One of my fondest memories growing up was going to pick out a real tree from the lot with my Dad. My sisters and I would pick up branches from the ground and put them in a glass of water in our rooms, so proud of our own little tree no matter how Charlie Brown looking they were. Just as treasured was arriving at my grandparents’ house and scanning the tree for our favourite ornaments each year. For many of us it just isn’t the holidays without a spectacular decorated tree. But what is the most eco-friendly option? The living tree picked up at your local lot, or the artificial or ‘fake’ tree my grandparents left decorated all year round? I wanted to know more about the debate between living and artificial trees and found some fun (and budget friendly!) alternatives along the way.
Artificial trees have some clear demerits- they are made with PVCs (plastic that can’t be recycled), may contain lead, and are usually shipped from China to your local store. They are not biodegradable and leak toxins and byproducts into the soil when they are disposed of. You would need to use your artificial tree for 20 years for it to be as eco-friendly as a living tree, in Canada most households keep theirs for an average of 5-6. One bright spot is that some of the new models of artificial trees are made with PE (polyethylene) instead of PVC (polyvinylchloride) which looks more natural and is less toxic, hopefully meaning it will be your holiday tree for decades to come!
So what could make a living tree less desirable for the environment? One of the biggest problems is they are a monoculture- meaning they are a single crop cultivated in a wide area, which does not make for a diversified ecosystem and takes up valuable land space. Most Christmas tree farms also use pesticides, which is especially harmful for the workers exposed to these chemicals, sadly only 1% of farms in North America are grown organically. Another reason living trees have a significant carbon footprint is the long distances they are usually transported, rarely being grown close by, most trees travel 370 kilometres (230 miles) in North America from the site of seed production to a customer’s home.
Living trees are definitely not all bad if you can find a farm close to you, some even let you cut down your own tree if you are feeling adventurous. They also provide habitat for wildlife and purify the air. A quick Google search can help you to locate sustainably grown trees in your area, bonus that you are supporting the local economy. When it comes to living tree disposal some cities have better programs than others, with curb-side pickup or drop off locations where the trees are recycled and composted to make mulch. In less favourable programs the trees are not recycled, ending up in landfills giving off methane gas, polluting water sources or are burned. Do a little investigating to find out where your tree can be recycled, in the United States Earth911.com will locate the nearest centre near you.
Here are some great alternatives if you are looking to branch out to something a little different:
Potted tree- can be replanted after the holiday season and reestablish its roots in the wild, or depending on the size can be kept indoors.
Gift a tree- Send a tree to your loved one (or yourself) and support a nonprofit that is dedicated to replanting trees such as the Arbor Day Foundation https://shop.arborday.org/gift-trees/
Rent- Order a tree online, have it delivered and picked up after the holidays to be used again next year. Evergrow Live Tree in Canada http://evergrowchristmastrees.ca/ and Living Christmas in California https://www.livingchristmas.com/ are just two companies popularizing this convenient idea.
Get creative- For the Pinterest lover there is no shortage of Instagrammable DIY trees made out of everything from recycled pop bottles, books, left over wrapping paper and even ladders! Using only materials found around your house, this option is free!
Decorate an outdoor tree- Grab some animal and environment safe decorations and spend some time outside with your family or neighbours creating a new tradition.
Be a Grinch- Support a local floral business and sign up for a workshop.
I hope this inspires you to enjoy a greener holiday!