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What’s the Greenest Christmas Tree of All?

By Kelsey Abbott |
Is there such a thing as an eco-friendly Christmas tree? Find out how the traditional choices stack up and what you can do to minimize your tree's carbon footprint.
Originally Published: 12/01/09

I confess: I LOVE Christmas trees. I love the smell. I love the feel of the branches. I love the novelty of having a big tree in my living room for a few weeks. But I'll admit, the tree in my house isn't doing what trees are supposed to do. It isn't providing habitat to critters or absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere or preventing soil from eroding. It's just a big decoration-and I love it.

Of course, I feel incredibly guilty about my annual eco-sin and so I set out to discover the greenest Christmas tree of all. Read on to find out how the traditional choices stack up:

  1. Live Trees
  2. A live tree is just that-a living tree in a pot.

    Pros: Once you're done with the tree you can plant it outside. In some areas, like Portland, Oregon, and San Diego, California, you can "rent" a live tree. The company will deliver the tree to your home before the holidays and pick it up afterwards. The used trees will be planted in parks, school grounds, or in areas ravaged by wildfires.

    Cons: Live fir trees aren't designed to live inside heated homes, so keeping a live tree alive may be difficult. Once your tree survives the holidays, you'll have to plant it. If the ground is frozen or you don't have a yard, this could present some issues. Also, because live trees come with roots, their trunks are much longer than those of cut trees. Finally, live trees tend to be more expensive than cut trees.

  3. Cut Your Own Tree
  4. Selecting and cutting your own tree is a great family tradition-or just a great holiday activity.

    Pros: By choosing your own tree, you can choose where it comes from. Ideally, you want to select a local tree farm so you can reduce your tree's carbon footprint and save on fuel. If possible, select an organic or low-spray tree farm to reduce pesticide usage on both the trees and the local water supply.

    Cons: When you cut down a tree, you permanently remove it from the ecosystem. That means that your tree will no longer be providing a habitat for animals, it won't absorb CO2 from our environment and the roots of your tree won't help stabilize the soil. But all of the trees on a tree farm are sustainably harvested, so another tree will be taking your tree's place in just a couple years.

  5. Pre-cut Trees
  6. Pre-cut trees are certainly the easiest trees to find during the holiday season.

    Pros: Most pre-cut Christmas trees come from Christmas tree farms, which are designed to produce trees annually. In other words, they're sustainable.

    Cons: Like cutting your own tree, choosing a pre-cut tree means that you're removing a tree from an ecosystem and preventing it from doing its natural tree duties. Most pre-cut trees come from farms that use pesticides and they are typically grown and trucked in from all over the place, so their carbon footprints tend to be high.

  7. Artificial Trees
  8. Artificial trees come in every price range, from under $50 to more than $1,000.

    Pros: Artificial trees can be used year after year, saving you fuel and the subsequent carbon footprint of going to pick out a new tree each year.

    Cons: Fake trees are made of PVC, a toxic petroleum product with a huge carbon footprint. Most fake trees are made in China, giving them an even bigger carbon footprint. When artificial trees do finally reach the end of their lives, they must go into a landfill because they are neither biodegradable nor recyclable.

Skipping a tree altogether might not be an option for you, so consider non-traditional alternatives. For instance, decorate an indoor houseplant or an outdoor tree. Better yet, use recycled materials like aluminum cans or baby food jars to create your own tree.

If you get an artificial tree, try to find one made in the U.S. to minimize the tree's carbon footprint, and if you get a live tree, be sure to recycle or compost it after the holiday.

How do you make sure your Christmas tree is environmentally-friendly? Share your tips below!

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  • Jeremy O. 3 years ago
    We cut our own tree down. We usually select about a fifty foot tree and then only use the top of it, because these are the best looking trees. The rest of the fell tree we leave and is a great habitat for chipmunks and other rodents.
  • Elaine F. 4 years ago
    We use the same artificial tree every year.
  • 4 years ago
    Pre-cut trees might be trucked a longer distance to the place where they are sold, but they all ride together. Whereas, people who cut their own trees from the farm are driving in separate cars. To say that the longer drive means that pre-cut trees have a bigger carbon foot print doesn't make sense. If the buyers live in a rural area near a tree farm, then yes, it is better to get their own. But, if the buyers are driving from the city or suburbs out into the rural area and back (through city traffic), then all those trips together uses more gas than the truck with 4 tons of trees driving on mostly highway roads in one trip.
  • 4 years ago
    If you cut your own tree, you are only removing the tree that will be used. Many pre-cut trees are never sold and are discarded (hopefully for compost). I agree that it doesn't feel sustainable to cut a tree down just for personal pleasure, but by visiting a tree farm you are supporting the local farmer's business so more trees can be planted in its place.
  • 5 years ago
    We bought one 5 christmases back all for $12. A live one. It is right off our deck and we decorate it each Christmas.
    It is now almost 6ft tall and our 3yr old son is having a wonderful time looking at it each night as it 'lights up'!

    Another one, a $150 purchase, passe away 2 yrs ago because of water logging caused by heavy rains. I wish it was still around. It was a beautiful one and would've been really huge now.