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A More Sustainable Tree

If you celebrate, now is about the time of year that the tree goes up.  It’s post turkey day, too, so it's likely the shopping is now in full swing, the Christmas music which you either eagerly await or despise is making it’s creepy little way into every moment of airspace that is usually otherwise quiet.  Maybe decorations go up gradually, or maybe you live in a household where everything emerges at once; an all day, all hands on deck affair of unpacking large storage tubs full of sparkly things, stockings, ornaments, memories of holidays past…

Whatever the case may be, this week we’re talking trees, and the low waste options that exist for wherever you are on the spectrum of low waste living. There are a few options if you’re the tree decorating type, and we wanted to give a quick weigh-in on their benefits, drawbacks, and open a dialogue about what might be right for you.  There aren’t necessarily wrong answers here, as different tree options might suit different budgets, preferences, or lifestyles better, depending on your circumstances.  Let's get into it!

Option 1: a fake tree.  Before certain low wasters start balking, a fake tree is a fine option for a few pretty solid reasons.  If you find one you like, it can and should feasibly last you years, maybe even decades.  Finding one that suits your space is a good idea, especially if you know you want a certain shape or height.  Also, having a fake tree that can be interchangeable over the years when it comes to lights, decor themes, or ornaments is a good idea too.  A fake tree might suit your needs better if you travel during the holiday season, or are often away from home but want to deck your halls and have a cheery space.  Putting the lights on a timer will eliminate the need to remember to turn it off when you aren’t home, and potentially save you some $ in energy costs. (Put LEDs on too!)  Also, not having to remember to water it? Not worrying about it drying out?  Priceless.

A pretty big drawback to fake trees, however, is their carbon footprint.  Most of them are in fact, made of plastic, which makes them a potential deal breaker for some. But, if you know you’re going to use it for at least 5-10 years, it does offset that footprint in use and longevity.  If you want to replace a fake tree, look to see if you can donate somewhere that it will certainly be reused. Better yet, purchase a second hand fake tree if you’re in the market for one, thereby eliminating the demand for new ones to continue to be made. Remember the R’s, y’all.  You know which ones. Especially knowing that if you do have a fake tree and it does end up in the waste stream, it will likely take the better part of a couple hundred years to break down. Eesh.

Option 2: a real tree.  Whether you head to a farm to cut your own, or purchase it from a lot, or even make a day to go cut one down in the forest, a real tree might be your best option.  If a lot bought tree is the way to go for you, just make sure you get one that is relatively fresh--you can test this by picking off a few of the needles and bending them in half to see if they break. If the needles are beginning to go brittle, it's likely the tree is already a little dry. You can revive it, though, so don’t overlook one that’s less than super fresh, so as to reduce the possibility of it just being thrown away if it doesn’t sell.  Buying a tree off the lot is a great option if you’re a city kid who just wants a real tree, and you want to be able to support someone local.  Know that this will probably be more expensive though. You pay for the convenience with this option.  But hey, if it's worth it, it's worth it.

If you decide to cut your own from a farm or go cut one down in the woods, be sure to abide by the rules set in place by the farm, or by the forest service.  Going to a farm is great if you want the experience of getting outdoors for your tree, but don’t really have the time, the vehicle, or the know-how to get out in the woods for real.  It's also a great option if you want that experience and have smaller kiddos, and want to support a local farmer.  

If going out into the wild, you’ll need a permit. This can be obtained at most bait stores, hardware stores, etc, and are only $5. You’ll just need to specify which national forest you intend on going to to get your tree, and abiding by the regulations for which it's okay to take a tree.  Keep in mind that most evergreen trees take at least 7 years to be mature enough to cut down, and there are often other stipulations for which it is okay to cut down a tree.  It should go without saying, but respect the regulations set in place.  There are often rules specifying the height of the tree, the size of its trunk, and its distance in relation to streams, waterways, roads, hills, etc.  These rules are in place for the health of the ecosystem, your safety, and longevity of the forest. RESPECT THEM.

Overall up and downsides of a real tree are universal regardless of how the thing ends up in your living room.  It smells gorgeous, and can continue to do so if you invest the time and energy into maintaining it and keeping it as alive and happy as you can while it is up. Keep up on your watering, water it with cold water, and mist the tree daily, so as to avoid it drying out in the warm, bone dry air of most indoor environments in the winter.  Keeping your tree well watered will keep it fresher longer, and also reduce the risk of fire--ever present danger during the holiday season.  Again, it wouldn’t hurt to hook up your lights to a timer, either.  Keep those energy costs down where ya can!  

Another real big plus of a real tree, and perhaps THE plus for many folks, is that they’re biodegradable at the end of their lifetime.  Being mindful of how you dispose of your tree is also an important factor in determining if you want a real one in the first place.  Considering cut trees can’t be replanted, keeping in mind what will happen to your tree after the season deserves some thought and intention.   Some municipal services offer free disposal with your yard debris, or you can cut down the tree into smaller bits to fit in the bin.  You can also donate to a nonprofit, or local Boy Scout troops, baseball teams, etc etc, to have them haul away your tree. If you have the time, space, and don’t really care, you can certainly just take your tree outside to a corner of your yard and let nature take over from there. Or, look to see if any local gardening groups can use the tree at the end of the season for compost building.  There are plenty of options toward ensuring you dispose of your tree responsibly.  

Option 3: a real tree, but potted. Or, decorate your house plants!  This is another excellent option if you want the benefits of having a real tree, but want to y’know, not just cut a living thing down to watch it slowly die in your living room. (No shade. Plant pun.) 

Norfolk pines are on the market in a variety of sizes to fit any space, and they make a very festive addition to your houseplant collection.  If you have a bit of a green thumb and know a thing or two about how to keep a plant alive, you can keep the tree and continue to watch it grow.  Keep in mind that it isn't a true pine, though. Norfolks are actually tropical, and their needs are similar to an orchid.  They like several hours of direct sunlight a day, so a south facing window is a great option. They also like high humidity, so a bathroom with natural light, a pebble tray, or regular misting of the plant will help keep it alive and healthy. They’ll happily continue to live indoors year round, as they aren’t especially cold hardy.  You can decorate it if ya like, and definitely get more than one holiday season’s enjoyment out of it!

If all that isn’t your vibe, but you do have other houseplants, consider decorating those for the holiday season!  This is a great option if you already have plants, and don’t want to spend the time or money on a Christmas tree.  It’s also a great option environmentally, because you are using what you already have.  Consider the needs of your plants when decorating--  some lights and not so heavy ornaments do great on larger, more established plants. There are also strands of mini lights that are nice and lightweight that are a great option for your pre-existing household flora.  It doesn’t *have* to be a certain kind of tree to be festive, either. We’ll be decorating our yucca tree in the living room, and setting up another fake tree in our basement hang space.  Get creative!

Every kind of tree has its reason to be a part of the season.  Take some time and give some thought to what your needs are, and what might happen with the tree when it is no longer the centerpiece of your holiday decor.  Time, energy usage, environmental impact, money, etc---these are all valid and important factors in considering what might be the best option for you. The point is, think beyond just the occasion at hand, consider the environment, and take some time to evaluate your impact during a season that is already fueled with unfettered consumerism.  Happy decorating!

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