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Dreaming of a Green Christmas Pt. 1: Real Tree vs. Fake

Dreaming of a Green Christmas series logo Thanksgiving has come and gone, and we’re seeing the sure signs that Christmas is coming — ads for “great gifts” on TV, boxes of ornaments in the aisles at the grocery store, candy canes at the checkout and throngs of shoppers at the mall every day. I love the holidays as much as the next guy, but this year, I’m determined to do something different: I’m going to make my family’s Christmas as green as possible. The avid consumerism that the holidays bring can make that a daunting task, but with a few key tips, you can do the same for your family.

So what is a Green Christmas, you ask, and how will that affect my decorating? I’ve got 5 days worth of content to teach you in the Dreaming of a Green Christmas series. Today’s topic: Which is more green? A real tree or a fake one?

The Great Tree Debate

Real Christmas Tree or Fake?

Once upon a time, the tree hugger in me thought it would be better to use an artificial Christmas tree. Why cut down a tree just to hang a few lights on it and toss it out. Turns out, I was wrong. Let’s look at the facts:

REAL TREE ARTIFICIAL TREE
Can be sourced from a local tree farm Likely was manufactured overseas, then shipped to a U.S. retailer. In fact, 85 percent of artificial trees come from China.
Biodegradable Made of plastic and other materials that will stay in the landfill for years after you throw it out
Almost completely chemical-free Contain chemicals like PVC and lead
Carbon neutral because trees absorb CO2 Plastic is a by-product of petroleum
Can be replanted, recycled or composted Can be reused, but not recycled once you decide to get rid of it
Renewable resource, particularly when sourced from a tree farm that replants new
trees every year
Petroleum, used to make plastic, is a non-renewable resource

THE VERDICT

Go with a real tree, preferably sourced from a tree farm in your local area.

AFTER THE SEASON: There are lots of ways to recycle or otherwise reuse your real tree once the season is over:

  • Replant it in your yard
  • Have it chipped into mulch. Visit Earth911.org and put in your zip code to find a mulching operation in your area.
  • Chop it up and compost it
  • Leave your tree recycling ideas in the comments. I’ll add the best ones to this list.

SOURCE: “Green Christmas: How to Have a Joyous, Eco-Friendly Holiday Season” by Jennifer Basye Sander and Peter Sander with Anne Basye (aff)

Tree Alternatives

Of course, you don’t have to go with a traditional tree at all. There are loads of other options.

1. The Cardboard Christmas Tree

The Cardboard Christmas Tree

Give your kids an art project with this great tree alternative. It is 3 feet tall by 3 feet wide, and just waiting for you to add your personal touch with paint (low- or zero-VOC, of course), crayons, ornaments, garland or whatever else you can think of. Cardboard cutout ornaments are included, but you can use whatever ornaments you’d like.

WHY IT’S GREEN: Made in the U.S. of recycled cardboard and completely recyclable. The Cardboard Christmas Tree also donates a portion of every sale to the Arbor Day Foundation’s reforestation program, Trees for America. It ships flat-packed to reduce shipping costs and carbon emissions.

PRICE: $22.95

2. Use a potted tree.

Decorate it, then plant it in your yard when the season is over.

3. Decorate an indoor plant you already have.

Who says your “Christmas tree” has to be a pine? Put some recycled ornaments or stringed popcorn on that plant and leave room for your presents around it.

4. Go without a tree.

Instead, use a fresh wreath or garland like these options from A.R.E. Naturals. These wreaths are handmade from bay leaves and herbs, so they’ll make your home smell wonderful, and they can be composted.

3-Herb Wreath & Bay Leaf Wreath from A.R.E. Naturals

WHY IT’S GREEN: Made of natural leaves, compostable, and don’t harm trees when harvested.

PRICE: $30-40

5. Pick other types of greenery from outside your home.

You’d be amazed at how beautiful a few branches can be when tied together with a fancy ribbon. You can also make a centerpiece from twigs by putting them in inside a large vase.

THE SERIES

Like what you’ve read today? Throughout this week, Green Your Decor is focusing on key aspects of the Christmas season, including ornaments and decor, gifting and gift wrap, and entertaining guests. Other posts:

BONUS

As the series continues, Green Your Decor will feature products and books that can help you have a greener holiday season. On Friday, the series will culminate with a huge giveaway in which two lucky readers will walk away with prize packages that include many of these products. So if you’re not yet a subscriber, sign up for the GYD email updates or get your content via your favorite RSS reader — it doesn’t matter which. Just make sure you don’t miss out on what’s to come.

About Author

I am a graphic designer by trade who has a strong passion for interior design and doing what we can to protect the environment. This blog and my other site, Green & Gorgeous, are my ways of giving back to the Earth.

16 Comments

  • carrie
    December 1, 2008 at 6:06 pm

    I got a real tree from a local farmstand. It is a family owned and operated place nearby, and we had a blast picking it out. After the holidays when it is time to take down the ornaments, I will put the tree out back for the birds to use as a winter house. Last year, the cardinals loved it and moved right in! I hope we are as lucky this year!

    carries last blog post..Just in Time for the Holidays

    Reply
  • Jamaise
    December 1, 2008 at 7:50 pm

    Yeah, real is the way to go. Nothing beats the way it looks or smells. My family has always dropped their old tree into the lake, it is said to me a great fish habitat. Recently my Mom has been keeping hers for the annual bonfire in late fall. Because of the oils in pine, the tree is quite a spectacular fire with lots of crackling. Mine goes to the fish though.

    Reply
  • Deborah
    December 1, 2008 at 11:51 pm

    Great post! I’d just like to point out those of us who already have a fake tree should go ahead and use it, rather than switch back to a real one, unless there are safety concerns (such as lead content, offgassing, electrical peculiarities). Otherwise all that embodied energy and material investment is truly being wasted. Fake trees that are starting to look tired and gappy can be renewed by decorating them with fluffy garlands or using floral picks to fill the gaps.

    Reply
  • jennae
    December 1, 2008 at 11:56 pm

    @carrie I’d love to see photos of those cardinals! That’s a great way to reuse a tree as well 🙂

    @Jamaise I’ve heard people say that they drop their trees into a lake as a fish habitat, but I’m not sure about the regulations involved. I would think that in some places, there would be statutes against dumping trees in the lake, but obviously it works for you 🙂

    @Deborah You make an excellent point, and filled in a gap in information that I neglected to include. If you have an artificial tree, you certainly should continue to use it unless you are concerned about toxicity. If you must get rid of it, do everything you can to divert it from the landfill — give it away to someone in need or sell it at a yard sale or consignment store. Just don’t throw away a perfectly good tree.

    Reply
  • Cheryl
    December 2, 2008 at 8:38 am

    I agree w/ Carrie! My kids, now grandson and I always coat pinecones with peanut butter, then roll them in birdseed, plus other fresh bird treats such as sliced apple and oranges (for the cardinals). So the tree gets ‘redecorated’ with beautiful birds and squirrels!

    Reply
  • Lisa
    December 2, 2008 at 8:43 am

    I love this post- fantastic ideas for a holiday that produces SO much waste! One thing to consider: I was also looking into buying a small plant/tree to decorate and then replant outside: When I read the “fine” print on growing needs I discovered that the tree type only does well in warmer climates (not our colder Canadian winters). It’s important to make sure the tree you are purchasing is able to survive in your local climate (as they ship them from all over).
    Happy Yule!
    Lisa

    Reply
  • Michele McHenry
    December 2, 2008 at 9:52 am

    I have done both for many years. It got too expensive when we were young, broke and had 3 kids, so we bought a fake tree after the holidays for 75% off. That tree lasted until we gave it too a friend, and bought a thin tall tree that fit perfectly into a corner and have had this one for 10 years. We by the small mini pines in pots and decorate outside. My experience with real trees in the house has been horrible. One, I got in Alaska was very small, I let thaw for 48 hours, then when I touched it to put on the lights..every single needle feel to the floor…the tiny tree cost me $75 dollars in 1979! Then a friend of mine lost her house to a tree fire. That was devastating. We make garland, and hang them outside, and also make wreaths with pine cones, and nuts that last forever. My kids are fighting over who gets this tree since the diameter is so small..it fits in a tiny space, though it is over 6 ft tall. We also saved another fake one from the side of the road and we use
    outside with lots of decorations. We also decorate the wire tomato grates with cedar and pine branches, pine cones and waterproof red ribbons and lights for the yard too as well as the arbor. I guess I am stuck on the safety of not having a tree or other decorations that could be a fire hazard after our friends lost everything and almost their lives. Just be very safe…what ever you do. There is always some one to take your fake ones, that cannot afford either real or fake, including goodwill. Also, we have bread baking, apple cider on the stove, and scented pinecones in bowls, we don’t lake for Christmas time smells.

    Reply
  • Gidget
    December 2, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    Yay, I’m so happy to hear your verdict- we much prefer real and now I can feel good about it, too. 🙂

    Gidgets last blog post..Gidget Writes a Novel

    Reply
  • MyBrownBaby
    December 2, 2008 at 8:12 pm

    I grew up with fake trees, and always admired the families who had the fresh, beautiful live tree with that incredible scent. To this day, I will only stock live trees in our home… when we’re done, we put it in our very woodsy backyard, and the most adorable little chipmunks dart in and around it… too cute.

    MyBrownBabys last blog post..Starched Pillowcases and Chocolate Bon Bons

    Reply
  • sara & joe
    December 2, 2008 at 11:29 pm

    We recommend buying potted trees in the 4 – 8 foot range, decorating them indoors near a window, and then planting them for New Years with resolutions (written on recycled paper) planted underneath. Have fun on New Years Eve (or New Years Day) and have a little ceremony with friends.

    To learn more about OUR Live Native Christmas Tree program on Maui, click here: plantawish.blogspot.com

    Reply
  • Kristina Brooke
    December 5, 2008 at 9:51 am

    We were going to get a fake tree, but after reading this, I think a Real Tree would be the best solution. This was a great article.

    Reply
  • jennae
    December 5, 2008 at 11:21 am

    @Cheryl That is an awesome idea!

    @Lisa That is a great tip. Pine trees don’t do well in every climate, so you might be even better off going to your local nursery to inquire about what species are native to your area before you buy.

    @Michele McHenry A live tree can be a fire hazard, so that is something to consider. However, the fires are often related to hot lights on the tree and overloaded sockets. If anyone is concerned about fire, you can take the extra precaution of using LED lights, which don’t get hot and use a lot less electricity than traditional lights.

    @MyBrownBaby We had a woodsy back yard in Georgia and had planned to do the same, but the back yard in Tennessee is nothing but grass and backs up to a road. So it would be pretty lonely out there 🙂 We are really considering going treeless this year, though, because we have limited space in the living room.

    @sara & joe Planting New Year’s resolutions with the tree is an awesome idea! If we do decide to get a tree this year, that is a tradition we will really have to consider.

    @Kristina I’m glad it was helpful!

    Reply
  • Stephanie
    December 7, 2008 at 2:33 am

    We’re convinced! We’re getting a real tree tomorrow. Thanks for the article!

    Stephanies last blog post..Kitschy Kool: Volume 1: Mad Libs

    Reply
  • dianne
    October 2, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    i would like to know if there are any christmas tree farms on maui. please respond asap. thank you dianne

    Reply
  • Jen @ Christmas Rope Lights Online.com
    November 20, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    This is a great post! First the interesting article and then followed by all these interesting and helpful comments!!

    I’ve learnt lots of great ideas here and one I will definitely be implementing this year is recycling the tree as a bird feeding area in the back yard – what an awesome idea!

    Thanks everyone for all the great suggestions.

    Reply
  • kathy@metal tree grates
    December 15, 2009 at 9:24 pm

    Your idea is grate if you toss out a metal tree very year. If you use the same tree over and over again for decades it might be better to get the artificial tree. I know metal ornaments can last for generations. I have also seen some people use artificial trees and toss at the end of the season. Personally I hate fake trees. Real trees are replanted and if recycled are very environmentally friendly. Some real trees are 10 years old, so they have been cleaning air for 10 years. The artificial tree actually causes pollution especially if manufactured in China. I wish people would stop buying Chinese made products, they are generally junk and last no more than a few months. Chinese products are also dangerous. I have been injured by Chinese products on several occassions and now look carefully as to where the product is coming from before buying. So I would agree with you to refrain from buying Chinese artificial trees, since they will just create a lot of garbage. Let the Chinese start making decent products first before buying another Chinese tree. If the tree is made in the US then I would say by all means by a US made tree, you know the quality is grate regardless of whether it shiny metal one or a green looking plastic tree.

    Reply

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