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How to sustainably put up a Christmas tree

November 21, 2018

Christmas fast approaches! If you’ve got plans to put up a tree this year but haven’t done so already, it might be just the right time to get a plan in place. Figuring out how to sustainably select a Christmas tree can be a little confusing at first. After all, isn’t the earth in big need of more trees being planted?

Hopefully some of these questions and answers will be helpful just in time for you to decorate.

Are artificial or natural trees better for the environment?

Ah, natural versus artificial is one of the great Yuletide debates, along with whether or not egg nog is actually good or when it’s finally okay to start up the Christmas music. There’s a short answer, along with a handful of caveats.

The short answer is that natural trees are more sustainable.

In theory, a reusable product seems like the more sustainable option, and as a general rule of thumb, that’s probably true. But the issue with artificial trees is how difficult they are to sustainably produce. The vast majority of artificial Christmas trees are made out of PVC and lead is frequently used to craft artificial pine needles. The manufacturing process results in high amounts of carcinogens as a byproduct.

A New York Times report noted that in the typical six-year lifespan of an artificial tree its use would result in three times as much carbon emitted in comparison to a natural tree. Also, most artificial trees are made overseas, so when you factor in transportation, an artificial tree would need to be used 20 times to match the benefits of a natural tree.

There may be some decent reasons to look for sustainably made artificial trees, like specific health concerns, but the simplest answer is that natural trees are the more sustainable choice, with some environmental benefits.


Does that mean natural trees are good for the environment?

So that’s a bit more of an open debate. There are pros and cons to using natural Christmas trees.

At first glance, the chopping down of millions of trees each year doesn’t seem like a very sustainable thing to do. In fact, President Theodore Roosevelt was once so concerned that the demand for Christmas trees would deforest the United States that he banned Christmas trees in the White House.

These concerns are more minimal now that most Christmas trees are grown in large designated Christmas tree farms. Some of these farms are more sustainable than others, depending on how the trees are set up to interact with their surrounding ecosystem and whether or not pesticides are involved. These trees can pose a high demand for water, though many of them are grown in places like Oregon, where water scarcity is not a major concern.

A typical household tree takes about seven years to grow. During that time, it is actively filtering carbon and producing oxygen, protecting and nourishing the soil beneath, and supporting wildlife diversity.

One recommendation is to simply find a small-owned Christmas tree farm that prioritizes sustainability. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) also accredits tree growers that use sustainable methods. Finding a tree that meets their standards isn’t terribly difficult.

Don't forget to think sustainably when it comes to ornaments and tree decor as well.

Don't forget to think sustainably when it comes to ornaments and tree decor as well.

What other steps can be taken to have a more sustainable Christmas tree?

Here are a few shorter suggestions that can help minimize the environmental damage of Christmas cheer:

Purchase and decorate with a live tree. This means keeping the tree roots so the tree can survive indoors. Shortly after the holidays you can try to replant the tree. Whether or not this is a good idea might depend on the soil and area where you live.

Rent a tree: Our City Forest lets you rent a living tree for up to a month. When your use is up, they will collect the tree to be used in the community.

Compost your tree: Check with the local area where you live to see what the tree recycling program is like. The best way to reuse a tree is through compost, returning its nutrients to the earth.

Plant some trees: Did you cut down a tree for Christmas? For $10 you can plant ten trees to take its place. You can do that right here through Plant With Purpose and it will benefit communities in the most severe need of trees.

Don’t forget to use sustainable decorations: The tree doesn’t have to be the only green thing! Making your decorations reusable, or out of sustainable materials can also reduce the holiday’s impact on the environment.

Have a great month leading up to the holidays, and let us know if you have any sustainability related questions! If you’d like to plant trees this month and every month, consider signing up to become a Purpose Partner!

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