By Doyle Irvin, American Forests

Christmas Trees
Credit: Mallory Dash via Flickr.

When the holiday season rolls around, it is easy to get caught up in the frenzy of good cheer and pine scents. People seem to be happier, those people you grew up with are returning to their hometown and meeting at the pub for a pint, and the joy on a child’s face when they open up the shiny new thing they’ve been obliquely hinting at since April is indeed nonpareil. Thus, there’s an immense social pressure not to be the “Grinch” who says “Wait a second, here…”

But, the Grinch has a point.

The environmental impacts of the holiday season are beyond immense. The amount of waste produced by the U.S. increases by 25 percent between Thanksgiving and the New Year, an additional 1.2 million tons per week. Christmas cards alone cut down 300,000 trees a year, and everyone only pretends to read them in the first place. When you combine Europe and the U.S., roughly 80 to 90 million trees are used for decorations annually.

Credit: Michael Bentley via Flickr.

To add to this, The Independent shares some startling statistics about the holiday season: roughly 40 percent of festive food goes to waste. Forty-one percent of the toys children receive specifically for Christmas will be broken within three months. The U.K. alone uses enough wrapping paper to gift-wrap the Isle of Jersey and burns or dumps enough gift cards (1 billion) to circle the globe five times if laid end-to-end.

So, how do we fix this? Is there any good news?

Unfortunately, according to The Nature Conservancy, artificial holiday trees are no solution to this problem, it turns out — unless you carefully store and re-use the same one for more than a decade (that’s about when the impact for real versus artificial evens out). Most of these trees are made in China using PVC, and the petroleum used to both create PVC and then ship it far outweighs the environmental cost of cutting a real tree. PVC doesn’t biodegrade and isn’t recyclable. Many of these trees also contain lead.

The chief saving grace for real trees is that they are carbon sinks while they are growing and also provide habitats for all kinds of wildlife. Given that other things that the farmers could be growing instead of trees are not nearly as positive for the environment, real trees do include a step towards carbon neutrality (as long as you recycle or replant the tree properly). Many of the farms are also pursuing measures to reduce pesticide use as well — for example, North Carolina reported a 71 percent decrease in use from 2000 to 2013.

Even with real trees, however, you still have to consider the energy costs of shipping the tree to your door. The trick is to get one meant for potting and replanting, so you can use it year after year. You can send your distant friends and family e-cards, or, if the gift needs to exist in reality, you can recycle obsolete materials, like old newspapers, phone books or the calendar from last year, to wrap it. Another idea is to focus your gifts on things that aren’t essentially disposable. This either means gifts that are built to last, or experiences. You can also look into purchasing gifts from companies that give back to the environment on behalf of your purchase. Or, if you really want to embrace the Green Eco-Conscious Grinch, you could just give them a hug and a slap on the back.

“The environmental impact of our holiday celebrations,” Team EcoEtsy. December 19, 2011.
“How to have a ‘green’ Christmas.” Eartheasy.
“Real Vs Artificial Christmas Tree: What the science says.” Andrei, Mihai. December 23, 2015.
“PVC plastic’s environmental impact.” Green Living Tips. January 4th, 2010.
“Green Holidays: Real vs. Fake Christmas Trees.”