reused year after year. However, a six-foot artificial tree has a carbon footprint of around 40kg of CO2, equivalent to driving 100 miles in the average car, that’s a trip from New Haven to the border of Vermont (Carbon Trust). Most artificial trees are made from plastic, often PVC film. PVC is made from fossil fuels from a process that emits high levels of greenhouse gases, plus the energy used in the tree’s transportation, which are often from China, adds to the problem.
Although choosing a secondhand artificial tree might be better for the environment, often older artificial trees have lead in the tree needles, so it may not be the best option for your health. Try to find an artificial Christmas tree that is clearly labeled to show that it is made out of polyethylene instead of PVC in order to avoid getting lead dust in your home. They are now made with tin instead of lead, so newer ones are typically better. In order to maximize the sustainability of an artificial tree, try to keep it for at least 20 years (to be more sustainable than a real tree). 

Disposing of an artificial tree

Plastics are not biodegradable, so disposing of artificial trees is an issue. Although PVC is recyclable, artificial trees are made up of composite materials and cannot be recycled easily, so you have to try to remove the plastic parts from the metal before doing so. The best option is to donate your artificial tree or give it away to a friend or family member. You can also try to upcycle its parts into other decorations in your home.

Real Christmas Trees 

The most sustainable Christmas tree is a live, or potted, one, and the second best is a real Christmas tree that’s recycled properly.
Director of Environmental Science and Sustainability Studies and Associate Professor at St. Joseph’s University Clint Springer said, in an interview with Salon, that a living Christmas tree is the best for the environment, especially when you’re thinking about what will slow the rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide production. Going by Springer’s recommendation, a great option is purchasing a tree in a pot that can be enjoyed inside for Christmas and then put outside in the garden for the rest of the year, especially if it was grown locally and certified organic.
You may prefer to find a tree that is already grown, as growing a Christmas tree from scratch takes anywhere from seven to fifteen years. You can get a Norfolk Island Pine to keep indoors all year round or a tree that will remain alive outdoors in your local climate—some options to consider are spruce, pine, and fir.
Renting a Christmas tree from a local nursery is another great option, especially if you don’t have the space for growing your own Christmas tree in a pot or garden. You can go to Rent a Christmas Tree to have a tree delivered to your home and picked back up after the holidays. Real, cut Christmas trees have a carbon footprint of 16kg of CO2 over the course of their life cycles, which is the equivalent of driving around 40 miles. However, recycling a Christmas tree properly can reduce its carbon footprint by up to 80%.  If you opt for a cut tree, try to source it from a local farm to minimize the environmental cost of transportation.
Christmas tree farms are fairly good at replacing the trees they cut down, and many are certified under the FSC system, learn more about FSC certifications. Even better than FSC certified are organic tree farms. You can find organic tree farms across the country using Local Harvest. Although chopping down trees each year is inherently wasteful, as compared to leaving forests intact to thrive and grow, a single farmed tree absorbs more than 1 ton of CO2 throughout its lifetime, which means that Christmas tree farming has the potential for a large amount of carbon sequestration. Each acre of trees produces enough oxygen for the daily needs of 18 people, making the option of a live, cut Christmas tree that is recycled after use more sustainable than an artificial tree.

Disposing of a real tree

Do not put your tree in the trash because organic matter sent to a landfill decomposes anaerobically and creates a greenhouse gas called methane. Check to see if there’s a local center at which you can drop off your real Christmas trees. You can use Recycle Now or Earth911 to find out how you can dispose of a Christmas tree, or any other material you may have questions about, in your city. Many towns have a specific day to put out your Christmas tree for pickup to be recycled, so make sure to check out your area’s Christmas tree recycling programs.
If you have a Home Depot store close, you may drop off your clean, undecorated tree there after the holidays to be recycled into mulch that is free and available to anyone who wants to use it.

Other sustainable options