How green is your Christmas tree?

Kringle’s Korner Christmas tree farm co-owner Morgan Gutzman’s dog poses for the camera (Photo courtesy of Morgan Gutzman)

By Sloane Crocker, staff writer

Christmas does not truly begin for those who celebrate until the tree assumes its post in the house, effusing the air with joy and warmth along with its characteristic woody aroma. However, as this nostalgic scent disappears from many homes, replaced by the plasticky odor of artificial trees, the question is raised, which type of tree is the better choice–natural or artificial? An increasing number of people may swear by the “fake” tree’s reusability, lack of mess, or lower long-term costs, yet when the positives and negatives of each option are weighed, the tried and true “real” Christmas tree is the obvious choice for both environmental and emotional reasons.

The concept of cutting down more than 33 million trees each year may seem harsh, not to mention counterintuitive to the mission of a greener planet, yet Christmas tree farms can be, in truth, champions of the environment. In the words of the National Christmas Tree Association, “Real Christmas trees support life by absorbing carbon dioxide and other gasses and emitting fresh oxygen.” This process of photosynthesis, though crucial, is struggling as the blundering, destructive ways of deforestation continue to plague the planet. Because Christmas trees are grown on farms rather than confiscated from preexisting forests, they aid in the fight against this lethal process, carrying on the torch for their millions of kin vanishing in favor of towering offices or sprawling cities. Further, in the words of Morgan Gutzman, co-owner of Kringle’s Korner Christmas tree farm, “Once a Christmas tree is harvested, another one or two are planted in [its] place.” This means that though a tree’s carbon will eventually return to the environment following its disposal, twice as many trees stand in its place, bettering the environment in its stead.

For those who hold hopes for a greener future, shipping is a huge detriment to the artificial tree’s case. As Gutzman states, “A fake tree is built in a different country, then transported all the way here.” There is some data to back this up, as according to the U.S. Commerce Department, 85% of artificialChristmas trees in the United States are imported from China. Compared to the carbon emitted by ships or planes throughout this vast distance, the transport of real Christmas trees from farm to lot is minute. As Gutzman says, “If you disperse the footprint between each tree, considering anywhere from 500-1,000 trees fit in a truckload, it is not that big.” Of course, it is important to be a conscious consumer, with farms such as Kringle’s Korner sourcing from the comparatively local region of the Pacific Northwest, being the perfect candidate. This aside, a person would be hard-pressed to find a real Christmas tree that can best the more than 7000-mile journey that is standard of its artificial counterparts. “A naturally grown tree travels a shorter distance than any fake tree does,” Guzman says.

Sure, the artificial tree may withstand several holiday seasons, yet following this window of usefulness lies an incomprehensibly longer stretch of time passed in the landfill.  In the face of an “indefinite” amount of time in the landfill, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, the average six to nine years of usefulness is put into a much-needed perspective.

In contrast, a wealth of disposal opportunities exist for real trees, one of which is tree recycling, a service supplied by many waste disposal companies such as Recology. According to Tania Nieto, a Waste Zero specialist at Recology, properly disposed of trees picked up during the period following the holidays will be composted by the company. This option returns organic matter to the soil, continuing the green cycle and helping to keep carbon in the ground rather than wreaking havoc upon the atmosphere. If readying a tree for pickup is an unwanted burden, a tree may also simply be placed in the yard as a critter playground, as, unlike the artificial tree, real Christmas trees are the children of nature and can easily be reintegrated into the beautiful rhythm of the planet. When deciding on the path of your tree following the holiday season, it is important to steer clear of the landfill. Because most of the waste in a landfill is buried underground, it becomes susceptible to bacteria. This bacteria could convert the carbon within a Christmas tree into methane, which is more than 80 times more harmful to global temperatures than carbon dioxide, according to the National Geographic. Burning your tree is also an unacceptable course of action, as it returns the carbon directly to the air.  However, should these unfavorable options be avoided, the real Christmas tree is much kinder to the environment than the artificial tree following the holiday season. 

All environmental grounds set aside, the sentimental value of the real Christmas tree is, in this writer’s humble opinion, simply unattainable for its artificial counterpart. Real Christmas trees are the bearers of so much joy, from selecting the perfect tree to adorning it with glittering ornaments to shredding the paper from presents stacked beneath its boughs, all experiences greatly diminished by the artificial tree. Some of my own brightest childhood memories of the holidays are set in the tree farm, with me and my sister bundled up in mittens and scarves, dashing through rows of towering trees in search of “the one.” This magical feeling hardly ceases once the tree assumes its place in the home, as the woody smell and smattering of needles upon the floor are trilling notes within the exuberant song of the holiday season. If the real Christmas tree is a sparkling melody, the artificial tree is silent. It is impersonal, a plastic decoration rather than the pinnacle of the love and bliss of the holidays.

As the holidays approach this year, avoid the urge to purchase the pristine artificial Christmas trees lining the shelves of Home Depot or Target. Instead, head to a local Christmas tree farm. Opt for the nostalgic scent and the stray needles across the floor rather than the sterile perfection, as not only will the environment sing your praises, but your home will be infused with the joy and love that is absent in boughs of plastic and metal.

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