Ask Eartha: Is a real or fake tree more environmentally friendly?
Holiday cards from friends and family are already lining my shelves. Can I recycle cards? What about wrapping paper? And my tree?
When it’s time to dispose of our worn-out holiday decorations, it can be difficult to know whether they go in the recycling or trash. But don’t get discouraged. With a few simple steps, you can make sure all that holiday cheer ends up in the right bin.
Christmas trees: real or fake?
Despite the joy they bring, Christmas trees have sparked heated environmental debates. Manufactured out of polyvinyl chloride, artificial trees are not recyclable and will last forever in a landfill. Through the manufacturing process, PVC emits carcinogenic compounds into our atmosphere and can continue to pollute our indoor air quality after we bring a tree home.
On the other side of the spectrum, if a real tree is properly disposed of, several studies have found an environmental advantage for supporting the real tree industry. Christmas trees are a commercially farmed agricultural commodity with roughly 350 million trees currently growing on farms across the U.S. Every year, nearly 30 million trees are harvested from this supply and replanted on an annual cycle.
In Summit County you can purchase a permit to cut down your own tree. You’ll receive a map of cutting locations and instructions on which trees are OK to cut. Responsibly thinning certain trees, like lodgepole pines, can benefit forest health. And our community supports the proper disposal of real Christmas trees — purchased or harvested — every year. The High County Conservation Center annually publishes a list of drop-off locations and more holiday recycling tips.
If you’re ready to get rid of an artificial tree, consider reselling yours online if it’s in good condition. You also can donate artificial trees to a local nonprofit, church or charity, or give it away to a friend. Alternatively, repurpose your artificial tree to make wreaths or garland.
Holiday lights that use less energy
Observable from space, our festive holiday lights make the average American suburb 50% brighter between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. The Department of Energy estimates that Americans burn 6.6 billion kilowatt-hours annually using holiday lights. That’s enough electricity to power more than 800,000 homes for a year. Equally astounding, we stand to save a tremendous portion of this energy use.
Start with LEDs. Not only do they last far longer, LEDs use 80% to 90% less energy than standard incandescent bulbs. Newer models come in a wide variety of shapes and colors and even produce that classic warm glow we’ve grown to love. The marginal price increase for LEDs is oftentimes earned back in the form of energy savings within one to two years of use during the holiday seasons. If you have a bad string of lights that can’t be repaired, recycle them for free as electronic waste at the Summit County Resource Allocation Park.
Cards and wrapping paper
Paper cards — even the thickest ones — can be recycled in your single-stream bin at home or in the mixed paper bin at the recycling centers. But we all know that holiday waste goes well beyond cards.
Consider wrapping paper, which is a little more complicated. To tell if your wrapping paper can be recycled, run it through a few tests. First, scrunch it into a ball. If that ball holds its shape, your wrapping paper has passed the first test. Second, tear your wrapping paper. If you can clearly see the paper fibers, recycle it with mixed paper. On the other hand, if you uncover a layer of plastic or foil, toss it in the trash. Recyclable wrapping paper can be placed in your single-stream bin at home or in the mixed paper bin at the recycling centers. Tissue paper belongs in the trash.
Some of my crafty friends use plain brown paper (I reuse brown paper shopping bags), which can be recycled in your single-stream bin at home or in the cardboard/paperboard bin at the recycling centers. Be sure to remove bows, tags and strings before recycling.
Remember, you can keep the holidays festive — we probably all need it right now — while doing right by our planet.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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