Sunday, December 4, 2011

Q&A: O Christmas Tree!

Let me tell you, Christmas trees are magical.

When I was a kid (and still to this day) one of my favorite Christmas moments is when you come downstairs on any December morning and you see the tree, unlit, with the ornaments sort of glowing softly in the dim light.

But there are lots of strident environmentalists who will tell you that any Christmas tree is wasteful and that you shouldn't have a tree. Well, bah humbug to you too!

Some of us, however, love our trees (that's why we're light green and not dark green eco-warriors). But, as my friend Shelley pointed out the other day, it can be hard to make a good choice about what tree is the greenest. Shelley asked, via Facebook:

What is more sustainable - a real Christmas tree or a fake? My fake is probably made of all kinds of nasties - but I can use it year on year. Real trees - though? I just don't know. I think I made a good choice, but something about this question feels slightly complicated - and I can't put my finger on it. As we approach the holiday season - how can we make sustainable choices with our Christmas trees? What do you think?

Shelley has definitely hit the nail on the head: This feels complicated. Like Shelley, I have an artificial tree. It's a small table-top tree that I've had for years.

The simple answer is: real trees are better for the earth. However, there's a bit more to know. Here's the run-down:

Artificial Trees: Despite the fact that artificial trees are long-lasting, they are, as Shelley said, "made of all kinds of nasties." In this case, the nastiest nasty is PVC. As we learned during my adventure in CD-consolidation, PVC is hard to recycle. It's also full of chemicals.

If you have an artificial tree, though, don't despair and chuck it out the window. Sure, you don't want to chew on your tree or eat the needles or anything (you may want to spray some bitter apple on it to keep pets from chewing on it), but if you have one tree, I'm of the very unscientific opinion that you should use it as long as you can. (I know that some people advocate getting rid of all plastics in your home, but for most of us that's not a practical option. Reducing plastic consumption over time feels a lot more do-able).

What you really don't want to do, however, is buy lots of different artificial trees, or continually upgrade. As with most things green, the key is to moderate your consumption. You want to think about: do you really need a new tree? If so, then it may be time to transition to real trees (this may not be a good financial option for some who live far from where the trees grow). Do you really need a tree in every room? And of course, a small artificial tree is going to be better than a large one.

Cut Trees: Cut Christmas trees have all of the problems attendant on our factory agriculture system. They are a better option than artificial, in general. However the tree you buy outside of the grocery store usually isn't a very green bet. If you can, of course, buy organic.

The best option, however, is to cut your own tree in a forest. You know, if you have a forest nearby. For example, if you live in the Rocky Mountains, you can actually get a permit from the US Forest Service to cut a tree in the national forests. This helps to thin and maintain the forests over time.

If, like many of us, you don't have a pine forest right outside your door, and you decide to buy a cut tree, then make sure it's healthy with soft, bouncy bristles. The supermarket near my house had a whole bunch of dead-looking trees. Yuck! You might want to check a few different nurseries or lots to find the healthiest trees you can.

Live trees: At first blush, it seems like a live tree is the best option. You use it at Christmas and then you re-plant it, right?

Except winter is not the best time to plant a tree. And in many places, pine trees are not a match for the environment.
Many live Christmas trees end up dying.

What does that all mean?
Well, if you're starting from scratch (i.e., you don't have a tree now), then your best bet is to go with a cut tree.

If you're replacing an artificial tree because it's old and bedraggled and just can't be used any more, then switch to a cut tree.

If you have an artificial tree already, go ahead and stick with it, but don't buy more artificial trees or constantly buy bigger artificial trees.

When it comes to being green at Christmas, in the end, it's best to remember that Christmas isn't about buying more and bigger stuff. That's a good way to be greener all year round.

1 comment:

Tori said...

The past three years, we've cut our tree from the same farm where we pick organic berries. It's a little pricier, but the trees are lovely and it's an additional revenue stream for a farm I want to see stay in business. Win, win, in my opinion!