What You Should Know About 'Sustainable' Christmas Trees

All News KCBS Radio
December 02, 2019 - 2:01 pm
Christmas trees lined up for sale

Barbie Lee/Getty Images

It's about that time of year where families start setting up their Christmas trees. With climate change an increasing part of the national conversation, you might be concerned about the impact of this classic holiday tradition.

One new trend among the environmentally conscious is to rent a potted, living tree that gets replanted after the holiday season. But while those trees can help cut down on waste, keeping them alive indoors presents other hurdles.

“In general, most of our houses are significantly drier inside than it is outside and a lot of those trees don’t make it when they get replanted,” said Mac Harman, CEO of Balsam Hill in Redwood City, which sells artificial trees.

Related: Sticker Shock At Bay Area Christmas Tree Farms, Lots

People who chose to rent living trees should do their research on how to properly care for it and keep in mind how far they are driving to pick it up.

Harman said his neighbors recently organized an effort to rent out several trees as a group. Had they calculated the environmental cost of transporting the trees, they might have arrived at a different answer, he said. 

“It turns out that the impact from the consumption of fuel for the pickup truck to drive 50 miles from the farm to our neighborhood, drop off six trees and then drive back actually had a bigger environmental impact than what you would have saved," Harman said. 

That is because Christmas trees need at least eight years to reach maturity, a period in which they are constantly absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere. They also grow best on steep land that would not otherwise be used for crops. So one of the biggest environmental costs of living Christmas trees is transportation, in particular how much the tree travels in a consumer's car.

“Going to your neighborhood tree lot is a great way to have a low environmental footprint,” said Harman, especially if you pick up the tree while you are already running other errands.

As for artificial trees, Harman says a recent study showed that the environmental impact of plastic trees evens out with real trees as long as they are in use for at least five years. However, critics including the National Christmas Tree Association, which represents tree farmers, have cast doubt on the study’s findings and point out that artificial trees are made of plastic and eventually end up in landfills.