by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation
For many people, it’s not Christmas without a tree. Many of these same folks care about the environment enough to wonder: “What’s the most eco-friendly Christmas tree?” Finding the greenest option isn’t as cut and dried – pun intended – as you may think!
The best choice from the Earth’s perspective may be a live, potted tree. Depending on how fast your tree grows, it can either remain potted and reused next year, or it can be transplanted outside. The end result is another live tree doing its best to best to bring peace on earth and clean air to humankind.
However, there are several important considerations to keep in mind. Since trees are dormant in the winter, the longer a potted evergreen stays indoors, the more likely it is to “wake up” and begin growing. If that happens, it’s hard to return it to the cold without killing it.
If the tree survives its time inside, replanting involves a few tricks. You can’t plant a tree if the ground is frozen, so you may need to dig a hole in advance. Mid-winter is not the best time for planting, as trees will have difficulty establishing roots. And bear in mind when choosing a location that your tree could eventually grow to a towering 60 feet tall!
Beyond potted trees, there’s the “real vs. fake” debate. That’s where it gets harder to see the forest for the trees.
Cut trees are generally thought to be more environmentally responsible, since they are a renewable resource. The National Christmas Tree Association estimates 40–45 million holiday trees were planted in 2008 in North America – including many at tree farms in New Jersey. As they grow, these trees absorb carbon dioxide, improve air quality and provide wildlife habitat.
Real trees are also recyclable. At the end of their (albeit shortened) life cycle, cut trees can be cut up into mulch or used in other ways. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers once used old Christmas trees to help create a base for dunes on Bradley Beach!
However, many of the cut trees you see on lots were grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides that can find their way into groundwater. A new trend is “environmentally responsible” cut trees that come with independent certification that growers used minimal chemicals for pest management and fertilizing, as well as sound environmental practices for erosion control and soil conservation.
If you can find a local farm that offers environmentally certified trees, you have probably gotten as eco-friendly as possible for a cut tree!
Some conservationists, however, have recommended artificial trees because they can be used over and over again. As the design and features of fake trees have improved, and more folks choose convenience over tradition, the use of artificial trees nationally has been steadily increasing.
On the other hand, artificial trees have a real environmental drawback: they are manufactured using plastics made from oil. They are usually made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyethylene (PE). PVC is not biodegradable, and emits dioxins and other carcinogens if incinerated. The manufacture of PVC also creates dioxins, and lead is often used as a PVC stabilizer. Perhaps most important, oil is a non-renewable, increasingly scarce resource.
In addition, transporting artificial trees from factories in Asia to your local store incurs environmental costs. Every mile produces greenhouse gas pollution that contributes to global warming.
If all this has you ready to say “Bah Humbug,” there are less traditional options like decorating a houseplant, building a wooden tree, or using some other non-tree replacement. These are often greenest choice for Christmas.
Whatever you decide, may your holidays be happy! I hope you will visit NJCF’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources.
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