Common wisdom might suggest that an artificial Christmas tree, unboxed and redecorated year after year, is the smarter choice for an environmentally sound holiday home.
But many gardening and climate-change experts want homeowners to “get real” when it comes to Christmas trees and their environmental impact. And taking this eco sensibility a step further, select nurseries and other specialty services have introduced live-tree rentals in recent years.
Rentals often mean sharing the care of a tree throughout the year — tended in their pot by homeowners during the peak holiday season, returned to the loving hands of a nursery the rest of the year, and then making a return trip to your living room for subsequent years. Yes, some families even name their trees — Bruce the Spruce? Jennifir? Options abound.
Some rental plans may not include the return of the same tree, so ask before you sign.
For sure, many Americans love the decorated tree as a perennial holiday tradition. More than 95 million U.S. households deck the halls with a Christmas tree, according to the American Christmas Tree Association. About 80% of those homes opt for faux firs, which leaves about 17 million trees sold live domestically.
“ Some estimates say you’d have to use your fake tree about 20 years to offset its eco-impact. ”
Because of fewer trips to the farm or sales lot and a sense that artificial is friendlier to the environment because households aren’t cutting down a live tree each year — even when farmed for that purpose — artificial tree use is on the rise.
It’s a trend that has raised caution from the Natural Resources Defense Council. Artificial trees use a lot of resources to manufacturer and ship. In fact, some estimates say you’d have to use your fake tree about 20 years to offset its eco-impact. In reality, most Americans only keep their artificial trees for about six years.
Primarily, artificial trees tend to be constructed of chemical-laden plastics and the fact that most artificial trees are made in less-transparent China, where manufacturing and labor practices are sometimes in question, and then shipped abroad, this purchase makes for a greater negative environmental impact than some households may have banked on.
Convinced to go live? “First, consider its source, just as you would for meat, dairy and seafood,” advises the NRDC. “At the end of the season, see if your community schedules curbside recycling for Christmas trees or if there’s a local mulching program.”
If you’re convinced an artificial tree is a must and still want to be as eco-savvy and health-minded as possible, choose one made without polyvinyl chloride, or PVCs, says the NRDC, or search for swap parties or thrift stores and get a tree secondhand, keeping it out of the landfill for longer.
Now, what about those rentals?
With proper care, a rented tree goes back to the farm where it provides its own carbon-capturing benefits and offers safe habitats for wildlife. Typically, the tree can be re-rented for seven years before it gets planted in the ground in its forever home.
The notion of renting a Christmas tree likely first gained popularity in 2012 after Scott Martin pitched the idea for The Living Christmas Company on the reality show Shark Tank, which invested in the venture. His company had a string of successful years but is taking a break post-COVID, according to the website.
Other options include California-based Rent Xmas Tree or Oregon-based The Original Potted Christmas Tree Company. And there’s New York-based Rent-A-Christmas, which offers rentals of real and artificial spruces and can coordinate its services in the lower 48 states.
You may also consider having a chat with your local Christmas tree farm to check if they offer rental options or are interested in kicking off this type of program.
Nonprofits are also increasingly getting into the tree-rental act. One, the Adopt a Stream Foundation in Everett, Wash., sells small potted trees. After the season is over, the trees can be returned to be planted along a local salmon stream to provide shade and prevent erosion.
“ Typically, the tree can be re-rented for seven years before it gets planted in the ground in its forever home. ”
If rentals just aren’t an option in your area or are too expensive, yet you still want a “greener” option, the tree and plant experts at Garden Mentors have some tips for a less-wasteful and still joyous experience.
- Opt for potted and sheared rosemary shrubs.
- Purchased cut trees and mulch them into the garden after the holidays.
- Buy a big, live conifer to replant after you enjoy it indoors. Just make sure you research its care needs and growing capacity.
- Shop for a dwarf conifer to decorate and later plant into smaller spaces.
- Decorate houseplants with lights. Indoor potted citrus trees are great for this.
- Live on a large property? Dig up a volunteer tree that popped up in the “wrong” spot and enjoy it as your DIY Christmas tree. After the holidays, help it adjust to going back outdoors. And plant it in a better spot.
Ultimately, how you dispose of a real tree is actually more significant than where it comes from or how you got it home.
If the tree ends up in landfill after a single season the impact on the environment is much worse because of the atmosphere-warming methane released during decomposition.
Most local authorities now offer a collection service or several designated drop-off points for real trees which they then shred and use on gardens and parks. Plus, some companies will come to your house and grind it into mulch for your own use.
Editor’s note: The Upcycler column aims to help you make more with less, save or earn extra money, expand your creative side and shrink your carbon footprint.
Upcycling and the Buy Nothing movement involve reusing objects for practical or aesthetic purposes, or prolonging their usefulness and diverting them from a landfill. Our column will explore the benefits of repairing or upgrading more of what we already own; tapping potentially life-changing free or deeply discounted goods and services; and traveling in less expensive, intrusive and consumptive ways. Have your own upcycling ideas or dilemmas? Reach out on Twitter @RachelKBeals or by email to email@example.com.
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