Which Kind of Christmas Tree is Most Eco-Friendly?

By DONNA DeFORBES/ecoRI News contributor

A Christmas tree is often the cornerstone of a family’s holiday season. There is much ado around getting it, rearranging furniture to provide it with ideal window placement, and decorating it while listening to a Dean Martin Christmas — or, maybe that’s just my family.

But does your little green heart ever wonder which kind of Christmas tree is most sustainable? Are real trees better than artificial ones because of their naturalness, or does the reusability of an artificial one make that the greener choice? Perhaps we should weigh the environmental pros and cons.

The artificial tree
This is what I grew up with, and it seems like a sustainable decorating option when the same tree is used year after year. However, the truth is that most artificial tree-users replace them about every five years with newer versions. According to a study from a Canadian environmental consulting firm, an artificial tree would have to be reused for at least 20 years in order to be more eco-friendly than buying a fresh-cut tree annually.

That is largely because artificial trees aren’t recyclable or biodegradable, they deplete resources and, with most being manufactured in Asia these days, transporting the trees leaves a large carbon footprint.

A bigger concern for families is that artificial trees can be toxic. They’re typically made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC), one of the most environmentally damaging forms of petroleum-derived plastic and a known carcinogen.

In addition, an artificial tree may shed lead-laced dust all over your children’s gifts, since lead is often used as a stabilizer for PVC. Not so very merry, is it?

There is some good news, however. If you’re set on acquiring an artificial tree, there is a newer technology where tree branches are being manufactured from polyethylene plastic (PE) instead of toxic PVC. And they look more realistic. Alicia Voorhies from The Soft Landing offers tips on where to find a holiday tree made from polyethylene.

If you get one of those PE trees and keep it for the next 20-plus years, you can feel pretty good about preserving both the planet and your family’s health. Not to mention saving quite a bit of money.

The natural tree
Many people prefer the fresh scent and magic of a real Christmas tree, whether they buy a pre-cut one from a street lot or chop one down at a tree farm.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, there are about 350 million Christmas trees growing on U.S. farms, with up to 30 million harvested annually. Natural trees are a recyclable and renewable resource, and a Christmas tree farm offers many benefits, including preserved green space, animal habitat and soil stability.

The downside is that only 1 percent of U.S. Christmas trees are grown organically — so that other 99 percent may have been grown using pesticides. Trees bought at corner lots and big-box stores are typically shipped here from out of state or Canada, and the sellers know little to nothing about the tree’s origins.

Buying your tree from a local farm offers several advantages: you’re supporting a local business; you’re reducing the environmental impact of long-distance transportation; and you can speak directly with the farmer to learn about the growing process.

For instance, my family discovered that Fraser Tree Farm in Coventry uses organic practices, yet they aren’t classified as an organic farm since they’re not seeking certification. Search for other Rhode Island tree farms, and call ahead to ask questions.

Perhaps the best part about natural trees is they can be recycled after the holidays. Many cities and towns collect the trees curbside and turn them into mulch or compost. Rhode Islanders can find out about their municipalities’ Christmas tree recycling process here.

The living tree
Although not the most popular, a living tree, with roots and all, is certainly the most sustainable option.

Some things to consider when buying a living tree: choose a tree that looks bright and lively with a well-developed root ball, and choose a tree size that will work well in your yard. Pot it up with quality soil, and keep it well watered throughout the holidays. Dig the hole outside in the fall, and cover it with mulch to keep it from freezing over before you’re able to plant the tree.

Donna DeForbes is founder of Eco-Mothering.com, a blog that explores ways to make going green fun and easy for the whole family. She is a contributor to Earth911, MammaBaby and author of the e-book “The Guilt-Free Guide to Greening Your Holidays.”