Of all the many wonderful traditions of Christmas, the tree is perhaps the most important. Without a tree of some kind, is it even really Christmas? This year, with headlines full of news about the destruction of the world’s forests, many people may be wondering if it’s harmful to the environment to buy a real Christmas tree — after all, cutting down trees must be bad, right?
Well, we have some relieving news. There’s strong evidence that, in fact, real Christmas trees don’t hurt the environment much at all. Furthermore, they are more environmentally friendly than fake trees. Before you purchase this year’s tree, here’s what you should know to make your purchase as Earth-friendly as possible.
Christmas trees don’t come from forests
The assumption that cutting down trees for Christmas contributes to deforestation is a wrong one, simply because Christmas trees don’t grow in forests. They grow on Christmas tree farms, planted in rows and tended to year after year, just like any other crop.
While individuals might sometimes go into forests to cut down their own wild evergreen trees for the holiday, these trees are not removed from forests on a large scale.
Christmas trees would also pose harm to the environment if wild forests were being razed to make way for these tree farms — just as the Amazon was deforested to make way for soybeans and other crops. But that isn’t the case here. Christmas trees grow best on rolling hills, which are often unsuitable for other crops.
Far from hurting the environment, Christmas trees actually benefit the planet as they grow. Like all trees, these trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere and produce oxygen. They clean the air, create watersheds and provide habitats for wildlife to flourish.
Thanks to the Christmas tree industry, millions of evergreen trees are growing in the United States at any given time. A 5- to 6-foot tree takes almost a decade to grow — that’s almost 10 years (or sometimes more) of contribution to the health of the local environment. Whenever one is cut down, farmers plant a few in its place.
They have a lower carbon footprint than artificial trees
Plastic trees are, well, made of plastic. Plastic comes from oil, and the process of manufacturing it into a tree creates industrial emissions. So, fake trees automatically have a significant carbon footprint. To make matters worse, they’re often manufactured in other countries and must be shipped overseas to the U.S., creating even more emissions. Also, artificial Christmas trees usually can’t be recycled, so they end up in a landfill unless their owners reuse the same tree year after year.
Real Christmas trees only create carbon emissions if they are transported over a long distance. They can also create emissions if they end up in landfills, as they emit methane when they decompose.
Buy your tree locally
To keep your real Christmas tree’s carbon footprint as low as possible, make sure it doesn’t need to be shipped from far away to get to you. Buy a local tree, if you can. Oregon and North Carolina produce the most Christmas trees in the country, but many other states have their own Christmas tree farms. If you can’t find a tree that was grown on a farm in-state, look for a tree from the same region of the country.
After New Year’s Day, sidewalks all over the country are dotted with old Christmas trees waiting for the garbage truck. But to make your Christmas tree purchase truly sustainable, avoid sending it to the landfill after the holiday is over. Most local authorities have free Christmas tree recycling programs available, so check with your local Department of Public Works, nonprofits and tree farms for more information. You’ll either have to put your tree curbside on a specific day or transport it to a recycling center. If you’re more adventurous, you can also buy a living Christmas tree that can be replanted after the holiday season is over.
Don’t forget your ornaments and lights
While your Christmas tree might not be hurting the environment, your ornaments and lights might not be so sustainable. All those extra lights contribute to both greenhouse gas emissions and light pollution — parts of the Earth are a full 50 percent brighter over the holidays, according to NASA. To minimize your impact, stick to LED bulbs, which use far less electricity than regular bulbs, and use timers so the lights aren’t on all the time. Additionally, avoid single-use and non-recyclable decor items. Instead, reuse or recycle whenever you can.
Learn more about sustainable gardening with our vertical farming video below.