To tree or not to tree?: The green holiday question

December 3, 2014
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For many, Christmas trees are a big part of being green, literally and figuratively, during the holidays.

Real or artificial: What’s the best decision for those trying to get a little more eco-conscious this year? Instinct might dictate that saving a tree’s life is always the most responsible course. But not so when it comes to Christmas trees.

Artificial trees are a sound financial investment, costing $78 each on average, compared with an average of $46 per year for a real tree, according to the American Christmas Tree Association, which represents artificial tree manufacturers. That’s a pretty good value when considering that artificial trees last several years.

In fact, technically speaking, they pretty much last forever. But that’s the problem. Fake trees are typically made of PVC, a common plastic used to make all sorts of everyday items but which isn’t biodegradable.


Image of a Christmas Tree Farm

Christmas Tree Farm


Real Tree Vs Artificial Tree

Artificial trees can be recycled, but that practice is difficult and not nearly as common as “treecycling” for real Christmas trees. Does all this mean live trees are better for the environment? Generally speaking, yes.

These days, nearly all Christmas trees are farmed. That means more responsible and sustainable management of the land and the trees themselves. And as the trees grow, they put oxygen into the air and provide habitat for wildlife. A 2012 study revealed that Christmas tree farms can be effective for sequestering carbon dioxide.

The Montgomery County Division of Solid Waste Services readily recycles real trees, and it couldn’t be easier for residents. If you live in a single-family home or townhouse and receive County-provided yard trim collections, all you need to do is put the tree out on the curb by 7 a.m. on your normal recycling day. Just remove the stand and decorations, and don’t put it in one of those plastic bags. (The same guidelines apply for those living in the city limits of Gaithersburg and Rockville.)

If you live in an apartment, ask your property manager about the “treecycling” process. Usually, apartment and condominium complexes arrange for a special mass collection date.

And of course, any resident can always self-haul their tree to the county’s Shady Grove Processing Facility and Transfer Station.

Many of the trees collected by the County get turned into mulch, therefore January and February are great months to get free mulch from the County! Bonus: The Christmas tree mulch smells fantastic.

Christmas Tree Closeup with Ribbons


Buying Local is a Big Factor

Of course, these kinds of decisions are never cut and dried, and Christmas trees are no exception. The key caveat in this case is transportation. Most artificial trees are made in China, meaning they have to be loaded onto a large boat and shipped to America. That requires a lot of fuel.

But real trees are often shipped, too, and shoppers sometimes find themselves driving long distances on their own tree-seeking expeditions, especially if they’re heading out to the County for one of those cut-your-own experiences. Those are all well and good, but if you want to keep your green margin safely intact, it’s probably best to keep mileage to a minimum. There’s always your friendly neighborhood plant nursery or tree lot (many of the latter also are linked to local charitable causes). And when in doubt, just ask; any nursery or lot employee should be able to tell you where the tree was grown.


Buying a Christmas Tree


If you’re feeling really green, a potted tree might be an option. These are live, potted conifers that can be planted (either by you or through a “renting” arrangement with the seller) after Christmas. Check with your local nursery to see if such a program is available.

What if a family member is allergic to a real Christmas tree or the situation calls for a artificial tree?  If you need an artificial tree or are looking to dispose of one in an environmental way, check out freecycleCraiglist or other re-use website where you can get a used artificial tree rather than buying a new one.

There’s no greener symbol than a tree, but a green holiday season can encompass lots of things. Reducing energy consumption with things like higher-efficiency or fewer lights and minimizing unnecessary waste are part of the equation, too. Stay tuned for more blog posts on easy ways to keep it green this holiday.


By Scott Harris, Freelance Writer. Read Scott’s other posts on his church’s rain garden, how peer pressure can impact environmental actions and birds and climate change.

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