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The Christmas Tree: what's sustainable? Featuring our Family's DIY Tree

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The Christmas Tree: what's sustainable? Featuring our Family's DIY Tree

The Christmas tree. She's the star of the show in the traditional holiday home. It can be easy to assess a lot of other elements of the holiday in terms of sustainability, but trying to choose a tree? What's more sustainable: a real tree, or a plastic tree? We unpack both options, how to make a choice that makes sustainable sense for you, and a DIY tree that we landed with somewhere after debating this whole battle for ourselves.

The Real Tree

As I mentioned in our Rethinking Holiday Traditions blog post, it can be interesting to look back on a tradition or an element of our everyday lifestyle now with what that same element looked like 100 or 150 years ago, to really see the boom in how consumer culture permeates every aspect of our lives these days. While I can see how life would be more challenging a century ago and we have made some incredible and important strides since then, it can also seem idyllic to think back on a time where circular design was just how things were; sustainability wasn't exactly a concept, because people were living closer to the land and had no plastics or waste to consider in the same volume; there seemed to be a lot less anxiety and stress than what has saturated our lives today; and life generally seemed simpler. The Christmas tree is yet another time when we can see how far things have shifted.

The real tree was what this tradition originally began as, and usually was quite sustainable. The family cut down one tree on their property, used it, and then when they were finished their holiday celebrations, had a use for it (as firewood) or a place to let it decompose in a way that it still was able to benefit the land around the family. There were no plastic string lights, no plastic and glitter based ornaments, and it was usually strung with elements that could degrade naturally, like dried popcorn, oranges, cranberries and handmade items like paper chains. 

Now, there are a few more bits to consider in this choice. While a real tree can degrade and decompose naturally, they rarely do in a way that benefits the ecosystem around us, often being left on curbs for someone else to pick up and manage. We buy from Christmas tree farms (which are for sure a better choice in terms of paying a farmer directly and still providing some habitat for animals) that do not function as a regular ecosystem would (for example, there would not be one type of tree planted in rows - while it allows for some natural habitat for animals and birds, it does not offer any diversity or other elements of the ecosystem to thrive in the same way a true forested area would). Or, trees are bought outside of big box stores with no true information about how far those trees travelled to these shops, who is making the money, and whether it involved a clear cut in a space that used to be biodiverse. Christmas trees with that type of sourcing are often heavily sprayed with pesticides/herbicides/fertilizers and driven far distances for purchase outside of these big shops (who often favour cheap pricing over all else and do not often ask these questions of sourcing and most local).

There's also the impact of cutting down a tree during a time when Canada has had a record number of trees burn this year. Trees are a significant aspect of the climate change equation, and their loss exacerbates the situation. A mature tree takes time to develop, and not many choose little springs of trees or a branch for their holiday tree; it is the larger, more mature trees that get selected for this. While trees are a renewable resource, it cannot be renewed as quickly as something like flax, or bamboo, or hemp. It takes years (if not decades) to regrow that tree, and we can't do it before next Christmas, when we will be harvesting another.

There has been a recent trend towards potted trees for the holidays, and this is an interesting concept because it shows this issue clearly: a tree can't be replaced for this tradition as fast as we need them again the following year. The idea is that the root ball is still intact and the tree can live on after our celebrations. However, in posting about this last year, I had a number of people reach out to say that their tree died anyway. The root ball is not supposed to be room temperature this time of year, and the tree has to be of a certain size to be able to be potted so that the root ball can still be sustained, and this system relies of a lot of elements that can go awry: watering, replanting, temperatures outdoors and indoors before and after and during the whole use period. The tree can be so stressed that it does not make it. And, the tree often needs to be quite small to make this work, which is a reason many do not go for it.

The Alternative: The Plastic Tree

So, many of us have opted to have a plastic tree instead. We get to enjoy the tree long term, without the same amount of real tree death. Within two or three years, the price of the plastic tree is less than buying real trees responsibly. However, we know that people do not often buy a tree and have that one for 40-50 years. Each person buying a fake tree will buy/own a few in their lifetime, and there is no real way to manage the waste of these trees properly, as they are mixed materials and not recyclable. The plastic fibres of the leaves break apart into microplastics in our homes as we put them up, fluff them up, and take them down, and trends add to the consumption of these trees as white/flocked/fibreoptic/more realistic trees are marketed at us every year. Pre-lit trees are frequently tossed as soon as their lights don't work. Extra trees are now able to be had - one in the basement, one in the living room, even trees in the bedroom and beside our doors in little black plastic urns. The production of all of these plastics, the off gassing that has to happen with all of these new molten plastic and chemical based pieces coming into our homes, and the end life of a pile of plastic waste is the outcome.

So, what should we do? Some Ideas for Best Sustainable Practices with Christmas Trees

I think with this, awareness of the choice is important. While this is a pretty depressing blog post filled with a lot of bad news, it can seem like there is no good answer. But, we can do a few things to make sure our choices are better than not thinking about any of this at all. 

Here are some best practices or things to consider:

- If you buy a fake tree, make sure it is something you can commit to and keep long term. If it is trend based, decide if you actually like that, and if it something you'll still have a decade from now, or if you'll be out buying something else.

- If you have a fake tree, aim to choose something that you do not toss because an aspect of it isn't perfect. If the lights no longer work on a prelit tree, replace only the lights and not the full thing. If a branch breaks, can your tree be turned to hide the flaw, or can you repair it or know someone that can help repair it? Make that tree last as long as possible.

- In choosing a real tree, find out where you can buy from a farmer or direct source in your area, rather than buying from a big box shop. The growers are not receiving the same amount of money, because a chunk of it needs to go to the top of those big box corps, and more and more, we are seeing this play out in a nation of the top 1% and a poorer and poorer working class. Support your community - there are so many long term benefits to keeping that purchase close to home.

- In discarding your real tree, see if you have a wildlife sanctuary or a conservation area that will take your tree. Find out where your tree goes when you leave it curbside. Is having a New Year's Day bonfire with your broken down tree in your back yard a better option than what you find? 

- In discarding a fake tree, ask yourself why you're passing it along, and reflect on that (as we should in decluttering anything from our lives to ensure we don't just keep up the same consumption cycles). Is it to spend money on a fancier tree we don't really need? Is it because it was trendy at the time you got it? Is it for a reason that isn't linked to your consumption, like a downsize for your home or just something you don't feel brings joy to your holiday (this would be a non-consumption based reason, which is great!)? Try to find someone that would really use that tree, like family or a school classroom, or an organization that could use the donation, rather than dumping it at a thrift shop that may not be able to sell it and discard it to the dump anyway. 

An Easy DIY: the Stick Tree

In working on this Sustainable Living Story a few years ago, I realized I couldn't choose a tree that worked for me in learning all about this. None of it felt good for me, but it wasn't like I could go backwards and not know this stuff and consider it anymore. I had a long term plastic tree but it was in rough shape. I stared at the beautiful flocked trees each season, thinking I wanted that, but in coming home and reading about what flocking was made of, I knew it wasn't for me. I found some really beautiful wooden trees online but I knew I couldn't make that myself or afford one. I had pinned gorgeous driftwood trees on Pinterest (which suited me nicely in my love of all things natural/neutral toned in my very calm toned home, and my love of natural fibre) but knew it would take me years and years to actually acquire that much driftwood and that option also wasn't really realistic.

So, one day last year, I was out on a walk with my boys and found a pile of sumac trees that my father-in-law had discarded. They were piled mostly on a rocky hill, and had fully dried out in the sun over the months they were there. It was such a gift for me; his dislike for the sumac that tended to take over, the fact that they had been piled in an area that they didn't have enough moisture to rot and instead dried out like driftwood, us happening upon them after thinking about just this type of project.


The tree we made cost us less than $25 to make. I selected a log from our wood pile, and the longest/sturdiest piece for the base of the tree. My partner used a cordless drill and a fornster bit to drill a round section into the stump base. We filled the hole with the sturdier centre piece of the tree and some expanding wood glue. I then used a couple of metal outdoor Tonka trucks to hold the centre piece upright in order to let the wood glue dry.

Next, I sorted the sumac pieces into size, focusing on small, medium and larger. Using some metal wire, I watched a few videos on how to 'lash' (which my partner was very helpful with in his outdoorsman-y way that he seems to know how to do everything with). I started at the top of the tree and added my smallest bits, roughly trying to lash each branch on in different directions in an imperfect way. 

Now, once we got this inside and in place, I realized that less is always usually more for me. We added a strand of lights on a wire, which made it easy to loop around the branches to keep it all in place (where with other trees there are the bits of the needles to hold the lights in place). I didn't want to put any ornaments on the tree, I thought it looked so nice. This year, I ended up bartering away my vintage ornaments I collected for some vintage kitchen chairs at Karen Brown's Antiques. We just have a few ceramic ornaments and I love it this way. We have a beautiful wooden star from my sister-in-law, but it is a bit heavy for this tree. So we display that elsewhere and I know that if I just wait, something light and perfect will come our way for the top. I feel like I have truly been able to create something that used a bit of nothing, in a way that feels perfect for our family and was a little labour of love between my partner and I. And I think that's all I want from the holidays now, too, for things to feel just in that way.

If you're looking for some more inspiration for wood and DIY trees, I highly recommend Pinterest! We were able to find some on Etsy that were full size works of art, as well. Over time, I am excited to add some more visuals to this blog post as more options crop up.

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