Green Christmas Tree Options

The holiday season is once again upon us.  In many parts of the world people erect and decorate Christmas trees as part of their celebration.  The Christmas tree does has deep symbolic meaning for various cultures and religion but in this day and age it has also become highly commercialized.  Don’t worry, this article isn’t about the commercialization of Christmas – I am not naive to think this site can change the nature of the beast.  We can however discuss how to best act responsibly by discussing various green Christmas tree options.

Readers of this site know that we strive to balance sustainable choices and our personal finances.  When we examine sustainable Christmas trees we do find that our lifestyle choices and most prudent personal finance decisions come into conflict.

Green Christmas Tree Options

My Dad's Indoor Green Christmas Tree

The greenest Christmas tree option: A Potted Tree

Keep a tree in your home.  Yes, a tree.  Trees are great plants to own.  Trees not only produce oxygen, which us homo-sapiens all need. trees also absorb pollutants such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.  So once you are convinced having a tree indoors why not decorate it at Christmas?  Your annual costs will be low after the initial investment and you will need to water the tree regularly.

The downside?  Chances are good you won’t want to keep a fir tree indoors.  Even the Fraser Fir, which has excellent needle retention, is going to shed needles leaving you to clean up after it.  So you may not get a “traditional” tree in terms of shape, scent and nostalgia.

How about renting a Christmas tree?

Believe it or not you can rent a Christmas tree.  The trees can be rented locally.  The tree harvester digs up a tree of your choosing and pots it in a large vessel.  Delivered right to your door without traversing the country to get to you seems like a pretty sustainable Christmas tree option.  You can order the tree via Internet shopping which reduces some carbon miles scouring the area for a great tree.

Here in Ontario you can rent a tree that is locally harvested. The trees are usually two to four feet tall and are delivered to your door before the holidays and you can have the company return afterward to retrieve it.  The best part however is that you can keep the tree by forfeiting the $30 security deposit.  An additional benefit to using a tree service is that they often give a percentage to a local charity.  Starting at $80, renting a tree is not the cheapest option but it does have benefit of low environmental impact. So if you do keep the tree, the next green Christmas tree option may work well for you!

Decorate an outdoor tree

Who needs tinsel when you have the real thing: snow.  Sure, placing presents under the tree make not be practical but if you have a tree that is within view of your living space you can still experience the warmth of a decorated tree.  There is no additional cost associated with decorating an outdoor tree aside from decoration replacement (damaged or stolen).

Harvest a tree

The old standby.  Trees around here cost $50-$80 to harvest a locally grown tree.  There is something to be said about giving an experience, especially when children are involved.  Harvesting a tree means an annual expense and I can’t help but wonder about the forestation issues that arise when trees are grown and harvested repeatedly on the same piece of land.  The plus side, you are supporting a local business and the tree can be recycled (turned into mulch) by many municipalities.  Christmas tree farms also help reduce carbon monoxide in the air we breathe.

Use a tree lot

This is not a very green Christmas tree option.  Sure, you support a person working locally but these sorts of temporary businesses end at Christmas and very often the operators work for large corporations which do not reside in your community.  The trees sold on lots are also often shipped in from far and wide – a lot of Co2 is burned to get trees to where I live as they are shipped in from the East Coast.  Cost: $30-$80.

Artificial trees are the least green Christmas tree option

The issues with artificial trees are numerous.

  • Made in China.  A bunch of fossil fuel is required to ship an artificial tree.
  • Made in China.  A bunch of fossil fuel is required to produce artificial trees.
  • Trees that have lost their “luster” and thrown away, filling landfills.
  • Artificial trees are manufactured using a polyvinyl chloride (or PVC), which is a petroleum-derived plastic that is non-renewable and polluting. When PVC is produced nasty carcinogens, such as vinyl chloride, ethylene dichloride and  dioxin are emitted into the air.
  • You need space to store the tree 11 months of the year.
A quality artificial tree is going to run $400 or more.  Yes, it will last 10-20 years which means your annual cost is low.  But it is still fake.  I have yet to see an artificial tree that I mistook for a real tree.
We usually strive to stick to our financial plan but when it comes to Christmas trees we are willing to shell out a few extra bucks to do the sustainable thing.  We will be looking into a potted tree in the near future.

Have you considered green Christmas tree options?  Any other suggestions?

40 comments to Green Christmas Tree Options

  • I love the smell of a real Christmas tree, but they don’t seem to be that popular in Australia. I guess it is because they just don’t go the distance if they are cut, they tend to go brown very quickly in the heat!

    I really like the idea of renting a tree, haven’t seen this service over here though, might have to do a bit of searching.

  • brad

    The paper company Cascades sells artificial Christmas trees made in Québec from recycled cardboard; see http://boutique.cascades.com/ca/fr/catalog/sapin-noel-artificiel/ for details. We’re considering one of these for next year. This year we decided not to bother with a tree at all — my girlfriend hates the idea of killing a tree in order to have it in the house for only three weeks, and we don’t have enough light in the house to keep a potted tree alive all winter. Rentals aren’t available here, and I won’t allow a plastic tree in the house. So no tree. We’re making a nice big centerpiece for the dining room table instead, using cedar boughs pruned from our hedge.

    • I saw those cardboard Christmas trees and decided to not include them only b/c I don’t think they really “look right”. I also found some other wacky designs that could be re-used but again, the allure of a “tree” is something we still want to capture.

  • brad

    Christmas tree farming is actually a pretty sustainable operation long-term. We always bought farmed trees until one year we decided to go to the farm ourselves and cut our own tree. The act of going into the plantation and cutting down a live tree made my girlfriend feel bad, knowing that the tree was alive one moment and dead the next, and worse still when we got it home we discovered a bird’s nest in the inner branches. Even though I explained to her that birds don’t reuse the same nest from year to year, the damage was done, and she won’t buy another cut tree. We’ve considered a Norfolk Island Pine, but the branches are pretty wimpy and won’t hold much, plus I love the smell of balsam fir. We’ll figure something out, or we’ll just continue to do without a tree. I don’t miss it, really.

    • I need to look into Christmas tree farms more closely. My knowledge is more based on forestry as a whole. While some operations may be more sustainable than others, cutting down trees in order to hang lights off of it and place presents under it – to enjoy it for 20 days or so, doesn’t seem like the best use of resources!

  • Like most things I never gave thought to the green part about it – we did just pick up our tree from a local grower except we didn’t buy one of the ones he grew as Frasier Firs don’t grow on Long Island…

  • All right, don’t throw stones at me but we do own an artificial tree. This is why: out cat is obsessed with anything that looks like a real tree, smells like a real tree and is a real tree. Our dog loves to chew on needles (not artificial though, I guess they don’t taste good :-)) and I am afraid he is going to hurt himself. We live in a condo and we decided that the only option for us now is to get an artificial tree. However! As soon as we get a house (some day) we will decorate an outside tree (hopefully, we will have one.) Great article SPF! Good to have you back to writing. :-)

    • To be perfectly honest, we have one too. It is 23 yers old and was passed from my Mom to myself when I moved into an apartment 10 yrs ago. It is a small little thing – about 4ft tall and I store it in the basement.
      We want to get a live tree but I worry the cats will use the dirt for a litter box.
      We didn’t put up the tree last year, nor will we this year. We have gone away to relatives over Christmas and one of the cats thinks he can nest in the tree which means when we get home it has fallen over and the 3 cats have used the ball ornaments for toys for days. We keep finding ornaments for weeks post holidays.

      • These are all really good suggestions. I unfortunately have a fake tree as well. I do find it to be the most convenient and probably cheapest option long term. If I had to go through the effort you mentioned above, I probably would end up with no tree.

        If I didn’t already have a fake tree I might give one of the other options a go but I think if you already have a fake tree then continuing to use for years and years is the most sustainable option – right?

        • You can’t do anything about the fact you have a fake tree. Nor can I. Unfortunately, they do not last forever. Some folks, like buying phones, cars and TVs always want the newer shinier model – so the old tree gets dumped.

  • My wife and I have a small apartment and got an artificial tree this year (*hiding while you throw stones* haha – I see that you have one too; although we bought our own and wasn’t passed down to us) We plan on using it for a long time. I didn’t know that you could rent a tree. Good to know.

  • Although we do not have aChristmas tree, my wife decorates our home. It is very difficult to find non Christmas decorations that are live.

  • I have a fake tree now, and I”m pretty happy with it – we got it on sale for about 80 bucks 2 years ago. I’ve also done the cut down your own tree thing, and that’s a lot of fun too.

  • I think most of our trees come from the UK – Scotland in particular – so I don’t have too much issue with the transport. We paid £40 for a really nice 6-7ft tree that doesn’t drop, is dead straight and very bush. It makes Christmas so much better and DS3 and his auntie set about decorating it. It looks really lovely.

  • I like “Believe it or not you can rent a Christmas tree.”, how clever (although I bet it’s a small pain to move…

    We buy firs every year, and although I hate the money I have to spend, it’s a family tradition. Besides, our kids love them.

    • They deliver and pick up the tree, which helps – but also costs you.
      As I mentioned, the “experience” needs to be taken into account. This article is meant to look at the Christmas tree from a sustainability perspective but I can understand there is a lot more that goes into the decision to harvest a tree than just being green or saving money.

  • Bout time Simon! Glad to see you are back. I’m sure lilSPF will be the source of many experiences you will be able to write about! As far as green Christmas Trees, yes ours is green, we get a tree from the same Nursery every year and they tell us they are trucked in from a sustainable tree farm in Oregon.

  • We always cut down our tree at the local tree farm. Lately I read that tree farms use a lot of chemical fertilizer. Of course if they are not grown locally (most on a tree lot) it takes fuel to ship them in. The article I read (wish I still had the link) said it was greener to buy an artificial tree.

    We haven’t done it yet, but I understand you can get one for a pretty good price right after Christmas. My mom has an old one that we might take off her hands and keep going rather than put it in a landfill. Somehow it just seems greener to buy a real tree.

    • brad

      @Maggie — every analysis I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a lot of them) has concluded that it’s greener to buy a real tree. As SPF described in the article above, artificial trees are petroleum products and may contain toxic chemicals, plus there’s the carbon footprint associated with shipping from wherever they were manufactured, which is usually China. They can’t be recycled at the end of their lives. Here in my city (Montréal), the real trees sold in the city are grown on farms in the region, and the city picks up trees in January and composts them; finished compost is given away each spring to gardeners. The carbon footprint is negligible, since cut trees on farms are replaced with new seedlings; the only net carbon emissions come from transporting the trees from farm to city and/or to your home, plus some emissions associated with tree maintenance while they’re growing on the farm.

  • We are green in the sense that we don’t do a tree at all. It really isn’t that important to us. This may change when we have kids but for now we don’t put one up.

  • Sad to report we have a fake tree. Lack of space and two dogs and two cats make the fake tree the best option for us. I’m not proud of that fact. However, we have the near-tree now so the ecological damage has been done so we make use of it. I do like the idea of the indoor potted tree service but I’m pretty sure it’s not an option in Regina SK.

  • Diane

    Here in North California, you can get an artifical tree at yard sales all summer long for $5 or less. My daughter rescued one from a thrift store. My grandson doesn’t care how real it looks as long as there are presents under it! ha

  • It should be noted that for the most part, live, potted, North American conifers that expect to live through a cold season will not last terribly well indoors (its like putting them in a tropical desert and expecting them to live). One must be ready to wait until a week before Christmas. If you get them earlier than that they are extremely likely to die. Your best best is a tropical conifer, like the Norfolk pine.

    Also live trees can be chipped after the holidays in many municipalities (This is best option, the Botanical Gardens at UBC has used them in the past to line their walkways, for example). If not many areas that pick up yard waste will also pick up trees for a short period in January. Of course for both of these, all decorations have to be removed, including lights.

    • Thanks Robin In A Tree
      I need to ask my Dad what kind of indoor tree his is. It stays inside year round.
      The site I saw about renting trees has a 2 week limit to keep the tree, validating your point.

      I have found, in discussions, that in Canada most trees get recycled into mulch but this is not nearly as common in the US and UK.

  • wow, renting a christmas tree?? I would never go with a real tree though…fake tree pre-lit all the way! haha

  • Hi there! What I’ve done for the last few years is to use prunings from a tree in the garden that had to be cut back because it was too near the house. I painted it gold, stuck it in a flower bucket and wedged it in properly, hey presto.

    Its … unusual. I’m just constructing a blogpost on it at the moment, with a few pictures in.

    I’m in the UK so, yes, no tree-rental places round here. And its not big corporations that sell cut Christmas trees here, as far as I know – self employed patchwork-lifers will buy a job lot from a small plantation and sell it on, those are the sort of people I know of, anyway, down here in the south.

  • I’ve never bought a real Christmas tree but I passed some outside Whole Foods the other day, and they smelled divine. If I wasn’t so particular about how I’m spending my money, I would’ve bought one right then. Maybe next year I’ll learn how to make my own ornaments and buy a real one. Fake Christmas trees have fallen out of favor with me because you can’t get a good one for $20 anymore and I don’t have anywhere to store it once the holidays are over.

  • We have an artificial tree, cost effective and pretty. Might have to investigate a tree farm option :)

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