Myth vs. Fact: Sustainability and the Holidays

You may need to reuse your fake Christmas tree 20 times (!) before its climate impact is lower than that of a real tree

Tuesday’s total eclipse of the moon happened to coincide with the 2010 winter solstice. This is a combined rarity that has only happened once in the past 2,000 years. This singular kickoff to winter indubitably merits a certain amount of attention paid to staying green in this year’s season of white. You may think that hanging a Christmas pickle on your tree does the trick, but there are plenty of other more effective ways to stay green this winter season.  Test your knowledge below with these five myth-busting winter wonders in this a CAP cross-post.

Myth #1: Faux-fir trees are immortal and therefore unquestionably green.

Fact: Most fake plastic trees are made of hard-to-recycle plastics such as PVC, shipped stateside from China, and do more harm to the environment than good.

The perceived immortality of an artificial tree is misunderstood. Most fake trees only last for about 6 to 10 years before they reach their withered-away Charlie Brown point and then spend eternity in a landfill because they are extremely expensive to recycle. Real trees are biodegradable, local, and they smell nice. They can also be reused as compost or mulch. Read more on the real versus fake tree debate here (and below).

Myth #2: Warming up the car in the driveway is necessary and safe.

Fact: Warming up the car in the driveway is unnecessary, ineffective, unsafe, and a waste of gas.

Idling the car doesn’t warm the engine as fast as actually driving it, and after about 10 seconds of idling you start to lose money. Idling also releases unnecessary pollutants into the air, harming both the atmosphere and your health. The Environmental Defense Fund is so serious about this issue that they started an “Idling Gets You Nowhere” campaign to raise awareness. So you can take their word and keep it moving, or take Rihanna’s.

Myth #3: There is no harm in buying 50 holiday greeting cards to “send out.”

Fact: Each year the United States alone cuts down 300,000 trees to make Christmas cards.

That amount is enough to fill a football stadium 10 stories high with Christmas cat holiday cheer. Instead of driving to the nearest drugstore for your holiday card fix, try making some at home out of recycled card stock, or opt for email. Websites like are hilarious, free, and paperless.

Myth #4: The most brightly lit house on the block is the best.

Fact: Lighting your house enough to be seen from the Hubble Space Telescope is an enormous waste of energy and resources””not to mention inefficient if you are using anything other than LED light bulbs.

LED lights realize 80 percent efficiency and last for around 10 years. That’s a big difference compared to incandescent bulbs’ 20 percent efficiency and one-year lifespan. Extra bonus: If one light burns out in your string of LED holiday lights, your display of Baby Jesus won’t be jeopardized. LEDs aren’t just for your winter holiday needs, either. Stick them in your house and you’ll be green all year long.

Myth #5: Soy is only good for an afternoon caramel brul©e latte or an evening eggnog.

Fact: Soy is more prevalent and useful than you think, and soy candles are a sustainable alternative for your winter lighting needs and greener than traditional paraffin candles.

Paraffin is made from an oil byproduct and is bad for both your health and the environment. Soot from paraffin candles includes toxins and carcinogens. Conversely, soy is made from a renewable resource, and it’s biodegradable. Soy candles also burn longer, and they’re better for your health, producing 90 percent less soot than paraffin candles.

Keep these facts in mind as you wander through winter and this could be your greenest season yet.

— a CAP cross-post

JR:  Here’s the NY Times on the subject from last week:

When it comes to Christmas trees, Americans increasingly prefer plastic pines over the real thing.

Sales of fake trees are expected to approach 13 million this year, a record, as quality improves and they get more convenient, with features like built-in lights and easy collapsibility. All told, well over 50 million artificial Christmas trees will grace living rooms and dens this season, according to the industry’s main trade group, compared to about 30 million real trees.

Kim Jones, who was shopping for a tree at a Target store in Brooklyn this week, was convinced that she was doing the planet a favor by buying a $200 fake balsam fir made in China instead of buying a carbon-sipping pine that had been cut down for one season’s revelry.

“I’m very environmentally conscious,” Ms. Jones said. “I’ll keep it for 10 years, and that’s 10 trees that won’t be cut down.”

But Ms. Jones and the millions of others buying fake trees might not be doing the environment any favors.

In the most definitive study of the perennial real vs. fake question, an environmental consulting firm in Montreal found that an artificial tree would have to be reused for more than 20 years to be greener than buying a fresh-cut tree annually. The calculations included greenhouse gas emissions, use of resources and human health impacts.

“The natural tree is a better option,” said Jean-Sebastien Trudel, founder of the firm, Ellipsos, that released the independent study last year.

The annual carbon emissions associated with using a real tree every year were just one-third of those created by an artificial tree over a typical six-year lifespan. Most fake trees also contain polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, which produces carcinogens during manufacturing and disposal.

Ellipsos specifically studied the market for Christmas trees bought in Montreal and either grown in Quebec or manufactured in China. Mr. Trudel said the results would most likely differ for other cities and regions. Excessive driving by consumers to purchase real trees could tip the scales back in favor of artificial trees, at least in terms of carbon emissions.

Over all, the study found that the environmental impact of real Christmas trees was quite small, and significantly less than that of artificial trees “” a conclusion shared by environmental groups and some scientists.

“You’re not doing any harm by cutting down a Christmas tree,” said Clint Springer, a botanist and professor of biology at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “A lot of people think artificial is better because you’re preserving the life of a tree. But in this case, you’ve got a crop that’s being raised for that purpose.”

… The balance tilts in favor of natural Christmas trees because of the way they are grown and harvested.

Close to 400 million trees now grow on Christmas tree farms in the United States, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, which represents growers and retailers of real trees. About 30 million trees are harvested annually.

The living trees generate oxygen, help fix carbon in their branches and in the soil and provide habitat for birds and animals, Mr. Springer said.

Christmas tree farms also help preserve farmland and green space, particularly near densely populated urban areas where pressure for development is intense.

“It allows people with land that may not be the best farmland to have a crop that they can actually make a profit on, and not be under pressure to sell out to developers,” said Mike Garrett, owner and operator of a Christmas tree farm in Sussex, N.J.

After the holidays, real trees can continue to serve a purpose. New York City, for instance, offers free curbside recycling for trees, which are turned into compost. The city’s parks department also provides a free mulching service for trees at several locations after the holidays. In 2009, nearly 150,000 trees were composted or mulched in the city.

Artificial trees, by contrast, are manufactured almost exclusively in Asia from plastic and metal and cannot be recycled by most municipal recycling programs. After six to 10 years of use, most will end up in a landfill.

35 Responses to Myth vs. Fact: Sustainability and the Holidays

  1. Thanks Joe. A Merry Christmas to you and your family. Cheers.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    Plastic trees are in terrible taste, smell bad, and I’m not surprised about the carbon footprint. Maybe the best solution is to use a very small local conifer, and call that the Christmas tree.

  3. cr says:

    My family used the fake tree because of allergies. And we used it at least 20 years. And then donated it when we moved out of the house.

    And if I ever have space to put up another tree, it’ll be fake. As a non-driver, hard to go out and look for a tree, and then bring it home on a bus.

    Would I like to have a real tree? Sure. Not an option right now.

  4. BB says:

    I don’t know if people think about Myth #1 and #2 the way you do.

    I know a lot of people who get fake trees, and LOVE the fact that they can get 6-10 years out of them. It’s all relative. They combine the ‘green’ of the environment with the ‘green’ of the cash they save. Ever see how expensive it is for the urbanites to get a real tree every year?

    Likewise, with starting the car from inside the house and warming it up through idling…I’m with you there on inefficient and unsafe, but how could anyone who actually does it say it’s unnecessary? The only goal of doing it is to have the car warm when you sit in it…what alternative do we have that achieves that objective? I don’t actually do it because by the time I get out to the car I’m already cold enough to deal with it. Myth #4, while I understand what you’re saying, has a touch of Bah-Humbug.

    I think the cost of postage alone will be taking care of Myth #3 :)

    Merry Christmas everyone!

  5. Alteredstory says:

    The one that always stood out for me is that a young, growing tree fixes carbon faster than an older one, generally. That means that if you get a live tree, it’s freed up space for another to be planted, to allow more carbon fixation.

  6. Robert Brulle says:

    My solution to the Christmas tree issue is to buy a live, small tree.
    Then it becomes an indoor plant till the spring, when I can then plant
    it outside. No cutting of trees, no recycling, and it makes a tiny contribution to increasing green space.

  7. Lionel A says:

    On soy the rapid spread of plantations in South America is having a huge impact on forest size:

    The Amazon: it’s what’s for dinner: the spread of soy plantations poses a new threat to the rainforest.

    As for starting up a car and running it for a couple of minutes, this is useful whilst scraping ice off the windscreens frontr and back (and removing top snow cover to avoid distracting avalanches), the front screen blower starts to push out some heat which will help stop the screen freezing over again causing a visibility hazard once on the road. Not all have garages to house their motors.

    Although that would not help in the old days when driving one of these: Morris 1000 as one had to do about a hundred miles before the heater was producing any noticeable heat.

    On a more interesting development I have just had a prompt from Amazon that David Archer’s (note link is to Amazon UK) The Warming Papers can be pre-ordered. Promptly done.

  8. Daniel J. Andrews says:

    We were just discussing live tree vs artificial tree. I had thought an artificial tree was the better option. Oops. Do you suppose they counted all the energy used vacuuming up needles from a live tree?

    Personally I wouldn’t even bother with a tree of any type, but Ive been over-ruled. :)

    Robert–I think that’s a great idea. I’ll be suggesting that for next year.

  9. Bob Lang says:

    Last-minute gift idea – made in Canada, eh:

  10. Sue in NH says:

    How about not buying any sort of tree at all?
    It’s always seemed foolish to me to cut down a tree, put it in the house and then throw it out a week later. More than foolish, its always been more like heart breaking.

    I understand Christmas tree farms are good in many ways, but wouldn’t it be better to have a natural forest with a diverse assemblage of trees and critters?

    Killing trees as a celebration has never made any more sense to me than shopping for stuff made by poor people in other countries and sold at a discount in the mall. Truthfully I find most of these holiday traditions quite disturbing, in the sense that they are just another example of humanity pillaging the Earth’s resources in a mindless fit of excessive consumption.

    Of course none of it makes any sense to me anyway starting with trying to get my mind around the paradox of God’s love somehow being proven with a story of human sacrifice. It’s not very popular to be a non-believer at this time of year.

    But if we just payed the Earth a tiny portion of the respect we give to God, we might be way better off.

  11. Bruce says:

    Christmas is a bunk to begin with and is just another commercial enterprise.
    And the car idling — I always thought the only time for this is just to get the oil up from the oil pan and circulating through the engine.
    Is that true?
    And the rest of the time is a waste…

  12. Ziyu says:

    Here’s a perfect example of what NOT to do. Even though it is pretty cool.

  13. Michael says:

    Ziyu (12) –

    Or this one:

    American House Lit Up by One Million Christmas Lights

    Quote: “If they use LEDs, they “only” have to pay a $10,680 electric bill, while proudly owning an environment-friendly installation.”

    Seems like they think that using LEDs (don’t think they all are; in that case, the bill would be up to $82,000; 1 million lights x 5 watts each = 5 MW, normal 200 amp home service is only 24 kW) is an excuse to splurge; I have also seen this used as an argument that energy-saving lights (general lighting) won’t really save energy because people will leave them on longer or use more.

    In my house, we just have a small artificial tree that has been used for at least 10 years and is still in good condition, given that it is 3 feet tall and we don’t have to disassemble or redecorate it every year; it is turned on during the evening until we go to bed, for a couple weeks (the lights are the normal ones but probably will be replaced with LEDs when they burn out).

    And Bruce (11), I agree that Christmas has become too commercialized and many people have forgotten the real meaning.

  14. I got stuck on the word “sustainability” – which I think is green code for “business as usual” …- A better term might be survivability.

    That said,…pause, breath, and time to enjoy what we have, know that the solstice celebration reminds us of our changing place in the cosmos. And it may be most wise to just reuse and recycle what exists now, and not promote manufacturing that is not smart.

    Thanks go to you Joe, and to fellow CP Minions. Some great ideas are born here.

  15. Bob Lang says:

    re: post #9

    Here’s the product I was trying to link in my post above:

  16. Colorado Bob says:

    Major atmospheric pattern shift coming
    The unseasonably cold weather over Europe and the Eastern U.S. is due to break between Christmas and New Year’s, as the atmosphere undergoes a major shift in its circulation. The very unusual high pressure region over the Arctic is forecast to break down and be replaced by the typical low pressure region we expect to see in winter. After recording some of its coldest temperatures in 17 years this week, the UK may well see record highs on New Year’s Eve as a result of the pattern shift. The pattern shift should bring the Eastern U.S. above-normal temperatures during the last few days of 2010, and a major New Year’s Eve snowstorm to Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

  17. Prokaryotes says:

    Alteredstory said “The one that always stood out for me is that a young, growing tree fixes carbon faster than an older one, generally. That means that if you get a live tree, it’s freed up space for another to be planted, to allow more carbon fixation.”

    Isn’t all the Co2 released once the tree starts decomposing (after if was lumbered).

    Basically events like Christmas are about consumerism and celebrating the life style which lead us to the climate change situation in the first place.

  18. Prokaryotes says:

    And hypothetical this event could become carbon negative …

  19. Prokaryotes says:

    The airline should use algae fuel or compensate their Co2 foot prints, flying is way to cheap! Packages should be recyclable, stuff should be bought local (if possible), Christmas mega street lightning all night should use 100% renewable … it’s things like this which should become mandatory.

    You do not have to lose on life style, you just have to change the underling technologies.

  20. Theodore says:

    No product should ever be manufactured without a license. That license should be obtainable only if the manufacturer has a plan and facilities for demanufacturing the product and recycling its components and a financial incentive to do so. Every licensed product should have a number on it that can be used to identify the company, location, process and deposit refund associated with its return. There should be no landfills. No licensed product should have a carbon footprint or significantly toxic byproduct associated with either its production or disposal. If this cannot be done for a certain product, then we should learn to live without that product.

  21. Your advice to “get educated, get outraged, and get political” in Hell and High Water sums it up nicely. So, while I’m not overly optimistic, if you haven’t given up, then neither can the rest of us. Happy holidsys, and thanks for an outstanding website and book.

  22. Prokaryotes says:

    One way to handle Christmas trees, could be to collect them and make Biochar. With Biochar in the end of the product cycle, the usage of trees becomes very good in climate terms. You not only getting a nice Christmas tree, at the same time you contribute active to sequester carbon. You possibly even get some of your money back in exchange for taken part of this program. Transport of used Christmas trees is already happening, why not make a bad situation very potential?

    Christmas trees should grow much better with Biochar accordingly to soil situation applied and the oil and Biogas could be used to finance the project. These local Biochar groups have the potential to run such task throughout the entire year and good be the start of large scale worldwide carbon sequestering.

    Communities not only start to earn money from something which already happening and create jobs, they even create the basis for a whole new kind of human activities, which is much more natural and counter acts bio diversity loose or desertification.

    While this is all great in the developed world, developing countries could start to prosper, which in turn reduces child birth rates (poorer people tend to have more offspring).

    Only with worldwide actions to reduce Co2 in the atmosphere, Dr. Lovelock estimates that this could be the tool to prevent catastrophic climate change. A recent Nature study found that each year 18% of worldwide emissions could be offset with these kind of actions!

  23. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Merry Christmas to all those here.

    I have grown to hate the commercialized hub bub of Christmas. Gotta have this, gotta have that, go here, go there, eat too much and then eat some more. Give presents that they do not want, get presents that you don’t want. It has really got way out of hand, an ordeal to be endured rather than a celebration.

  24. Michael T says:

    Merry Christmas to Joe and to all the readers here at Climate Progress. Happy holidays and happy new year to everyone.

  25. Laphroaig says:

    Video Christmas Tree + 80″ TV

    …I knew there had to have been a good reason for getting that television.

  26. RunawayRose says:

    Well, partly from laziness, I’m not doing any Christmas decorating this year. I will be singing at Christmas Midnight Mass in the choir, then go across town to my sister’s place tomorrow, have dinner with her, her daughter, son-in-law, and exchange small presents. (I’m giving giant plush microbes from Think Geek, plus a book on biochar to nephew-in-law, who is worried about global warming and has part of a share of a family farm.)

  27. Edith Wiethorn says:

    My favorite Christmas tree was my son’s gnarled 5′ Sagebrush, rescued from the bulldozer on a construction site. It was almost white with leaf-velvet & made a glowing cloud in the tiny red lights he put on it. That it evoked ancient Bonsai & he has a Black Belt in Aikido completed the ambience …

  28. llewelly says:

    So, I know someone who got an aluminum and wood re-usable christmas tree, which was used 21 times. What was the impact of that?

  29. Eric says:

    Myth #2 isn’t entirely false. Idling IS sometimes necessary for me when idling my car in the morning. When you’re in sub-zero Northern Ontario, windshields tend to develop a layer of ice on them overnight and one can’t see through the windshield without idling, leaving the windshield defrosters on full blast while simultaneously scraping off the ice.

    One could argue that you could scrape off the ice without the car on, but it’s not always the case (depending how thick the ice is)

  30. Mike says:

    “Fact: Warming up the car in the driveway is unnecessary, ineffective, unsafe, and a waste of gas.

    Idling the car doesn’t warm the engine as fast as actually driving it, and after about 10 seconds of idling you start to lose money.”

    Obviously not written by a Canadian. Try driving a car without letting it warm up for at least 5 minutes when it’s -45°C. For one, everything is so frozen it’ll barely shift gears, and it’s still FORTY FIVE below in the car after your “10 seconds”.

  31. Roger says:

    OT, but a true Christmas eve story I’d like to share with other CPers.

    At a candlelight church service earlier tonight I began to wonder if the human race would be able to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. I also wondered if the things we climate activists are doing will be enough to matter. Finally, I wondered why I was spending much of my free time on climate, given the uncertainty involved. Then my six and three year-old grandkids quietly came over to sit with me. I hugged them both and wondered no more. We must win.

    Warmest wishes for a wonderful Christmas of peace and good will.

  32. monkeys says:

    The living trees generate oxygen, help fix carbon in their branches and in the soil and provide habitat for birds and animals, Mr. Springer said.
    Irrelevant. The tree will decompose and the carbon will be released.

  33. catman306 says:

    I wanted to hear some Vince Guaraldi and wound up listening to Charlie Brown’s Christmas. They were complaining about the commercialization of Christmas 50 years ago.

    Here’s Snoopy skating. Notice the hockey sticks!

    The Christmas de-commercialized message:

    Happy Birthday Jesus.

  34. Ric Merritt says:

    Others beat me to it, but I’ll chime in to remind that in truly cold weather, car warming starts to be more than a luxury. Everything is a balance. If you are going to drive a car, you need to get it in gear. Passengers may include the sick or elderly.

  35. Doug M. says:

    @Alteredstory (#5):

    The one that always stood out for me is that a young, growing tree fixes carbon faster than an older one, generally. That means that if you get a live tree, it?s freed up space for another to be planted, to allow more carbon fixation.

    I believe you have that backwards: it’s the older, mature trees that are quite a bit better at fixing carbon.

    So if you do like my dad does, and have an outside xmas tree to decorate each year, that could be the best solution of all.

    Of course, it’s now tall enough that he has to rent a man-lift to be able to decorate it each year, so that probably counters the carbon benefit a bit…