Is there an environmentally friendly approach to Christmas trees? Let’s take a look.
By Jennifer Humphries
Having a decorated evergreen in your home reflects customs going back to ancient times, to the Yule of the early Germanic peoples and the Roman mid-winter festival of Saturnalia. The North American Christmas tradition began in Sorel, Québec, in 1781 when a balsam fir decorated with fruits and candles graced a Christmas Eve party of British and German officers.
A more recent tradition is arguing the environmental pros and cons of the artificial vs natural tree: the fake vs real debate.
For some people, viewing the long line-up of cut, individually wrapped trees at the local market goes against the grain, so to speak. Does it make sense, when we know that living trees play such a critical ecological role, to chop thousands, use them for a month or so, and then toss them to the curb? And what happens when they hit the sidewalk? What does the City of Ottawa mean when it says the trees will be recycled?
On the other hand, how enviro-friendly are those boxed artificial trees manufactured in Asia and shipped over long distances to department and big-box stores?
Well, I’ve done a bit of research, and I’m a believer. Real trees, cut or in a planter, are a better eco-choice and better for our local community and economy. Here’s why, in a nutshell.
- Tree farms plant thousands of seedlings each year. They grow for seven to 10 years, the time when evergreens yield the greatest volume of oxygen, and they absorb tons of carbon dioxide. So they clean the air we breathe. The trees provide wildlife habitat and protect against soil erosion.
- Trees are planted on terrain that isn’t good for other crops. In fact, crops such as soybeans are more lucrative, but they don’t grow on marginal land where evergreens can thrive. So it’s a good use of the land.
- Farms employ local people. The trees are a helpful addition to farmers’ relatively volatile income. And most of the tree farms in our area are family owned and operated, with many into second or even third generation ownership.
- Unlike artificial specimens, real trees are organic so totally compostable. And there are other uses for “expired” trees. See below for ideas to inspire.
- Take a look at the fascinating Christmas tree information on Statistics Canada’s website. Amid the fun facts you will see that real trees are a major export for Canada. Artificial trees are imported – they’re a major export for China, the top manufacturer, and a handful of other countries. Not for Canada.
Further, a 2009 life-cycle assessment study by Ellipsos Consulting looked at the artificial versus natural question in regard to Christmas trees in Montreal and determined that a fake tree would need to be reused for at least 20 years to be “greener” than a natural cut evergreen. Over a typical six-year span – most are discarded within that timeframe – an artificial tree is responsible for three times the carbon emissions of those associated with a real tree. Artificial trees are typically made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) which releases dioxin, a carcinogen, into the air during production. They also release dioxin if incinerated. They aren’t recyclable.
What about that recycling question? The City of Ottawa will collect your real tree and mulch it. However, the city has found that the mulch, while it will biodegrade, isn’t of the quality needed to use in gardens, so it can only be used as cover within the landfill site. A key problem is contamination – despite many people following the directive to remove tinsel and other ornaments, some don’t, and it’s not feasible to try to sort or clean it – or if technically possible, it’s economically unsound. Jean-Sébastien Rousseau of the city landfill team advises residents to remove all decorations from trees and also wreaths. Don’t throw out the wreath with the wires still on it – remove all decorations, fastenings and the frame. It may be a bother, but it’s worth it to ensure that the organic material is mulched so it can readily biodegrade rather than being batched with non-organic, non-compostable material.
Bringing a living evergreen tree into your home for the holidays seems to be a nice green option. I asked Owen Clarkin for his thoughts. Clarkin is well-known across Ottawa as a naturalist who shares his vast tree knowledge through articles, interviews (including for the Glebe Report) and guided walks.
“Having a cut tree, which is in fact dead, seems a strange way to celebrate a magical season,” Clarkin said. “You could consider decorating a tree outside your front window, for example a slow-growing cypress, or get an indoor Norfolk Island pine, a tropical conifer that thrives indoors and will be with you all year long.” He isn’t opposed to cutting Christmas trees, but he strongly urges getting one at a tree farm. “I don’t encourage cutting wild-growing trees,” he said. “If you cut a conifer down, it can’t resprout, unlike broad-leaved deciduous trees, and is doomed to die (only rare exceptions such as Pitch Pine can resprout). Conifers, especially the forest-dwelling spruces, firs and hemlock, have declined substantially with human land use patterns. Christmastree- sized conifers in the forest may be decades old and represent the next generation of their kind; if significant numbers of sapling spruces, firs and hemlock are removed from the woods as single-use Christmas trees, these species will decline or even disappear locally.”
A few years ago Nick Xenos, a resident of Champlain Park, started the tradition of buying a potted evergreen from Parkdale Market for his family’s Christmas. After the season, A very merry and green Christmas the tree finds a home in his house or on the front porch for a few months and then is ready for spring planting. Xenos only had space for the first tree, which is growing beautifully in his back yard, but a neighbour has taken the others to plant in a nearby woods.
Richmond Nursery’s Peter Rofner warns, though, that up to 90 per cent of potted trees don’t survive because they need special care. “In winter the tree is dormant. Don’t keep it in a warm environment for longer than 10 days – less is better – or it will break dormancy. Then place it in your unheated garage or a very sheltered area to protect it from severe cold. Don’t let it dry out – don’t overwater though. The tree doesn’t need light – it isn’t photosynthesizing during this time. If you follow these steps, your tree should survive and be ready to plant in the spring.”
Don’t forget poinsettias when you’re getting your tree. Richmond Nursery grows a huge number of the plants. Canada is a major producer: Statistics Canada reports that 6.5 million potted poinsettias were produced in greenhouses in Canada in 2016. Buy Canadian!
All things considered, a cut tree is a relatively good choice for the environment. In our recent conversation, Rofner put it this way: “Trees are always renewable and provide beneficial impacts such as oxygen release and carbon dioxide absorption. We don’t use chemicals here in Canada – exceptions may be if there is a pest such as in Nova Scotia where they had to control the pine beetle. We don’t use colourants as they sometimes do in the United States. At our farm we use trees as mulch over our strawberry fields. At your own home you can use the boughs to place over your tender perennials. They will catch the snow and act as an insulator. You can also thin out the tree and put it up in your yard to use as a bird feeder.” On the latter point, take a look at www.thespruce.com and search on “Decorate a Christmas tree for the birds.”
A final piece of advice about cut trees: try to buy local. Doing so reduces your carbon footprint. You can either buy right here in the ’hood (next door to Kunstadt Sports on Bank Street, Richard Milks will again offer local trees and wreaths – he’s been in the Glebe for over 20 years) or, if going to a farm, choose one within a reasonable driving distance. Happily there is an abundance of choices, as our beautiful area produces superior trees.
So, while I totally understand the attractiveness of the artificial tree (convenient, quick to put up, nice shape every time) and while I confess that our family has had an artificial tree for over 20 years, I now quite agree with Linus Van Pelt’s assessment of Charlie Brown’s wobbly, scrawny but all-natural evergreen in A Charlie Brown Christmas: “I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”
For more information on Christmas trees, see “Resources” on the Glebe Report website at www.glebereport.ca.
Many farms have great websites. You may wish to look for a family-run operation (most are) and one that supports a charitable cause (many do). And, of course, check that the farm grows the type of tree that you are keen on. Some farms offer family or kids’ activities; some are also canine friendly. Many farms offer special activities and events so you can make a whole day of it. Generally, it’s recommended to call ahead to be sure of what’s happening.
While not all farms are listed, for helpful information see the Ontario Christmas Tree Growers Association website at www.christmastrees.on.ca/; from menu item “Harvest your own,” select Ottawa Area.
Which species of tree to choose – what the tree grading system means – how to care for your Christmas tree to make it last – how to care for a living potted tree you wish to plant outside in the spring. Also, Peter Rofner’s blog offers a wealth of gardening tips and information, including this interesting piece on his own recycling efforts: www.richmondnursery.com/index.php/en/about-us/our-community/item/14-recycling
www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/letters/9701961/Recycling-Christmas-trees-for-festive-firewood.html “A reader says: “Rather than throwing our tree away, I trim the branches and leave it to season by the log pile. The following Christmas we cut it into small logs to kindle the fire on Christmas morning.”
www.cookquiltmakeandbake.wordpress.com/2012/01/11/make-balsam-fir-scented-sachets-from-a-christmas-tree/ Use your tree’s needles to make sachets.
www.thisoldhouse.com/ideas/10-uses-your-dead-christmas-tree — some of these ideas are more practical than others….but take a look and you may be inspired.
Jennifer Humphries is co-chair of the Glebe Community Association’s Environment Committee. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
JANE’S WALK ON TREES
In 2019, Owen Clarkin will be leading a Jane’s Walk in the Glebe. Plan now to join in this family-friendly two-hour stroll to explore the beauties and mysteries of our neighbourhood’s conifers and deciduous trees. What better way to celebrate spring and the legacy of living city advocate Jane Jacobs? Details to follow in spring issues of the Glebe Report.