Ask Eartha column: What’s the most environmentally friendly option for a Christmas tree? |

Ask Eartha column: What’s the most environmentally friendly option for a Christmas tree?

Eartha Steward
Ask Eartha
There are several options when choosing a Christmas tree. Fake trees take a lifetime to break down in the landfill, and pre-cut trees are sometimes treated with insecticides. Christmas tree cutting programs are beneficial for forest health and growth as neighboring trees compete for food and water.
Courtesy Getty Images | iStockphoto

Dear Eartha,

I am weighing the options of buying a Christmas tree and want to go with the most environmentally friendly option. What are your suggestions — reusable plastic, freshly cut, or live?

— Victoria, Breckenridge

For an environmentalist, surviving the holidays with our values in tact can be a difficult feat. During this time of year, we typically increase our energy use, travel more and generate a lot of waste. In fact, according to the EPA, the volume of American waste increases 25 percent between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to “green” the holidays, and you can start with one of the most prominent decorations of all: the tree.

Because they can be reused year after year, fake trees may seem like a great alternative to the “real” Christmas tree. On the contrary, faux trees have a “life” expectancy of about six years and take a lifetime to break down in the landfill. These trees also contain some terrible chemicals — PVC (aka vinyl), lead and harmful plastics, which include cancer-causing pollutants when produced. Fake trees are also typically made in China, which means they had to be shipped here, swelling their carbon footprint.

Another popular option is to buy a pre-cut tree from a local retailer. Although this is convenient, many of these trees are often conventionally farmed, meaning that these trees have been treated with insecticides, herbicides and fungicides throughout their entire growing lives. Most chemical spraying takes place in the summer, so by the time you bring a tree home, there’s little residue left. But the use of these pesticides still has negative impacts, particularly on the workers responsible for applying them and on nearby aquatic ecosystems. It’s important when tree shopping to support small-scale, sustainable farms whenever possible.

Potted trees are yet another option for holiday flair. As with any store-bought live tree, ask questions about the farm these trees came from, as they might also have been treated with pesticides and chemicals. On the plus side, these trees can be planted following the holiday season and will remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for years to come. Keep in mind, potted trees should spend no more than about a week indoors, otherwise they’ll assume it’s already springtime and will begin to grow in the warmth of your home.

Finally, we reach our last option and my recommendation to you: a tree harvested from your local national forest. Raised by Mother Nature, these trees haven’t been exposed to pesticides or chemical fertilizers, and the distance they travel depends solely upon you. Furthermore, Christmas tree cutting programs are beneficial for forest health and growth as neighboring trees compete for food and water. In Summit County, you can buy a permit to cut your own tree at the Dillon Ranger District office for $10. Permits are good through Dec. 31 and allow you to harvest lodgepole pine, fir and Englemann spruce trees. The Dillon Ranger District recommends looking for trees growing in clusters and choosing the smallest out of the group. Wilderness areas, designated recreation areas and ski resorts are off limits for cutting.

The end life of a Christmas tree is important, too. Rather than sending hundreds of dead trees to the landfill, recycle your tree — make sure there are no ornaments, tinsel or lights left on the tree first. Tree recycling programs typically run from Dec. 26 through Jan. 31 and are available at the following locations:

Breckenridge: Near the stables on Wellington Road

Frisco (until Feb. 4): Frisco Marina

Silverthorne: Just past the water treatment plant

Dillon: Near the cardboard bin at the Dillon Town Hall parking lot

Keystone: Summit County Resource Allocation Park

Don’t let your eco-efforts end with the tree. There are green options for holiday lights, too. Solar lights are the greenest option for outdoor applications. If you must plug in, LED holiday lights are around 33 percent more efficient than traditional incandescent strands, which means less impact on your energy bill. Even better, LED lights will last about 20 years with proper handling and storage. If you come across some older stands of lights that no longer work, recycle them at Lowe’s in Silverthorne.

As the song goes, the holidays are the most wonderful time of year. Maintaining holiday traditions, however, can have a tremendous effect on the environment. I hope this information will make your holiday evergreen even greener this year. Always be sure to keep the end of life for holiday décor in mind, and have a great holiday season.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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