It’s December, and to much of the United States, that means it’s Christmas tree season.
If you’re on this website, chances are you know we’re an environmental group, and connecting that to the first sentence of this article may be ringing some alarm flags. But wait! Don’t click off to another page just yet.
Yeah, yeah. I get it. Christmas trees are unsustainable. I’m not wasting my time listening to another holiday Grinch.
Don’t worry! I’m not here to tell you to stop celebrating Christmas. But as I write this article, I’m researching how to continue tradition while remaining conscious of its environmental impact, and more importantly, how to reduce if not eliminate it altogether.
First things first. It’s crucial to establish that there is, in fact, a problem here, as it may not be initially clear for many. After all, many consumers make the conscious choice to obtain their trees from a sustainable, local seasonal farm, and most Christmas trees in the United States are grown from seeds planted by farmers seasonally rather than being chopped down from the forests are mountains. And these are all, of course, sustainable measures, both environmentally and economically, to keep the business going year after year instead of having to end operations when every last forest on the continent was cleared.
And it’s big business! The National Christmas Tree Growers Association (which is, in fact, a real entity) claims there are over 350 million Christmas trees growing on farms across the United States in 2020 alone, with 25-35 million estimated to be sold every year. 2020 has been a big year for Christmas trees, as with the COVID-19 pandemic preventing extended families from gathering at one residence and sharing a Christmas tree, many families who celebrate must resort to have one at each of their own homes.
As we’re based in the Puget Sound, it’s worth mentioning that the Pacific Northwest is one of the largest Christmas tree exporting regions in the United States, accompanied by farms in the northeast and in the Appalachia region down by North Carolina and neighboring states.
Each tree takes six to ten years to cultivate, before they can be sold.
Now that you have the basic facts, I’d like to reiterate the numbers listed above- there are an estimated 350 million Christmas trees growing on farms in the US in 2020, and the same is true for most years. And in most years, only 25-35 million are estimated to be sold.
What this means is, for every Christmas tree that is cut down and sold, over nine more are left standing and growing as a result of the annual demand. The reason so many are growing at any given time is because, as mentioned above, each one takes nearly a decade to cultivate, so they have many different ‘generations’ growing at once. And as these trees grow in parallel, they’re each sequestering carbon, and releasing oxygen. They are trees, after all.
And in this way, the Christmas tree industry can actually benefit the environment, as long as you stay committed to buying locally every year (which tends to be more convenient as well!), and buy trees from farms on arable fields (the type of land best for farming- Google goes a long way in ensuring you’re buying from the right place) or in areas that have little ecological benefit, such as empty grasslands. It’s important to check the location of these farms, as the farming may not be so sustainable after all if the trees are being grown on the graves of a deforested ecosystem or in a location which may affect general ecological integrity. Again, if you’re unsure about any of this, a quick Google search to find where your farm is located and whether that type of land is sustainable for Christmas tree farming can help a whole lot.
So other than farm locations, where do the other problems lie?
Another area to pay close attention to is tree disposal, post-festivities. It’s important to dispose of Christmas trees correctly, and it may not be evident at first what the best methods are to somehow get rid of an entire tree every year.
A common practice is to use old Christmas trees as firewood, as its natural properties as an evergreen tree with luscious, sticky sap make it perfect fuel for a winter bonfire.
And I get it, this may be tradition in some families, understandably. But it’s important to recognize that it’s not a very sustainable method of disposal. Trees spend their whole lives sucking in carbon and storing it in their wood, and when you burn that wood, that carbon bonds with the oxygen in the air and is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide once more. It’s not a groundbreaking revelation, but most people don’t stop to consider the effects of this. Take a moment, right now, to just stop whatever you’re doing (if you’re doing something other than reading this, that is- I get it, multitasking has become a way of life with the pandemic), and consider that a living organism has been sequestering carbon from the air for 6-10 years, for its entire lifespan, and… us humans want to release all of that stored carbon back into the air we breathe for what, warmth for a couple hours on a winter night? Alright, I get it, I really do. Warmth on a winter night sounds really nice. It’s just not the same when you’re using an electric fireplace, you need that good ol’ firewood.
I don’t want to be a Grinch, but burning Christmas trees as firewood is not sustainable.
Another disposal method that should be intuitively wrong is sending your tree to a landfill. When waste goes to landfills, a lot of it is deposited underground, out of the way of the public. These are places in which bacteria thrive- specifically, bacteria that will decompose your tree, and turn it into methane, which can be up to 20 times worse for the environment than carbon dioxide.
How can you properly dispose of your tree?
There’s a number of methods for proper disposal, but your first step should always be to check what your town’s instructions are. In the United States, Christmas is a very mainstream holiday, and as such, most municipalities organize sustainable tree pickups themselves, in which case you need only to follow their instructions.
Most cities have public works departments that will be glad to take your tree and turn it into woodchips or mulch, allowing the carbon of the tree to return to the ground, and mulch can allow the plants’ nutrients to replenish environments. You can also chop your tree up into manageable pieces and dispose of them as yard waste- again, make sure to check your local guidelines for this.
Courtesy of KPBS
Once again, I’m going to refer you to the internet- a quick Google search should be able to help you find local, sustainable disposal methods for your tree. And with these trees, disposing of them sustainably can often be the most convenient disposal method as well. Chances are you already do.
Of course, make sure to take off any and all decorations on your tree before disposal!
There’s one last topic I want to touch on, but I’ll keep it very brief. There’s a longstanding debate on whether artificial Christmas trees are more sustainable than good old-fashioned real trees, and the simple answer is, only if you reuse it long enough for the environmental impact of producing the artificial tree to be smaller per year than the footprint of getting a real tree every year. If using the same artificial tree for years and maybe decades on end sort of ruins the magic for you, stick with real trees!
To conclude, Christmas trees aren’t one of the most pressing environmental problems of our time. But it’s good to stay informed, and be as sustainable as you can at all times. And what better time to help the planet than in the season of giving?
Have any more questions about sustainable Christmas practices? I’ll admit, I’m not an expert on this. But there are plenty of people more knowledgeable than me out there somewhere, and for that, I’m going to refer you to Google.
Regardless of which holidays you do or don’t celebrate, we wish you a safe and sustainable holiday season!