It was early December, and that meant it was time to get the annual Christmas tree. We always go to a Christmas tree farm about 45 minutes away, where we buy hot chocolate for the kids, select and cut our tree, and make a whole day of it. Like many environmentally conscious individuals, I wondered: Are we doing something environmentally dubious here or is this all-harmless fun?
Full disclosure, I love having a tree in the house. I love the smell, it’s fun to decorate with the kids, I love it when the tree lights are the only lights on downstairs — filling the room with a soft warm glow. It’s a tradition I grew up with that I would miss if it went away. So, I thought I should investigate to understand whether the Christmas tree industry is something I should worry about. Yes, I love having a tree, but if it ends up having a big negative environmental impact, I was willing to make a change.
Before I jumped into research, I asked my kids to see if they would be OK going without a tree. Three of them simply said no. My 5-year-old just hit me.
So that decision was made for me.
But I figured I would do the research anyway.
Hardcore Christmas tree research
So, is the Christmas tree industry destroying your children’s future or is it all a harmless tradition? As with any environmental question, the answer is "it depends."
Christmas trees are often grown on Christmas tree farms, which are monocultures. Monocultures, as opposed to forests, grow just one tree or crop, so they don’t offer the ecosystem services that forests do. Forests are more efficient at capturing carbon and will, of course, store carbon for longer than a monoculture that is grown to be chopped down when it reaches maturity.
Forests also offer wildlife a more permanent sanctuary, do a better job (because they tend to be permanent) at refreshing the soil, purifying water and air, and protecting against soil erosion. Forests, of course, also offer social and cultural benefits. Christmas tree plantations are nice, but I don’t see one as a hiking, camping or recreational destination.
Many Christmas trees are also often sprayed with pesticides, as are many foods we eat. Some break down in the rain and weather, but some likely remain on the tree when you take it home. You can simply ask the place where you get your tree if the trees are sprayed or seek out organic trees. Those at a "cut your own" tree farm are less likely to be sprayed than those you get at a big box store or the parking lot that turns into a Christmas tree seller around the holidays.
Emissions also might matter to you. There are huge Christmas tree plantations around the world, and your tree might come from hundreds or thousands of miles away. Shipping that tree takes fuel. It is doubtful that a truck carrying hundreds of trees over thousands of miles is a low-emissions vehicle.
Fake Christmas trees made primarily of plastic and metal do allow more natural trees to stay in the ground. But plastic trees come with their own environmental challenges. The plastics, metals and other materials that go into a fake Christmas tree come with their own pollution and carbon footprint. It is also worth noting that about 80 percent of the world’s fake Christmas trees are made in China, then sold primarily in North America and Europe. This bakes in a rather large carbon footprint to get a fake plastic tree to its destination.
Finally, consider the disposal of a Christmas tree to understand if the whole endeavor is environmentally friendly. If the tree is burned, all the carbon it sequestered will be turned back into greenhouse gases. If the tree ends up in the woods or in a landfill or is turned into mulch, most of that carbon will remain sequestered. My family is lucky (or unlucky) to own two goats, who will gladly take care of our tree disposal for us.
Don’t underestimate your power as a consumer
This walk through the life cycle of a product — in this case a Christmas tree — highlights the need to revisit things we take for granted and reassess how they affect us long term. Do we, in fact, need to do things differently from tradition or habit? In order to address climate and environmental problems, we will have to take a fresh look at these kinds of things; what we eat, how we travel and how we use energy.
The environmental story of the humble Christmas tree is a small one and not a simple one. It is nuanced. These trees grow fast, so one could mature from seedling to Christmas tree in five to 10 years, depending on the species. They sequester carbon, provide jobs and are a traditional part of many cultures. I asked a forest expert friend of mine for her thoughts on Christmas trees, and she thought they are mostly harmless and not worth much environmental fuss. The cons include planting a monoculture instead of a forest, the chemicals and pesticides used to grow them, and a heavy carbon footprint if they travel a great distance.
As with almost anything we buy, Christmas trees have an environmental footprint we should consider as part of the decision-making process. Having an understanding of how things in our home ultimately get to us, makes us more informed consumers. Our choices, when well informed, will ultimately lead to better decisions and better outcomes for our environment.
A new business opportunity
You can also rent a tree, which arrives in a pot and will be planted later when it grows too big to be in someone’s home. I only found a handful of places that do this and none in my area. If any of these services want to expand into my part of the world, I’ll gladly sign up as a customer.