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How Green Are Christmas Trees?

Posted by: Annika Darling @ Dec. 8, 2014, 3:30 p.m.

For environmentalists, maintaining a clear conscience during the holidays can be a challenge. Wanting to participate in the good ol’ traditions of the past, but wanting to make changes that positively impact our future -- it can dampen the hoilday spirit a bit. So, I thought it would be nice to help you tackle the "how green is a Christmas tree dilemma" that many environmentalists debate this time of year.

First, let us scratch any kind of flocking of the Christmas tree. While flocking -- the spraying on of artificial snow -- is a very pretty effect and one preferred by many (like my Aunt Patti who likes the bright pink kind), it is not environmentally friendly...at all. The chemicals within the flocking spray inhibit the tree from decomposition. Thus, these trees end up in landfills that suck any remaining joy from the now sad chemically coated conifer.

What about a fake Christmas tree? When it comes to fake Christmas trees the only true thing to consider is how long are you willing to commit to using this tree? If you are going to use this tree for at least 10 years, then this would be a good way to go -- this is the point that the environmental “payoff” begins. Before this, the burden from the purchase of an artificial tree is great. You have to consider that most are made and shipped from China. The pollution produced from a single cargo vessel from China is comparable to that of thousands of trucks. Sure your lowly little tree isn’t going to create all that pollution itself, but it does add to the demand which in turn is responsible. Another downside to consider is that these guys are extremely difficult to recycle, or as executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association put it: “An artificial tree is never going to decompose.” And if never is true...that’s something worth considering.

Real trees. There are a two ways to go with this: traditional cut tree, or the live “rent a tree” version with roots and all. The rent a tree option isn’t available everywhere, it’s true, but hopefully with leaders like The Original Potted Christmas Tree up here in Oregon there will soon be more such options available. The Original Potted Christmas Tree buys from local tree farms, then rents the trees to people through Dec. 25, and then takes back the tree and sells them to landscapers and such throughout the Oregon area. A few such businesses have sprouted up in California -- the bay area mainly and San Diego -- but for the most part the rent a tree option is still a rarity but a extremely progressive way to go. Considering checking in with your local nursery for similar options.

So, since not everyone lives in Oregon, let’s consider the one last option: the traditional pine needle-shedding cut down version of a tree. As far as the environment is concerned this option is surprisingly green -- once you think about it. Consider that approximately 350 million trees are exist because Christmas tree farmers planted them. Or that one acre of these farms produces enough oxygen for 18 people a day. Or that 350,000 acres produce enough oxygen for both Chicago and Pittsburgh. It has also been argued that these Christmas trees aid hugely in carbon sequestering. A 2012 study quantified this, and while it was found that natural forests sequester the most carbon, tree farms also sequestered a large amount due to the additional ground cover between trees -- a signature of tree farms that wouldn’t exist if the soil was being constantly turned for other agricultural crops. But remeber to recycle your tree at the end of the season -- there are more than 4,000 recycling programs in the US. Also, one last thing to consider when going this route is to try to seek out organizations to purchase your tree from that may also be a working fundraiser. There are many organizations that use tree selling as fundraiser projects -- if you're going to buy a tree anyways this is the most "in the spirit" way to go.

Now go! Make a good decision regarding one of the most significant decorations for Christmas, that both you and the earth can feel good about.

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