The Christmas tree fairy

Written by alicia


This time of year we spin tales of a jolly man with a big white beard, a bright red suit, and a team of reindeer delivering gifts to children everywhere. And when Christmas is over, we tell ourselves stories of another magical helper — the Christmas tree fairy.

Throughout December evergreens are adorned with lights and ornaments, and prominently displayed in the window most seen by passersby. But then the new year rolls around and the trees are kicked to the curb. Like the tooth fairy, the Christmas tree fairy sweeps up your discarded organic matter and whisks it away to a better place. Or just away.

Here in San Francisco, come early January trees start to pile up on street corners, sometimes stacked three or four high. I did a little research and learned that these trees are actually picked up by the recycling company, sent through a wood chipper and used for mulch. Nirvana.

If you’re ready to face the reality that there is no Christmas tree fairy, here are some things you should know:

* Most trees are too acidic to compost in your backyard.
* In California, tossing your tree in the woods can spread Pitch Canker Disease, which can be devastating to native species.
* Never burn your tree in a fireplace or wood stove.
* Contact your local recycling center to learn about turning your tree into mulch.

What about the carbon? Recycling a tree by turning it into mulch or burning is carbon balanced. One could even make a case that you end up storing more carbon overall because a young growth tree farm sequesters more carbon than an old growth forest.

Got trees? What are you doing with yours this year?

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  1. Rich E.

    Ours goes back in the closet until next year. I haven’t done the LCA, but I’m pretty sure that the footprint to make the thing is much less than all the energy used to harvest and transport fresh trees every year.
    I do miss the scent of a fresh tree, but I don’t miss stringing lights every year or the mess. I especially like being able to trim the tree on a moment’s notice.

  2. Summer

    Yep, I’m with Rich! I have a small and a large holiday tree, and use whichever fits my space allowance. They all fit back in the box, and I’ve had them for over 8 years.
    I’m not certain of the use of oil in these artificial trees, but plan to use them for the rest of my life!!
    Happy Holidays!

  3. AEckel

    Although we live in suburban New Jersey, we are lucky enough to have a tree farm a mile up the road! So, we cut a new one there each year. The native species is not “picture perfect,” but it’s local. We had been sending the used tree to the township for mulching, but this year we have a chipper, so we are thinking of mulching for ourselves and skip buying mulch in plastic bags.

  4. Jonathan

    Christmas Trees are a cash crop much like Corn or any other vegetable you eat. A fresh, live tree is the environmentally conscious choice.

  5. Monty

    It amazes me that, to date, I have yet to see a balanced study on how many years you have to use a ‘fake’ tree for it to match the carbon use of a real tree. Obviously, a real tree requires carbon to deliver it, pick it up, and then to haul it away every year. A fake tree only makes the journey once – but, it is made out of toxic materials.
    While it might be complicated to calculate, there is a point at which the environmental effects of using a fake tree outweigh using a real one. It might be five years, it might be ten, it might be a hundred. But, surely someone can do a balanced study and find out what that period of time is. Until then, we will continue to argue this point to death with no real basis for the arguments.
    As for what to do with your real tree afterwards, I think it varies greatly from town to town, but our waste management folks have a time period where you can leave it out there for them to mulch.

  6. mariet

    We keep our tree up until Jan 6, no tinsel decoration. Then we put in our back yard, with pine cones stuffed with peanut butter and bird seed. Birds perch in it while it is still green, when it tips over, chipmunks and squirrels use it as a hide, and in the summer it goes on our wood pile. Oh, I didn’t say that our trees are organic.

  7. charronne

    Remember artificial trees likely come from China, so environmental cost of making them there, without proper controls, plus shipping across the ocean, transfer to trucks for shipment to the store. At the end of their life span, off to the dump?
    Our tree is a naturally grown one that local folks gather, by permit, from power line clearance areas, where they would otherwise be razed or hit with herbicide to keep the areas clear. When it leaves the house, it goes to the back yard where it is propped near the bird feeder. We hang apples, suet boxes and seed bells in it, and it provides shelter for the birds for another couple of months. Then it gets put out by the woodpile to dry, and next year will be cut into kindling for our very small, energy efficient, air tight fireplace. Ashes go into the garden.

  8. lee

    i’ve seen one study that finds that you must use an artificial tree for 20 years in order to hit a break-even between real and artificial trees. more here.

  9. Dave

    I bought an Aluminum Christmas tree with Color Wheel from ebay about 10 years ago. It was manufactured in 1961. I also bid on one near me so I could pick-it up to avoid shipping. The main reason I bought it was because that is the kind of Christmas Tree I grew up with. Now I just have to find an original fake cardboard fireplace, lol.

  10. GetCaughtDead

    There is a pretty good write up comparing real and artificial trees on here. The author concluded that the risks associated with PVC and lead would almost certainly outweigh any conceivable environmental advantage to an artificial tree.
    Unfortunately, it still doesn’t give us a break-even point for total energy input or carbon output.