Monday, November 22, 2010

The Greenest Tree

The Green Phone Booth is happy to welcome Betsy of Eco-novice for today's Meaningful Memories post.

Due to some negative childhood experiences with real Christmas trees (picking endless pine needles out of our dark green shag carpet by hand), when it was time for me to buy a Christmas tree for my own home, I did not hesitate to buy a plastic tree. This was before I agonized over every plastic purchase. I bought it after Christmas for 75% off (I'm cheap like that). But it was a piece of trash. Pieces of it fell off when I decorated it and it barely survived the disassembling. A couple of years later when I moved, it was relegated to the Goodwill heap. That experience led to no Christmas tree for the next few years.
Then, last December, my husband returned from Target with a real Christmas tree in hand. He had purchased it for $12 (50% off, because Christmas was so near). To my surprise, it barely shed any needles. I had read a short blurb in some magazine recently that claimed it was actually greener to purchase a real Christmas tree than to reuse a fake plastic one (see more on this below), so I felt OK about it. This year I decided to look into the matter more thoroughly.

What Is the Greenest Christmas Tree?
The short answer: a locally grown organic pine tree. What is the least green tree? The crappy plastic tree (made in China) that I bought on clearance that lasted only a couple of years and is probably now in a landfill. But beyond that, there are nuances.

Real Tree

Creation. I once was under the misconception that Christmas trees are contributing to deforestation. In reality, almost all Christmas trees are grown on tree farms. Whenever a tree is harvested, several seedlings are planted, which means that buying a Christmas tree actually supports an operation that sequesters carbon while possibly preventing soil erosion, providing habitat for animals, and doing all the other wonderful things trees do.

A real tree is made of all natural materials, but its cultivation may have involved fertilizers and pesticides. Although you probably won't be exposed to the chemicals from conventional agricultural methods (UV light most likely burns them off before harvesting), the earth will be the worse for it. Buy an organic tree if you can.

Shipping. If you buy a real tree, you are buying a new tree every year. And if it was grown far away, it is being shipped a large distance every year. So try to buy local.

Disposal. Many cities have Christmas tree disposal programs. You leave your tree on the curb, the city takes it away and turns it into something useful, like mulch or compost. Make sure your tree is recycled and not sent to the landfill.

Fake Tree

Creation. Fake trees are universally made from PVC, and vinyl is the evil-est of the evil plastics. Toxins released during manufacturing, toxins released after manufacturing. If you buy a US-made tree, you can at least feel fairly certain that the PVC is lead-free. What should you do if you already have a fake tree? If it's in good shape, you could continue to use it, but wash hands thoroughly after decorating and handling. If you have small children, I personally would donate it. Some folks have ethical issues with this kind of donation (too toxic for me, but not for someone else). But if a person purchases your used plastic tree instead of a cheap new one, at least a message gets sent to the market-place regarding the demand for cheap plastic trees: make less next year.

Shipping. If you buy a durable fake tree, it is shipped just once and then used numerous times before needing a replacement. Fake trees probably weigh less and are more efficient (compact) to ship than real trees too, I’m guessing. Of course, even the fake tree’s one trip leaves a carbon footprint, so try to find one made locally rather than in China.

Disposal. Plastic doesn't go away. It doesn't biodegrade. Your plastic tree will be around for a long, long time. And will probably be leaching some toxins into the ground and maybe ground water as it sits in a landfill.

If you can, buy an organic tree from a local tree farm. Make sure it is recycled when the holidays are over. If you decide to go with a plastic tree, buy one that is high quality (so you can use it for many, many years) and made in the USA. Decorate your tree with LED lights and reuse ornaments year after year.
Don't like either of those options? Here are some other ideas:
  • Don't have a Christmas tree (bah, humbug)
  • Enjoy your neighbor’s/ sister’s/ cousin’s tree. This is what we did for many years between the plastic tree failure and my conversion to real trees.
  • Decorate a sturdy outdoor living tree (maybe even a pine tree!). A tree next to a big window would be ideal for bringing the holiday spirit inside. You'll most likely want to put your presents elsewhere. If you have small children like me, you can't put the real presents under your tree until Christmas Day anyway.
  • Buy a tree you can keep indoors for a week or so and then plant outside. This seems like a risky venture to me, since I have very limited gardening experience, but if you have a green thumb, this might be a good option for you.
  • Buy a nice tall tree-like indoor plant, and decorate it. I would be all over this (I do better with indoor plants), except that I have small children and under no circumstances will have a pot full of dirt on the floor until my kids are much older.
  • Be creative and make something tree-like with branches or repurposed materials, and then decorate it.
Additional Resources
Locally Grown Trees
National Christmas Tree Association (Find My Tree Now in top left corner)
Search Local Harvest (just enter your zip code)
Green Promise's List of Organic Christmas Tree Farms

Real Tree Recycling
Earth 911

More Information

Bio: Betsy is a SAHM of two young children who is trying to go green without becoming totally overwhelmed. She especially enjoys making green changes that save money and simplify life, like buying less, cooking from scratch, and early potty training. Check out her Green Holiday Series on her blog Eco-novice for more ways to go green and save green during the holidays.


brendie said...

excellent, that saves me having to research that point. i always buy one from the xmas tree farm (about 10km away) and was wondering if i was doing the right thing.

DramaMama said...

Just a suggestion for those going w/o a tree - one year we used a huge sheet of paper hung on the wall and a marker to create a picture of a tree. My kids all drew ornaments on it and garland, was pretty special to me and took up virtually no space in my house! It was very clean. The only resources used were paper and markers. We also cut out magazine pictures and photos when creating ornaments for it. Some people were aghast that we didn't have a tree, but personally I thought the family art and ease of cleanup made that year's experience better than any other!

Carmen said...

If you're adventurous, you can even go "hunting" for your own tree. Our local Christmas tree farm let's you pick out and cut down your tree of choice. The kids love it. Plus, the 4-H club sells hot chocolate and cookies after so it is a nice day, a nice holiday tradition.

Green Bean said...

Yes, I do think you are right. For me right now, it is to continue using the plastic tree I bought five years ago. It is still in good condition and, well, use what you have. I do now regret the decision on green grounds - though it is nice to not have to worry about things like watering the tree and such.

Karen Anne said...

If you have a big enough yard, you can add it to a brush pile. Those provide habitat and shelter for small animals.

I think I'm going with a small outdoor real dwarf tree on my deck.

Betsy (Eco-novice) said...

I love the idea of a giant drawn tree decorated by the family. I also think picking out and cutting down your own tree would be a great family holiday tradition.

Green Bean, I think using what you already have is always a green choice. I still feel bad about the cheapo tree I bought and chucked. That was before I was a conscious consumer. I never did water our tree last year, and it looked great the whole time and never shed. But I'm not sure if that's typical.

Nisha @ Healthy Mom's Kitchen said...

This is such a helpful article Betsy! My husband (who is anti-trees) surprised me with one the year after we were married. He got the cheap $30 one from WalMart and we still have it, although, the last two years, it's only stayed up a couple days before I get frustrated with toddlers who continually pull it down and I box it back up. As a kid, we always had a real tree and I think that's the way to go! Maybe I'll use the one I have as a porch decoration and once the kids are older, start a tradition of buying real trees!

Betsy (Eco-novice) said...

Nisha, young kids + trees -- that's a topic for an entire post. One year my toddler threw every book, ball and toy he owned into the tree, which was in a corner behind sofas. Young children might be a good excuse to have no tree at all -- or maybe the paper one mentioned by another reader above.

Lisa Sharp said...

I wish we could have a real tree but I'm allergic so we have a fake one. I wash my hands when I touch it and clean very well after I put it up. I wish someone would make a good PVC free tree!

Kelly said...

I grew up with a fake plastic tree, and it is a priority to me to have a REAL one each year. Fortunately, our farmer's market sells local trees. This year we will look for a small one that can go on a table, since little man is at the perfect age for scaling the tree and eating the ornaments.

Betsy (Eco-novice) said...

I also wish someone would make a non-PVC tree for those who cannot have a real one. I wonder if it is just much more expensive to use a better plastic. I emailed a couple of US-manufacturers to check -- all still using PVC (although they say its lead-free).

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

For those of you looking for a fake but PVC-free tree, check out Rebecca's post from last year about her aluminum tree:

Anonymous said...

We've been using a fake plastic tree from Target for seven years. It still seems pretty solid. Our apartment is too small for us to have a real tree--it makes my allergies act up. I'm excited to have a real tree someday, though. I really prefer them.

Jeanette said...

I'm lucky to live in green-central as well as the capitol of Christmas tree farms. I don't know if any of those are actually true, but a lot of real Christmas trees are grown here and shipped around the country, so I'm able to buy local and cheap. We get to go cut one down ourselves from the family-run farm for only $30! Our house smells great and minimal needles. Be sure to fill the water frequently in the first few days - this is key to it lasting for the whole month. AND, our city curb-side recycling picks up our tree on garbage/recycling day after Christmas! Isn't it great?


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