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Your Guide To An Eco-Friendly Christmas Tree

As we're approaching the festive season and a brand new year, it's always a good idea to take a step back and explore how you can achieve a more eco-friendly Christmas. 

And to help you with that process, we've decided to try and settle the debate over whether it's best to buy a real or artificial tree. There's a lot more to it than wondering whether the fake materials are eco-friendly. 

During my research, I also found out that there are other sustainable Christmas tree options than real and fake Christmas trees that I had never even thought of. 

Real Vs. Artificial Christmas Trees: The BIG Debate 

One of the things we've been told by manufacturers of fake trees is that because you can reuse them, it saves real trees being cut down. But that argument alone doesn't fully acknowledge the impact of the materials and carbon emissions. 

And with climate change such a pressing issue, you have to fully understand what your Christmas tree choice actually means for the environment. 

Real Christmas Tree: The Evergreen (!) Choice

Environmental Impact Of Real Christmas Trees

The vast majority of real trees come from Christmas tree farms, where they are grown specifically for the annual Christmas madness and excitement. These farms operate in a similar way to how all food-producing farms operate. 

But there are a few differences and benefits to consider. 

First of all, real Christmas tree growers will plant about four trees for every one that they cut down in order to keep their supplies stocked for the years ahead.

Surprisingly, it can take up to 10 years for a real Christmas tree to mature, depending on how good or bad the summer growing conditions are. 

During those years, the trees will absorb many times their own weight in carbon from the atmosphere, and so does the soil that they are growing in because there is no extreme crop rotation. 

Finally, you have to consider that these farms also become home to plenty of insects and wildlife, providing shelter, especially in winter. 

And to further minimize the carbon footprint of your Christmas tree, you can go directly to a local farm to ensure that your tree doesn't end up traveling halfway across the country. 

Benefits Of Real Christmas Trees

Buying a sustainable Christmas tree that has been approved by the Forest Stewardship Council is possibly the most eco-friendly Christmas approach you can take.

The first thing you need to do is find a local seller who has either grown the trees locally or sourced them from a local grower. If the tree has traveled more than 100 miles, then you're not really in the range of sustainable products. 

Now that you've kept the carbon impact down with a locally grown tree, you can also consider what will happen to the tree when January comes. 

An environmentally friendly solution is to chop it up into a mulch for use in your garden. 

We'll get to that in more detail shortly. 

Downside Of Real Christmas Trees

At the end of the festive season, you have to find a suitable way to dispose of the real tree. By the first week of January, you'll find that you barely need to touch the tree for hundreds of needles to fall off, and the branches are drooping under their own weight. 

That is one advantage of a good-quality artificial Christmas tree. You fold it up and store it in the attic with hardly any mess. 

But, there are ways to dispose of a real tree with limited hassle.

More on that shortly. 

Real Vs Artificial Christmas Trees

Artificial Christmas Tree: Plastics, Plastics Everywhere!

Environmental Impact Of Artificial Christmas Trees

The idea behind fake Christmas trees is that you can reuse them for many years, and that brings the carbon footprint down. It's a nice idea, but if you've ever picked up a cheap fake Christmas tree, you'll know that after the first year, many of the branches will break. 

And here's the issue. 

According to Statista, the vast majority of the 23 million artificial trees sold each year come from mass production facilities in China. 

Now consider that 2/3 of the total of almost 100 million Christmas trees are fake and you get the picture that most households replace them every three years. 

But it gets worse. 

Once they do fall apart beyond being reusable, you have a crappy-looking mix of steel and plastic. That's a mixed material that you can't bring to a regular recycling facility, meaning that most of these artificial trees will end up at a landfill. 

That's not how to start an eco-friendly Christmas experience. 

Benefits Of Artificial Christmas Trees

My parents have a high-quality fake Christmas tree, and I have to say that it does look amazing and can take some of the hassles out of decorating. You can buy an artificial tree with all the lights built-in, and even with a lot of the decoration already attached. 

And because some new artificial trees are manufactured to a higher quality standard, it is possible to get 10 or 15 years out of the fake tree.

And once you find the right size, you don't have to worry about picking the right tree every single year. 

Downside Of Artificial Christmas Trees

The first thing I have to say is that way too many artificial trees are made so cheaply that they will never become a carbon-saving option. Unless you plan to spend several hundred dollars, it's likely going to be on a trash pile in a year or two.

Then there's the fact that they are almost impossible to recycle as they are a mix of plastic and metal.

And finally, there are tons of carbon emissions tied up in them from the manufacturing of the plastic to the transport from China to the U.S. 

And that's why I wouldn't class them as an eco Christmas tree option.

Potted and Rooted (Live) Christmas Trees — The New Trend 

So, we've addressed the real vs. fake tree choices and concerns, but there is another option that might be better than ending up with a dead tree. 

You might want to consider a potted Christmas tree.

What Are Potted And Rooted Christmas Trees?

Some Christmas tree nurseries have started a trend where they will have a small side business of trees that they don't cut down.

Instead, once they reach a certain size, they transfer the tree along with the root ball into a pot.

These are typically smaller trees, but if you care for a potted tree well throughout the year and even move it to a larger pot as it grows, then you could easily have a 6-foot living tree. 

There is a bit of care involved throughout the year because the pot won't hold as much water and nutrients as the ground would. 

But more on that shortly. 

Are They Actually The Best Eco-Friendly Options?

If you buy a potted tree from a local producer who uses sustainable and eco-friendly growing techniques, this is definitely the best option. 

Ethical growers will use environmentally friendly solutions where they don't plant large areas with the same type of Christmas tree, leading to a monoculture that drains the soil. 

Also, you're NOT cutting down any tree — growing a tree instead!

Another reason this is probably the most sustainable Christmas tree is that the tree continues to absorb carbon dioxide throughout the year. And you don't have to worry about disposal as you can keep it on a terrace or garden for an eco-friendly Christmas next year again. 

Are There Problems With Potted And Rooted Christmas Trees?

From an environmental perspective, a potted Christmas tree is ideal, and it will have a positive impact on your carbon footprint. But, these sustainable Christmas trees are not the easiest to keep healthy.

Now, you won't need green thumbs and a major gardening experience, but there are a few things you need to keep in mind. 

First, the pot that you keep the living Christmas tree in won't hold much water. That means you'll need to water it pretty much every day to keep it alive. Even when it's raining outside, it's not likely that enough water will get into the pot. 

Secondly, the soil quality will quickly degrade, and you'll need to add some form of fertilizer. Ideally, find an organic product at your local garden center and regularly add a small amount to the base of the tree. 

What About Price? 

Here's the great thing about this kind of sustainable Christmas tree. Similar to an artificial tree, you'll get to enjoy the same tree for many years to come. It really is only limited by how well you can care for the tree. 

And if you buy a slightly smaller one, then you'll pay a lot less than for a large cut Christmas tree.

You'll have some small expenses for fertilizer, but it's nowhere near the expense of buying a new tree every year. 

Exploring Other Eco-Friendly Christmas Trees

Here are a few more options for an eco-friendly Christmas that are a great option for many homes. 

Renting Christmas Trees

Yes, there are more and more Christmas tree nurseries that offer a service where you can rent a live tree. This takes all the hassle of caring for a live tree out of it, as you simply return the tree to the nursery after Christmas, and they take care of the rest. 

This has a few more advantages. 

First of all, it makes a live tree suitable for people living in apartments where they simply don't have the space to store and care for a tree all year round.

Secondly, it significantly reduces the risk of the tree dying because you forgot to water it for a few days or you didn't keep up with fertilizing the soil properly. This can easily happen, and potted trees are quite a bit more sensitive to external conditions. 

And finally, when these trees are stored in one location, then they collectively can provide a lot of shelter for wildlife in the summer months. 

So, if you're heading to a store or nursery to pick up a live Christmas tree, then maybe ask if they offer a service where you can return it in January. It should be an attractive option for the nursery as well. 

Decorate Tree Branches

I totally get the whole attraction of a big tree in your living room and all the fun for the family to decorate it. But if you have a smaller household or even live on your own, then why not try an alternative to a real tree altogether. 

One thing I do with my kids to decorate different areas of our home is gather branches from pine trees. We go to a local forest and either collect freshly fallen branches or clip the ends of larger and stronger trees.

With just a few of these, you can achieve a great visual effect on a wall, and you can still add tinsel and any other kind of decorations. You can even attach a few branches in a way that resembles a tree shape.

This is ideal for smaller spaces where even a small Christmas tree will make it feel crowded. 

The other benefit is that you can get that smell of pine needles that is so familiar with a real Christmas tree. For many people, that's one of the main attractions, and you can achieve this in an eco-friendly way. 

DIY Christmas Tree 

This is another great alternative to an artificial Christmas tree and a way to add more decorations to your home that don't end up having environmental impacts. 

Making your own Christmas tree is a great way to fill a few fun weekends with kids as well. It's all about coming up with clever ideas to use stuff around your home, yard, or garage that will likely just end up in the trash.

Here are some things you can look for let your imagination run:

  • Leftover pieces of wood from a DIY workshop
  • Driftwood and fallen branches
  • Magazines and newspapers
  • Old coat hangers
  • Empty plastic bottles and soda cans

We have one of these at home that we have been adding to and extending every year, and with a bit of refinement and new art skills, you can quickly come up with a great project to keep the whole family entertained. 

Buying A Second-Hand Tree

For some people, real trees are just not going to be a practical solution. But rather than head to local businesses to buy a new one, consider looking for a pre-owned one. 

You'll often find them being advertised for free on places like Craig's List or in local papers where you just need to go and collect it. But you can also check local thrift and charity stores.

And here's why it's the better option for a more eco-friendly Christmas. 

First of all, you won't be adding to the demand for additional plastic and imported products that have to travel thousands of miles. That alone will save a ton of carbon emissions. 

Secondly, you'll stop another fake tree, inevitably ending up at a landfill prematurely. Most of these trees are difficult to impossible to recycle, so reuse is the best option.

And finally, you could be getting a cheap or even free Christmas tree. 

Growing Your Own Tree

The final recommendation I have is ideal if you have a small patio or garden and there are no eco-friendly and organic Christmas tree farms near you. 

Most garden centers will sell small pine tree saplings, and you can keep them in a pot for a few years. My kids loved decorating the tiny tree after the first year, and it's become a tradition to decorate it with more and more things as it grows. 

The easiest thing is to place it in a large enough pot and ideally have it on a wheel plate. That will make bringing the real tree indoors for Christmas that much easier. 

You'll have full control over the care and make sure it's organic.

And it's a lovely addition to any garden or patio area for the summer as well. 

Disposing of A Tree After Christmas 

Here are the options you have for different types of trees. 

How To Dispose Of Real Christmas Tree

There are two things you need to avoid doing when it comes to a real tree. 

First of all, don't send it to the landfill where it will decompose in a way that releases methane and contributes to climate change. Most curbside pickup services that are available in January will do this. 

Secondly, you shouldn't burn it in your yard. Fresh pine wood will release a lot of toxic and black smoke, and there's the obvious cost of CO2 as well. 

So, what are your alternatives for a real tree?

The first thing would be to contact collection services that use the trees to make mulch that can protect and transform soil nutrients throughout the summer. 

Alternatively, you can buy or rent a garden chipper that will create the mulch that you can use in your own garden beds. These are handy tools to have throughout the year as leaves, branches, and plants die away. They make an excellent natural fertilizer. 

And if the main trunk is too thick for a small shredder, then strip it bare and use it as a stake for your vegetable patch to grow tomato plants or beans. 

How To Dispose Of Christmas Tree

How To Dispose Of Artificial Christmas Tree

The first thing you need to consider if you own an artificial tree is whether you truly need to get rid of it. Try reshaping the branches and fixing it up a bit, as storing it in a box can sometimes just misshape it. 

If you really don't want to keep it, then the first choice you might have is to donate it to a charity or thrift store. Some schools might also be happy to add to their decorations, and you might even have friends or family that would gladly take it. 

It's all better than sending it to the landfill. 

I've also heard of people upcycling fake Christmas trees by cutting off the branches and turning them into a wreath. Because of the metal, it's actually very easy to do. 

And any pieces of fake trees that you have left try to separate the plastic and metal as well as you can. You can use scissors or a sharp DIY blade to cut away the plastic and then bring the separated materials to a recycling center.

How To Dispose Of Live Christmas Tree

Live trees have the fewest environmental impacts, and with the right care, you could even argue that they have a positive effect on the environment. 

But what do you need to do with them after Christmas?

First of all, you need to take all the decorations and lights off before you bring the tree back outside. Those could pose risks to wildlife that might make it their home for the summer. 

As mentioned above, you then need to carefully plan the care for watering and fertilizing the tree.

But there's one more thing to keep in mind. 

Eventually, the tree could grow too large to bring into your home, and it may need to be permanently outside. If you have a garden, then find a nice spot to plant it in the soil. You could still add some outdoor lights in winter. 

If you don't have a garden for it, then head out to a nearby forest or park where you could plant it in the ground as well. 

Final Thoughts

Making the right choice for a fully sustainable Christmas tree surprises a lot of people. Ultimately, some practical choices filter into the decision, but if at all possible, aim to buy or rent a living Christmas tree. 

It will have a positive carbon footprint and can save you a lot of money over the years as well. 

And the one type to avoid the most is an artificial tree. They have a huge carbon impact and, in most cases, will end up at a landfill. So make the right choice this Christmas and see how much fun that live tree will be. 

Chris is one of GreenCitizen’s writers who has been a long-time advocate of individual responsibility when it comes to the environment. He shares GreenCitizen's passion for making the world a better place every day of the year.


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