By Dylan Stuntz, American Forests

With the holiday season in full swing, many people are engaging in the annual tradition of putting up a Christmas tree. To be environmentally conscious, we’ve put together some tips to minimize the impacts of your holiday tree on the environment!

For people looking to celebrate in an eco-friendly way, the thought of cutting down a tree may seem difficult, considering how easy it is to buy an artificial one. However, artificial trees are not as energy-efficient as they seem.

The polyvinyl chloride (PVC) used in artificial trees has an incredibly high energy cost on the environment, due to the fossil fuel requirements that go into making the material. Add in the fact that 80 percent of all artificial Christmas trees are produced in China and shipped across the world, the carbon footprint of an artificial tree just keeps increasing.

The overwhelming consensus between researchers is that using real trees has an environmental advantage, unless you hang on to your artificial tree for years — though there’s some debate on the exact number of years. The American Christmas Tree Association, the trade group representing artificial tree manufacturers says it takes 10 years of use until the carbon emissions of a fake tree are offset. Other independent consulting firms say it’s actually closer to 20 years.

So, paradoxically, cutting down a live tree every year is actually the most energy-efficient way to celebrate! The key in having an eco-friendly live tree is to minimize the amount of distance travelled to pick it up, and to dispose of it in an environmentally friendly way.

Simply throwing out your old tree and letting it decompose in a landfill is not very energy efficient. During a tree’s lifetime it takes in carbon from the atmosphere, storing it until the end of its lifespan. This carbon is released as the tree decomposes, but the carbon has degraded into methane, which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

According to The Carbon Trust, the best way to get rid of an old tree is to either burn it (in a safe and legal manner) or to chop it up into mulch. This will reduce the carbon footprint of your tree by 80 percent compared to a landfill disposal.  Many communities offer tree-mulching programs in January, so be sure to see what resources are available for tree disposal. Check out previous articles on creative ways to recycle your tree and on all the ways recycled tree mulch is utilized.

However, the most eco-friendly way to celebrate Christmas with a tree is to use a living, potted tree that can be replanted and cultivated for use every single year. “Rent-a-tree” business models have been appearing recently, allowing customers to rent a living, potted tree for the holiday season. For the rest of the year the trees are cared for in a nursery, until they become too big to rent, so they are planted in a local forest.

If you plan to get a real tree this year, consider supporting our corporate partner Whole Foods Market®! For every tree bought at a Whole Foods location, a tree will be planted. Also check out this post on tips for the perfect Christmas tree.