Does the prospect of choosing a Christmas tree fill you with the same environmental angst that you get when confronted with “paper or plastic”? or “cloth or disposable diapers”? Those are actually two very hard questions, mainly because there’s not a whole lot of difference in the environmental impact of the alternatives. You can think outside the box, and use your own cloth bag, and just go for diaperless parenting (yes, there is such a thing; no, I haven’t tried it).
With Christmas trees, however, there are a few definitive answers.
First, thinking outside the box is tough. You could skip the tree and decorate your houseplants, or draw a tree on the wall (fine for renters). You could take a Puritan approach, rejecting the paganistic overtones and pointing out that “Santa” is, after all, an anagram of “Satan.” Or have a hyper-secular holiday by erecting a Festivus pole instead.
Most of us want something more traditional. Some people go for live potted trees, hoping to plant them outside after the holidays. The bad news: Most evergreen trees aren’t suitable for bringing inside for the whole season. The dry heat of your house is pretty rough on plants that should be outside, and hauling heavy pots in and out twice a day does not make for Yuletide joy.
We had a live Norfolk pine for few years—a tender evergreen that made a fine houseplant year-round, but that looked like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree when decorated. We liked ours until it hit our ceiling (five years), despite the derisive remarks from vistors. You can find them at garden centers.
Artificial trees are almost always made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a plastic that is toxic to produce, heaping pollution on the poor denizens of “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana and other unfortunate places where vinyl factories are concentrated. Moreover, the plastic in the trees is sometimes stabilized with lead. You don’t want to eat or breathe the particles that slough off your plastic tree onto your presents. Everyone repeat: No vinyl, that’s final. Let it become a life motto.
Real wood Christmas trees are grown on plantations, not in natural forests, so the ecological disturbance is minimal. They are replanted after harvesting, and after Christmas most municipalities arrange a pick-up; old trees are generally not put in a landfill, but are instead recycled for use as mulch, or used whole to prevent shoreline erosion and to provide shelter for animals.
Real Christmas trees are a renewable resource. Plus they smell great and make people happy. I wish that were true of all my family members.
Go for a real tree. Merry Christmas!