DREAMING OF A GREEN CHRISTMAS
BY DR. RICK L. HAMMER
As another year draws to a close and we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, I thought it worthwhile to reflect on the Christmas and holiday season from a creation care or green perspective. During the hustle and bustle of the Christmas holiday season, it’s very easy and understandable for us to be unaware or uninformed of the environmental impacts and effects of the many choices we make during this season.
There are many practical actions we can adopt to reduce the environmental impact of our actions at this time of the year, including practices such as repurposing and recycling, and I would like to specifically focus on the Christmas tree. After considering the environmental and sustainable aspects of choosing between a real or live tree and an artificial tree, we will close with some thoughts and reflections on connecting our secular, practical actions to caring for God’s creation and for directly participating in Christ’s ongoing ministry of restoration and reconciliation of the world (and universe, see Colossians 15).
Secular Problems, Secular Solutions
Some of our biggest impacts to the environment during the Christmas and holiday season are related to our gift giving and tradition of displaying a Christmas tree. Consider that the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day sees an increase of 25 percent more trash and waste, with much of this destined for the landfill. Our holiday season purchasing decisions do make a difference and help determine the appropriate type of recycling that is needed to minimize the environmental impacts. Individually, our goal should be to make green choices all year long, but the Christmas season presents us with some unique situations.
We Americans love our Christmas trees. The non-profit American Christmas Tree Association reports that nearly 95 million households will display a tree each year. Of those, about 81 percent will be artificial trees and the remainder, roughly 18 million, will be live or real trees. Either way, that’s a lot of trees. What are the environmental impacts of both choices? Let’s start with live trees.
First, is choosing a living tree a green choice? A list of positive, post-Christmas, green benefits to choosing a live tree include: it’s biodegradable; some trees can be planted in your yard at home after the holidays are over; used trees can be sunk to the bottom of a pond to become fish habitat; or used trees can be placed along the beach to reduce erosion. Further, while still in the ground and growing at the tree farm, a live tree has additional benefits like providing habitat for birds and various other animals and insects and also, like all trees, by removing carbon dioxide from the air as they grow.
Ultimately, just how green choosing a live tree will be may come down to what is done with the tree after Christmas. Disposing of the tree in a landfill has a negative environmental impact by taking up needless space in the landfill and then releasing greenhouse gases like methane into the atmosphere as the tree slowly decomposes. An environmentally friendly way to dispose of a live tree is to repurpose the used tree using one of the green examples mentioned above. If none of those options are available, then the next best choice is to simply recycle the used tree by taking ot to a local recycling center to have it shredded up and turned into mulch, which has a multitude of uses.
The following nationwide data from 2014 is somewhat dated (NEEF, National Environmental Education Foundation), but is still likely to be representative as an average: each year Americans send approximately 15 million used Christmas trees to the landfill for disposal. That’s about 83 percent of the live trees that are annually purchased. In terms of the Big Country, I can provide at least one informal statistic on the trend of Christmas tree recycling over the last several years, from the City of Brownwood. The Brownwood Recycling Center reports that they do welcome live trees and will turn them into mulch. What is interesting is that they only receive about 15 trees a year for recyling, with the number of trees having declined drastically over the last decade.
I spoke with the Recycling Dropoff Center in Sweetwater and they welcome used live trees and will be able to recycle them. The City of Clyde operates a Convenience Center for recycling everyday household items like plastic and glass, however, they cannot accept used trees and suggest that the trees be taken to the landfill for disposal.
In Abilene, I contacted several retail sellers of live trees on Dec. 20 to conduct an informal live tree survey. At Lowe’s, sales of live Christmas trees have been strong over the last several weeks with the Noble fir tree being very popular and second to the Frazier fir in sales. Home Depot has been selling live trees as well. At Abilene’s Garden World, I spoke with an employee who reported that the retailer has sold about 500 live trees so far this Christmas season. It seems that a real, living Christmas tree is still popular. The green thing to do is to make sure your live tree does not end up in the landfill. Instead, take it to a local recycling center so that it can be shredded and mulched. In Abilene, you can take used trees to the City of Abilene’s Brush Center, located at 2149 Sandy Street, for mulching and recycling.
Now, on to artificial Christmas trees. Is this a greener option than a live tree? Well, it turns out that purchasing an artificial tree can be about as environmentally friendly as a live tree, assuming certain guidelines are followed. Most of the negative environmental impacts of an artificial tree occur when it is manufactured. The artificial “leaves” of the tree are made from the petroleum product PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and so have all of the downsides associated with producing, refining, and burning fossil fuels. The “branches” are made of copper and other metals.
The environmental analysis of an artificial tree choice is that if you purchase one and use it for 10-plus years you have made a sustainable choice. Whereas, purchasing a new artificial tree more often is not friendly to the environment for the aforementioned reasons. And, when you do need to discard and artificial tree, don’t send it to the landfill. In Abilene, the City’s Citizen’s Convenience Center (2149 Sandy Street) or the Environmental Recycling Center (2209 Oak Street) will take your old tree for repurposing and recycling.
Five Loaves and Two Fish
So, does recycling your used live Christmas tree—let’s say that you actually take it to Abilene’s recycling center—really make a difference, considering that millions of used trees that will actually go to the landfill? My answers are Yes and Yes.
The first Yes pertains to positive environmental benefits of your actions from a secular perspective. Your actions, as small and as insignificant as they may seem, do matter. Your small actions—and hopefully the small, collective actions of many others like you—will reduce the number of used trees going to the landfill along with the associated negative environmental consequences.
The second Yes pertains to the creation care or ecumenical perspective of our individual actions that are intended to benefit the God’s creation. I will explain this perspective from my faith tradition as a Christian by thinking about how Christ was able to take a small boy’s lunch and multiply it many times over to feed 5,000 hungry people (I like the version in John’s Gospel), known as the miracle of the five loaves and two fish.
The significance of this miracle for us, as stewards of God’s good (Genesis 1:31) creation, and who strive to make choices that will provide positive environmental benefits, is that our choices and actions do matter from an individual perspective, but are multiplied exponentially by Jesus Christ as part of His ongoing ministry of reconciliation and restoration of the world (2 Corinthians 5:11-21). We, as individuals and followers of Christ, participate in this ministry of reconciliation when we take our used Christmas tree to the recycling center.
We are the small boy of the Gospel of John (6:5-13) who only has five barley loaves and two fish to offer just as we can only offer our choice of individual actions, like what we do with our used tree. God bless that small boy and us, whom God has entrusted the hopeful message of reconciliation.
Dr. Rick L. Hammer is an Associate Professor of Biology at Hardin-Simmons University and is a plant conservation biologist and ecologist.