Environmentally Friendly Christmas Tree Tradition

It is time for a new Christmas tree tradition for the 21st century.

Regardless of whether you are a real Christmas tree aficionado or an artificial tree enthusiast, you can make your Christmas tree tradition more eco-friendly.

Celebrating the holidays with a decorated Christmas tree in your home is a well-established custom in the United States dating back to the late 19th century. Our family is one of the 95 million American families who will be displaying a Christmas tree in their home this year.

Christmas trees have been a highlight of the holiday season for me ever since I was a little kid, but after living in a Monterey pine forest for a few years I began worrying about the environmental impact of Christmas trees, both real and artificial.

In 2014, I decided to conduct some research to try to determine if a real or artificial tree was a better choice from an environmental perspective. If you are interested you can read about my findings in the post, Which is Greener a Real or Artificial Christmas Tree? Nothing I learned induced me to switch from a real tree to an artificial tree or to give up Christmas trees altogether, but I committed myself to making our Christmas tree tradition more environmentally friendly.

You, too, can green your Christmas tree tradition. Below are some eco-friendly tips for real and artificial trees and a suggestion for a new tradition.

Green Tips for Artificial Christmas Trees

  • If you are serious about greening your Christmas tree tradition, avoid buying a trendy tree that you will be sick of in a few years and will want to replace. Buy a tree that you can see yourself enjoying for at least ten years and hopefully more.
  • It is hard to judge looks or quality online so go to a store with artificial Christmas trees on display.
  • Select a tree that looks well built and resilient enough to survive putting up and taking down year after year.
  • If you are buying a tree with lights already installed, opt for energy-efficient LED Christmas lights. If not, recycle your incandescent lights (even minis) and replace them with LED lights.
  • After the holidays, carefully pack up your tree and put it in a safe storage space. Artificial trees cannot be recycled so your goal should be to keep it out of a landfill as long as possible.

Green Tips for Real Christmas Trees

One non-environmental factor that makes real Christmas trees attractive to me is that they grow on farms in the United States providing jobs for Americans, while most artificial tree manufacturing occurs overseas.

  • Buy a sturdy tree stand built to last for decades and store it in a place where you can find it next year.
  • Organic Christmas trees are still rare in many areas, but if you can find one buy it.
  • Do not have your tree flocked. First, why buy a real tree if you are just going to cover it with synthetic material and second, flocked trees cannot be recycled.
  • If you still have incandescent Christmas tree lights, recycle them and purchase LED lights.
  • After the holidays, make sure you recycle your tree. Many towns offer curbside pick up or places where you can drop off your tree. The trees are chipped to create mulch and you may be able to pick up free mulch for your own yard or garden. Another option is to cut up the tree to fit in your green recycling bin if you have one.

Start a New Christmas Tree Tradition – Buy One, Plant Two

In 2014, after looking into the environmental impact of real and artificial Christmas trees, I decided to begin a new holiday tradition, a tree for a tree and encouraged readers to join me. I proposed that each year we buy a real or artificial Christmas tree or put up an existing artificial tree, we plant a new tree or get someone to plant one on our behalf in our yard, a park, or a forest.

That year, we planted a tiny cypress tree seedling that we had rescued from a street median. Three years later, the cypress tree is about 9 feet tall and flourishing.

Last year, I raised the ante on my tree planting to buy one, plant two. We selected two Big Sur Coast Redwood tree seedlings at the local nursery and planted them in our yard.

The redwood trees are still alive but they only grew about an inch. In hindsight, it seems like perhaps they needed more shade, water, and fog. Nevertheless, the trees have made it to the one-year mark so I am hopeful that they are established enough to live here for a couple hundred years.

This year I decided to obtain some expert advice about what type of trees to plant. At the December meeting of the California Native Plant Society in San Luis Obispo, CA, I cornered two botanists (in a nice way) and asked them for recommendations.

As a non-botanist, I was grateful that they did not start bandying about scientific names and took my question seriously. They both mentioned Toyon as one of their first two suggestions.

Interestingly, to me at least, the Saturday before the meeting, my spouse and I had gone on a native plant walk (it was a grueling uphill hike) and Toyon was the first plant pointed out on the trail.

Decorated Real Christmas Tree December 2017My spouse and I conferred about the botanists’ suggestions and determined that Toyon was the right choice for this year.

Our local nursery in Cambria only had two Toyons in stock. One was short and bushy and the other was several feet tall with a scattering of leaves. We opted to purchase both of them and then selected a Christmas tree, which is now beautifying our living room.

In the interest of giving the Toyons the best possible start on life in our yard, I decided to do a little research before we planted them. I learned that scientific name for Toyon is Heteromeles arbutifolia (I dare you to try saying that aloud) and it is called Christmas Berry and California Holly, which apparently inspired the name for the city of Hollywood. I read that Toyons are shrubs which can grow up to 30 feet tall and are supposedly easy to grow and deer resistant.

After mulling over several locations, we selected a spot that gets a little shade from a nearby Monterey pine tree. We planted the Toyons near each other, spread some mulch, and gave them some water. The deer that visit our yard do not strictly adhere to deer resistant plant guidelines so as a safety precaution we encircled our Toyons with fencing, which we will remove once the Toyons get big enough to hold their own with the deer.

Readers, I hope you will join me and expand your Christmas tree tradition to include planting two trees. If you do not have a yard to plant trees in, then consider making a donation (cash or labor) to a local tree planting program. Type “tree planting program” and the name of your town into your Internet search window to find local and regional opportunities for tree planting at parks, open spaces, nature preserves, schools, and nearby state or national parks.

Imagine if every one of the 95 million families displaying a Christmas tree this year each planted two trees. Soon, 190 million trees would be providing shade, filtering water, generating oxygen, furnishing wildlife habitat, and just being beautiful. Now, that is what I call a green gift.

Merry Christmas!

Featured Image at Top: Red Christmas Ornament with White Snowflakes Hanging on a Christmas Tree Branch – Photo Credit iStock/JurgaR

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Energy Efficient LED Christmas Lights

LED Christmas lights are festive and good for the planet.

You can make your holiday traditions more environmentally friendly by switching to energy saving LED Christmas lights.

Typically, I do not advocate getting rid of things that still work to replace them with more energy efficient models. This is because making even simple products uses resources, energy, and people power so it seems wasteful to dispose of products until they reach the end of their useful life and are not repairable.

That said, I think that the energy savings that LED Christmas lights can achieve is worth getting rid of operable incandescent Christmas lights and replacing them with LED lights.

Currently, in the United States, we generate 65% of our electricity by burning fossil fuels (34% natural gas, 30% coal, and 1% petroleum). You and I can help reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions by decreasing our electricity use. With a population of over 326 million people, even small changes made by Americans can make a positive impact.

In this post, I will attempt to convince you to make the switch to LED Christmas lights and then provide some shopping tips.

Christmas Light Energy Efficiency – Incandescent vs. LED

In the 19th century and before, the only way to light a Christmas tree was with candles, which probably caused quite a few house fires. Fortunately, in 1882, Thomas Edison’s friend and business partner, Edward H. Johnson, created the first string of electric Christmas tree lights, which were safer than candles although back then electricity was not as safe as it is today. As electricity safety improved and it became more affordable, Christmas lights became popular outdoors, too.

During the past hundred years or so, incandescent Christmas lights have undergone technical advancement and design enhancement. They provide a pleasant warm light, but also convert a lot of their energy into heat instead of light. You can still buy incandescent Christmas lights but LED lights use up to 80% less energy, do not generate heat, and last about 25 times longer, thus making them the eco-friendly choice.

There is a wide variety of Christmas lights on the market today and making apples to apples comparisons can be a bit tricky. For instance, strings of classic C9 incandescent bulbs usually contain 25 bulbs, while most incandescent mini and LED light strings contain either 50 or 100 bulbs. Convoluting matters further, is that there is no regulation for the type and number of strings you may put on and in your home, a protocol for how many hours a day you may run your lights or an official definition of how many days constitutes the holiday season.

However, I think we can still do some comparisons that will illustrate why LEDs are by far the energy efficient choice.

In the following scenario, our fictitious family will decorate with six strings of Christmas lights (3 for their tree and 3 for their house) that they will run for 5 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 21 days. Electric companies charge by the kilowatt-hour (kWh) so that is what we will use for our comparisons. Keep in mind that the average U.S. household uses about 10,766 kWh of electricity per year, which rounded off is 897 kWh per month.

Christmas Light String of 25 Multi-Colored C9 Incandescent Bulbs175-Watt String of 25 Multi-Colored C9 Incandescent Lights

175 watts per string x 6 strings = 1,050 watts x 5 hours/day x 7 days/week x 21 days = 771,750 watts/1,000 = 771.8 kWh of electricity consumed over a 3 week period.

Christmas Light String of 50 Multi-Colored Mini Incandescent Bulbs24-Watt String of 50 Multi-Colored Mini Incandescent Lights

24 watts per string x 6 = 144 watts x 5 hours/day x 7 days/week x 21 days = 105,840/1,000 = 105.8 kWh of electricity consumed over a 3 week period.

Christmas Light String of 50 Multi-Colored Faceted C3 LED Bulbs4.2-Watt String of 50 Multi-Colored C3 LED Lights

4.2 watts per string x 6 = 25.2 watts x 5 hours/day x 7 days/week x 21 days = 18,522/1,000 = 18.5 kWh of electricity consumed over a 3 week period.

Now, let us put this in perspective.

If you were to decorate with the C9 incandescent Christmas lights and run them for three weeks, your household would consume a whopping 86% of the total electricity an average family uses in one month for just lighting up your home and Christmas tree. The mini incandescent lights would consume 11.8% and the LED lights 2%.

Using the same scenario, if just 10 million families swapped their old C9 incandescent lights for LEDs, the energy savings could power 618,614 homes for an entire year.

Are you ready to make the switch to LED Christmas lights? If you are, below are a few shopping tips.

Shopping for LED Christmas Lights

LED Christmas lights use a completely different lighting technology so do not expect them to look exactly like your old incandescent lights. LED Christmas lights are made in a dizzying array of shapes, colors, sizes, styles, and with or without effects so a little pre-planning will make shopping easier and you are more likely to purchase lights that you can and will enjoy for years to come.

  • Doing some online research and reading reviews will help you get an idea of what is available and how various LED Christmas light strings have performed for the people who already bought them.
  • Shop at a store with LED Christmas light displays. That way, you can see what they look like on and in action before you buy them.
  • Many stores will recycle your old Christmas lights so make the effort to remember to bring your old lights with you when you go to the store.
  • Be selective because these lights are going to be lighting up your home and Christmas trees for many years, even decades, so think twice about the shape, style, and effects. Multi-functional light strings may seem cool in the store but turn into a hassle when you get home and cannot figure out how to get them to stay on the effect you like or you have to cycle through eight choices every time you turn them on.
  • Generally, you get what you pay for so do not grab the cheapest lights you can find.

This year give yourself and the planet the gift of energy savings by recycling your incandescent Christmas lights and decorating with LED lights.

Merry Christmas!

Featured Image at Top: Out of Focus Colored Christmas Lights on a Blue Background – Photo Credit iStock/aaron007

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