DEC 18, 2017 5:57 PM PST

What does your Christmas tree mean for the environment?

Ho ho ho, and happy holidays to all! All, that is, except for the environment, which takes a major toll in carbon footprints around this time of year. There are many different aspects of the consumerism of the holidays that are not eco-friendly (starting with all the one-use wrapping paper, plastic cutlery, and shipped packages) but let’s narrow in on two particular traditions that fall close to many hearts: the Christmas tree and decorative lights.

What are the environmental impacts of your holiday season this year? Source: Happy Holidays!

Have you ever thought about the environmental cost of your Christmas tree? Whether it be real or fake, there’s no doubt that Christmas trees have a significant carbon footprint. Surprisingly (at least to me), real living trees are probably better for the environment than fake trees, says Clint Springer, a botanist and professor of biology at Saint Joseph’s University. That’s because the materials needed to produce fake trees (plastic and metal) themselves require a lot of energy and resources. Additionally, often fake trees are made abroad and must be shipped to your local marketplace, which adds to the carbon footprint. According to The New York Times, you would have to reuse a fake tree for more than 10 or 20 years to make its carbon footprint worth it.

Live Christmas trees in the US, on the other hand, are often cultivated on tree farms that grow trees as crops, letting trees live for roughly 8 years and replanting 4-5 trees for every one cut down. While that tree is living, it’s actively taking in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere all the while providing shelter and habitat for birds and other wildlife. The best live trees that you can buy to fill your home with the holiday spirit are the kind that still has its root ball attached to it. These trees, though heavier and more expensive, can be replanted after the holiday season has ended. Springer also suggests mulching your tree and using the mulch as fertilizer in the springtime.

But how about those holiday lights? If you’re one to go all out with the lights, surely you’ve noticed the electricity bill jump around December. Or have you? According to University of Toronto professor Danny Harvey, who studies energy efficiency, the majority of Christmas lights used now are LED, which cuts costs of electricity and cuts the carbon footprint as well. Solar powered lights, depending on where you live, are another eco-friendly option for lighting up your holiday, says David Hardisty, a professor at the University of British Columbia.

Nevertheless, according to NASA, some parts of our planet are up to 50% brighter during the holiday season and the difference in brightness is clearest in American suburbs.

“We were really surprised to see this vibrant increase in activity during the holidays, particularly around areas in the suburbs with a lot of single-family homes, and a lot of yard space to put up lights,” said Miguel Roman, a scientist from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

And though the electricity usage may not be the biggest environmental concern, light pollution certainly is. An international organization called Globe At Night explains that such bright lights can make stars fade in the sky, disturb ecosystems of nocturnal wildlife, make it difficult to sleep for us humans, and cause insomnia-induced anxiety.

To manage these unwanted consequences of your shiny holiday, you can put timers on your indoor and outdoor lights and even contemplate just how many lights you want to use. “That first string of lights you put out, it adds a lot of holiday cheer. Having one string of lights up versus none makes a big difference,” Hardisty comments. “Having six strings of light versus having five barely makes any difference. Sure, go for it. But just go for a little bit.”

Sources: Global News, The Verge

About the Author
BA Environmental Studies
Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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