Turns out there's a controversy for every carbon footprint: Dive into the seemingly tepid rabbit hole of Christmas trees, and you'll find a roiling debate over which is better, an artificial one or a "real" one, meaning live fir, spruces or pines.
Phonies say fake trees save real trees' lives, not to mention are more affordable, last forever and only use up the carbon footprint of their one-time manufacture, as long as you keep it out of the landfill. Fir-brains say Christmas tree farms practice eco-friendly farming by depositing organic matter back into the earth with twigs and needles, preventing soil erosion and housing a diverse ecosystem of wildlife.
But the scales of justice seem to be swinging back in favor of the live tree, whose biodegradable, lead- and plastics-free pedigree is in keeping with the trend toward all things local and natural. When bought from local farms, they travel and pollute less, offering a renewable alternative to the same old factory-shipped-from-China, future-landfill occupier we're used to.
But for an argument-settling word on the best way to decorate with the least environmental impact, we consulted Lindsay Walker, a recycling activities coordinator at Vanderbilt who hustles to make sure all the university's big-crowd events feature prominent recycling options, for the best way to feed the tree this season. Walker shared a tip or five for going low-carbon on the holiday pizzazz this year.
First, buy a tree locally, and with a root ball, so it can be replanted after use, says Walker. Go for a local native variety, such as Virginia pine or a loblolly pine from a local farm. If you can't buy a replantable tree, get a traditional live tree, but be sure to compost it. Nashville offers Christmas tree drop-off locations each year after the holidays, where they collect the trees and turn them into mulch.
But if you must go the plastic tree route, buy it secondhand. "Goodwill has a ton of plastic trees," says Walker. "The benefit is that it's already made, and at least you're taking it out of the landfill."
But a tree isn't much of a beacon of holiday spirit if it's not shining its credentials from across the room, which leads to a LEED-y kind of question: how to light this conscientious heap of wood without canceling out all the good karma?
"LED lights are the best way to go," advises Walker. "They use 90 percent less energy than traditional incandescent lights. And they last 50,000 hours or more." For a minimizing punch, put them on a timer, she says, or just keep them on for short periods of time.
But lights aren't even necessary when recycled and natural materials are a stone's throw away — and a throwback to 16th century tree-decorating tradition. Consider including nuts and cranberries, or modernize with popcorn or colored raffia made with post-consumer recycled content (available at most office supply stores), instead of the usual energy-gobbling strands.
Thrift and antique stores are a great source for recycled and secondhand decorations that have already lived in sin in a former life, and now are just begging to be converted. But if that's not pure enough for you, go ahead and slum it, if you must: Consider making all your ornaments out of garbage.
"Coke and Sprite are red and green and make perfect ornaments," says Walker, who's seen decorations made from tin cans into flower shapes, and trees made out of steel wire with glass bottles on the ends. Probably not the safest approach for the kids, though. In which case, you'll have to rethink your original aversion to plastic — only in this case, it's for a good cause.
"I've even seen a tree made entirely out plastic bottles," she recalls. "In fact, it's probably the safest material to work with, and the most abundant. As long as you can find the green ones."
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