Cut or Potted, The Christmas Tree is Not Sustainable

Cut or Potted, The Christmas Tree is Not Sustainable

We buy 30 million Christmas trees every holiday season. There is a meme circulating the internet suggesting that we should buy living potted trees instead. Can we talk about how misguided this idea is? What if we just didn’t buy any Christmas trees at all? In the true spirit of the holiday, why don’t we just leave those trees in the ground? Leave them to do what they do best, provide a complete forest ecosystem with homes for other animals, minerals for other plants and oxygen for us? Potted trees are not a solution. This is greenwashing. It’s time for a new tradition all together. One that honors and respects all living things on this planet, our only home. I’m pretty sure Jesus would agree that sacrificing 30 million trees every year is a bit excessive. 

Perhaps, we should take a trip back in time and find out how the Christmas tree became such a popular tradition. The first Christmas trees appeared in Germany in the 1400s, originally decorated with apples to celebrate the feast day of Adam and Eve. The combination of evergreen with apples symbolized the tree of knowledge. This tradition became so popular even back then, laws had to be enacted to prevent people from cutting too many pine branches. Households were limited to only one tree each by the 1500s. It appears that excess during the holidays is something our culture has been indulging in for some time.

Fast forward to the 1800s in the US, where the Christmas tree as we know it today, became mainstream. One image, published in the Illustrated London News in 1848, featuring Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children gathered around a Christmas tree with presents displayed beneath, solidified the trend. The Christmas tree became a standard feature in public spaces too, such as the White House. These trees also introduced the invention of electricity with thousands of light bulbs on display.

By 1964, the fake tree came into existence eventually making up 35% of the $155 million Christmas tree industry in the US alone. Today, 82% of households in the US have artificial trees with only 18% real. Yet, the US still buys millions of real trees every holiday season. 

There has been considerable debate in recent years as to which is more environmentally friendly - artificial or real? Consumers in the US buy 10 million artificial trees each year and 90% of them are produced in China. Shipping them over the seas results in an increased carbon footprint and puts additional strain on resources. Most are not recyclable and end up in the landfill contributing further to dangerous methane emissions. Not to mention, plastic just doesn’t smell evergreen fresh.

Real trees on the other hand are not as carbon intensive to produce or ship. Living, growing trees support local tree farm businesses and can provide habitat for other animals and clean our air. Once the holiday season is over, the trees can be recycled into mulch providing valuable nutrients for growing other crops.  

But let’s be honest, tree farms are not mature forests. In addition to this, tree farms have become recent victims of climate change. The average Christmas tree is eight to 12 years old by the time it is cut. Smaller size trees, like these, are very susceptible to drought and floods. Their young roots are still too shallow to reach deeper, moist soil during dry weather and are very vulnerable to rot and diseases if too wet. Unlike established forests, tree farming mono-crops are unnatural, leaving seedlings and young trees even more exposed to the elements. The increasing cost of land is making other crops more financially viable than growing trees. “Canada had about 1,360 tree farms in 2021 compared to 2,381 in 2011, meaning approximately 1,000 farms have vanished in the past decade, according to the most recent data from Statistics Canada”.

Although there are some sustainable tree farms, there is no way to scale these up to meet demand. If you live in a climate where conifer trees grow, it is possible to harvest a Christmas tree in a way that is carbon neutral. But, the reality is that many of us do not live in or near forests and must burn carbon to transport them. Plus, if everyone were allowed to cut a tree from the forest annually, we would quickly deplete resources. It also doesn’t make sense to invest precious time and resources on growing Christmas trees during a time when it’s getting more difficult and expensive to grow food. Food security should trump trees for decoration. 

Finally, let’s talk about potted trees. Although the concept is well meaning, potted trees are not a solution. Conventional nurseries where these are grown, use high inputs of soil mixes, fertilizers and fungicides. Potted plants are very heavy and inefficient to transport, and might require climate controlled transport, contributing excessive emissions during a climate crisis when we should be focusing on reductions. Because potted plant roots are confined in containers, they contribute nothing to overall soil health or slope stabilization that forests offer. If you do plant those trees in the spring there is no guarantee they will survive outside the artificial greenhouse spaces they are used to and they could end up being an invasive species making things even worse. 

Decorating a house plant is your best option. Let’s be creative this year and create new traditions that align with the original meaning of Christmas - love, hope and joy. We don’t need to cut down 30 million trees to celebrate this holiday. 

Links - alternatives to the Christmas tree:

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