When New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Radio City Rockettes lit the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center this year, more than 30,000 multi-colored bulbs sparkled on the 84-foot-tall Norway Spruce. But instead of the usual incandescent bulbs, they were LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, which emit more light per watt—ultimately saving the same amount of energy consumed by a typical 2,000-square-foot house in one month. City officials hope that this energy-saving technique will inspire others to have a truly green Christmas tree this season.
Experts say it is not that difficult to make holiday trees eco-friendly. "You can make simple changes that don't affect the way you celebrate the holidays, but will reduce environmental problems," says Jennifer Hattam, lifestyle editor at the Sierra Club.
The real versus artificial tree debate crops up every year, but environmentalists have come to a pretty clear-cut consensus: Natural is better. About 450 million trees are currently grown on farms in the U.S., according to the National Christmas Tree Association. "Buying a real tree is not depleting the forests," says Rick Dungey, a spokesman for the association. "It's like buying any food or fiber product."
Environmental experts also point out that tree farms provide oxygen, diminish carbon dioxide and create jobs. While 85 percent of fake trees are imported from China, the U.S. Christmas tree industry creates more than 100,000 U.S. jobs. And although fake trees can be used year after year, most are made out of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic. When produced or burned, they release dioxins that can cause liver cancer and developmental problems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Those looking to purchase a real tree have several options. While not abundant, organic farms around the country offer locally grown, pesticide-free trees and wreaths. Buying from tree farms that use integrated pest management (IHP), which is a biological, rather than chemical, method of pest control is another option. For example, growers release ladybugs that kill plant-eating aphids. "It recreates the natural cycle," says Stacey Gonzalez of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, who added that IHP is 30 percent cheaper than conventional pesticides.
Another recent trend is "balled and burlapped" or "living" trees, where farmers grow the Christmas tree's roots into a ball and wrap it in a burlap sack. These trees can be used for two weeks, and then replanted outside in warmer regions. Some companies will deliver the trees and then pick them up to replant them after the holidays.
Those trimming the tree can also make other holiday decorations more environmentally friendly. Aside from the energy-saving LEDs, organic ornaments are available at fair-trade companies, which work to ensure that artisans get equitable compensation for their labor.
As with all other waste, environmentalists stress the importance of recycling Christmas trees, which can be turned into compost or mulch. But they caution that a tree with tinsel or fake snow spray cannot be recycled. Most "treecycling" is done on a local level and regional extension agencies are the best resources for that information. But Earth911.org and the National Christmas Tree Association keep a national database.
Despite the efforts of environmental organizations, only 28.6 million households purchased real trees in 2006, down from 32.8 million the previous year. Those years also saw a 6.5 percent increase in plastic trees being imported from China, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Dungey attributes these changes mostly to the convenience of artificial trees and misinformation about the benefits of real trees to the environment.
"Christmas time is an opportunity to reflect on how we live, and it's important to think of the impact of our decisions," Gonzalez says. "This time of year could be a great step in the right direction."