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Cut, artificial, or potted: What’s the greenest Christmas tree?

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Christmas is one of the most magical times of the year, but it’s also one of the worst for the environment. With all the wasteful wrapping paper, cross-country flights, the endless strings of lights a la the Griswold family, and the overplayed Christmas songs (OK, we admit, this is more so a public health concern), it’s no surprise that staying eco-friendly during the holiday season is tough for tree-huggers.

That being said, there’s no need to be a Grinch this December. Use wrapping paper made of recycled materials, carbon-offset your holiday flights and make the switch to LED lights. Figuring out what type of Christmas tree is the most environmentally friendly, however, can be trickier. A lot of it depends on where you live, your city’s recycling facilities and how green your thumb is. Here’s a pros and cons list comparing the different types: cut, artificial and potted.

Cut

Yuletide traditionalists will insist that real fir, pine and spruce trees are the best bet for Christmas, and for the most part, environmentalists agree. Along with their fresh, woodsy smell and beautiful appearance, natural trees are better because they have a smaller carbon footprint than their artificial counterparts. According to the Canadian Christmas Tree Growers Association, 98 per cent of natural Christmas trees bought by Canadians are grown locally, whereas plastic alternatives are usually manufactured and shipped from factories in China. Currently in Canada, 33,500 hectares of land is used for growing Christmas trees, usually on ground that isn’t suitable for crops. This also means that these tree farms help store greenhouse gases, produce oxygen and aid in soil and water retention.

There are still some definite cons to real Christmas trees though. Since many tree farms use pesticides to keep rodents away, these natural trees emit pollutants not only while they’re growing, but also after they’re discarded. There are however, tree farms that grow organic, pesticide-free trees. Adria Vasil, the green guru behind NOW magazine’s Ecoholic column and the best-selling author of the eponymous books, recommends buying these type of trees and always asking farmers if they spray their trees.

The sheer number of trees that are thrown to the curb after the holidays is also wasteful, especially in cities that aren’t equipped with the facilities to compost.

Artificial

Although they lack the aroma and the accompanying tradition of picking out the perfect pine, artificial trees are becoming increasingly popular because of their convenience and low-cost. Constantly watering a real tree’s base and vacuuming its fallen needles is a hassle, so busy families enjoy how easy it is to take care of the fake alternative—snap a few branches together and voila, you have a perfectly symmetrical pine tree. If you re-use the same artificial tree over many years, it will likely also cost less than buying a real tree every Christmas. Environmentally, some people also believe faux firs are better because you’re not cutting down a real tree year after year that is only admired for a few weeks.

Unfortunately, that’s where the advantages end. Most environmentalists agree that artificial trees are the worst option since they’re made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is oil-derived, releases pollutants, and is notorious for containing lead. PVC trees are not recyclable or biodegradable either. A newer type of plastic tree made of polyethylene (PE) is being touted as recyclable, but Vasil warns that since these trees still contain wooden or metal components, they aren’t compatible with plastic recycling programs offered by most municipalities.

Potted

Another option is the living, potted Christmas tree. Easy to find at most garden centers, nurseries and choose-and-cut farms, potted trees are decorated and kept indoors, and then replanted after the holidays. If you don’t have the space in your own yard to transplant the tree, you may be able to donate it to a local school or park. Potted plants are great for the environment because not only do you get all the benefits of a cut tree, you don’t have to feel guilty about throwing it out after.

There are some drawbacks to the potted option, however. Vasil cautions that it’s difficult keeping the tree alive, noting that you have to dig the transplant hole before the frost hits and you must ensure you don’t keep it indoors too long or it won’t be able to adjust once outside. “If you don’t have a green thumb or you have a habit of killing houseplants, I wouldn’t recommend a potted tree,” says Vasil.

If you want your Christmas tree to be truly eco-friendly, there’s another route you can take. For the past 11 years, Franz Hartmann, the executive director at the Toronto Environmental Alliance, has decorated an ordinary houseplant. “If you live in a city where you don’t have a big property where you can grow your own tree, then the pre-existing potted plant is the best from an environmental perspective.” While it’s definitely not the most traditional option—hanging tinsel on the fern might take a little getting used too—as Hartmann says, “What’s wrong with starting new traditions?”