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 Someecards.com 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-postJR: 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.