Yule Trees: Balancing tradition against the environment

I do love me the Christmas tree.  When I was growing up, trimming the tree was the one vestige of the holiday season that was never ruined by family travel plans.  Sometime between the end of Thanksgiving weekend and December 8th or so, Dad would haul our artificial tree and all our ornaments down from the attic.  He’d set up the tree and string it up with lights, then Mom and Dad would artfully drape the garlands, and then Mom and us kids would get down to the business of hanging the ornaments.  Eventually Dad and the boys set up a train set under the tree while Mom and I managed the crèche.  We even had a particular way of setting up the ornaments, so I could really count on the constancy of that tree.  Pretty much the only thing that ever changed was the great raffia revolution of 1994 and the slow addition and subtraction of various ornaments.

Luckily for me, the Christmas tree is Pagan in origin–as are all the best parts of secular Christmas celebrations, really–so decking the halls with all manner of greenery is something I really look forward to now that my main December day is Yule and I’m an adult who can establish her own traditions.  But negotiating these traditions with Pagan environmental ethics is a little tricky, especially now that there’s a pretty big environmental sustainability discourse surrounding the practice of Christmas (or Yule!) trees.

As members of an earth religion, I do think it is important that we remain conscious of our environmental impact–after all, you could consider us the ultimate guardians of Gaia–so I think it is important that we are aware of this discourse and continue to question the environmental sustainability of our traditions.  Now, I am not arguing that trimming a Yule tree is a practice that should be abolished–even though that would be the most environmentally friendly option–nor am I crafting a definite opinion that live trees are better than artificial trees or vice versa.  What I do think is important is that pagan practitioners who wish to use a Yule tree carefully consider their immediate environment and all the options available to them before conscientiously choosing the best option for their unique situations.

It might be best to begin the comparison of the options with the more controversial one:  artificial trees.  For an earth religion, using an artificial symbol seems counterproductive, but there may be good reasons for choosing it.  My own parents, for example, chose an artificial tree when I was five on the grounds that it would be better for the environment as they would no longer have to contribute to ‘senseless tree murder’ (though I suspect Mom didn’t want to worry about us small kids setting a dry tree on fire, eating pine needles, or setting the baby’s asthma ablaze).  To my parents’ credit, they saved about 20 conifers from certain death with that tree, but there was a definite environmental trade-off.  Their tree was made of metal and plastic–a petroleum product.  Therefore, it not only relied upon the use of non-renewable resources in its creation, but upon the environmentally destructive practices of mining and drilling.  The twenty or so trees saved by my parents’ decision sort of looks insignificant compared to the irreplaceable use of resources that took millions of years to form.

Of course, there are additional arguments against the use of artificial trees.  For example, not only do they incur a significant carbon cost in their manufacture, but something like 85% of all artificial trees are manufactured in China, so–at the very least–they’ve built up a fairly large carbon footprint in transportation, too.  This involves still more fossil fuel use and compounds it with the problem of global warming.  In the same vein, there’s plenty of issues with the specific plastics used to create artificial trees:  nearly all artificial trees are made using polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is not biodegradable–any degradation is really ‘granulation’, which means that smaller PVC pieces break off the main piece–and cannot be easily recycled.  In fact, most recycling programs in the United States do not accept PVC plastics, and less than 1% of PVC plastics are recycled worldwide.  Of more concern in popular discourse, though, is PVC’s connection to many toxic chemicals, which manufacturers use to make the plastic more flexible.  For example, lead (which greatly impairs the nervous system) and phthalates (which may affect many endocrine processes) are used or have been used in the production of PVC and can remain in the plastic, and some chemicals–most worrisome being dioxin, which is one of the most deadly man-made poisons on the planet–are actually created from manufacturing or destroying PVC.

Thankfully, it is true that these secondary concerns have been addressed or can be mitigated.  For example, many people cite lead concerns as a reason to avoid artificial trees;  however, China banned the use of lead as a PVC stabilizer ages ago.  Similarly, the PVC used in most Christmas trees is actually recycled PVC; in fact, Christmas tree manufacturing is one of the few markets available for recycled PVC.  Modern trees also use less PVC than they have in the past.  In fact, some manufacturers offer PVC-free trees made of polyethylene (PE), which actually gives a more realistic look as the PE has to be set in a three-dimensional mold.  Many of these manufacturers are American-based, which also improves the transportation carbon footprint of the trees.  And while none of these trees are biodegradable, they can be used for decades, with some manufacturers guaranteeing their product for fifty years.  Given all this, it would be totally irresponsible to discard an artificial tree any sooner than before it has seen 10 years of use.

Really, the one thing that just can’t be avoided with artificial trees is the use of non-renewable resources.  But this might be acceptable in certain conditions.  For example, over the course of a few decades, it’s probably a better idea for someone living in Tuscon, Arizona to buy an artificial tree rather than rely on real ones trucked in from Oregon or North Carolina, then using precious water to keep them alive.  After all, it’s not as though a Tusconian has ready access to tree rentals or could successfully plant a live fir tree after the holiday season.  Likewise, those living in large cities might want to opt for an artificial tree.  Live trees are more flammable than artificial trees, and fires in apartments or closely built houses have the potential to create unspeakable damage.  But one family burning their old tree safely, in addition to possibly damaging their own chimney with resinous pine tar, also contributes to city smog, which affects everyone’s quality of life.  And many cities aren’t equipped to do something useful with the old tree carcasses–like turning them into mulch for city or private use.  Instead, they’re consigned to the landfill.  City dwellers also lack the necessary land to plant a potted pine themselves, and most can’t afford a “tree rental” service that would do it for them.  Finally, many people choose to live in cities in order to minimize allergies, and live trees can introduce molds and pollens into a house that could prove irritating.

If an artificial tree is chosen–for whatever reason–then taking time to carefully select a quality tree that will be used for decades from a reputable, local manufacturer–preferably one that uses PE instead of PVC–is the responsible thing to do.  Once you’ve secured your artificial tree, though, you should find a way to safely store the tree after the holidays are ended.  After all, that tree will be in storage for at least 48 weeks out of the year, so it would pay to make sure it is in a dark, cool, and pest-free place.

As I suspect, however, most pagans who opt to use a Yule tree will do their best to use a live rather than an artificial tree.  Unlike many Christians, we have a practice where we save a good section of the trunk of this year’s Yule tree to use as next year’s Yule log–and that’s not exactly something you can do with an artificial tree.  But there is an environmental cost to using a live tree, too.  There’s the obvious loss-of-a-tree cost:  even though timber is a renewable resource, cutting down a fir tree to admire for just a couple weeks removes a valuable carbon-fixing organism from our global ecosystem, as well as removes habitat and food from local ecosystems.  But there’s also a more hidden agricultural cost, too.

The overwhelming majority of live trees will come from tree farms, which have their roots in forest conservation.  The use of Christmas trees had become so popular by 1901 that President Teddy Roosevelt banned the use of a White House Christmas tree over concerns of deforestation as it became evident that the forests could not safely keep up with the holiday demand for young pine trees.  That year, W. V. McGalliard started the first Christmas tree farm, planting 25,000 Norway spruces on his New Jersey acreage.  Roosevelt’s chief of the U. S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, saw the conservation potential in this project and advocated its use to the President.  Soon, other farmers followed in McGalliard’s footsteps.

Today, America has thousands of Christmas tree farms, and it is estimated that 41 million seedlings were planted in 2010 to replace the 2009 harvest.  Each one of these trees represents a family that didn’t have to trek into our increasingly decreasing forests, disrupting ecosystems and inadvertently destroying habitat.  Many of these Christmas tree farms also represents a small, local, family-run business that keeps capital within a community and makes use of resources that might otherwise be wasted; after all, most Christmas tree farms are on ground that could not sustain other crops, either because the soil is too poor and rocky or because the terrain is so hilly.  And, of course, a live tree is an easily renewable resource and supporting tree farms ensures that every tree cut will be replaced–two trees are planted for each tree cut (though this is done because only half of all new pine seedlings are likely to survive beyond one year of age).

But even though tree farms offer some highly desirable environmental benefits, modern agribusiness has mitigated their ecological boon.  In theory, a live tree has practically no carbon footprint:  it fixes as much atmospheric carbon dioxide as it contributes to the environment.  Transportation, however, gives the live tree industry a pretty significant carbon footprint.  The Christmas tree farmers obviously use petroleum in canvassing their land and planting and harvesting their crops, but there’s also petroleum use in transport from the farm to retail location, from the retail location to the consumer home, and then from the home to disposal site.  While many consumers buy live trees from a stand very close to their home, the trees themselves may have traveled hundreds of miles.  For example, Oregon was the leading Christmas tree producing state in 2002, with 6.5 million trees harvested.  A great number of those trees, however, were sold in southern California and the southwest.  Although Oregon is a lot closer to Los Angeles than China, it’s hardly a local exchange and costs a significant amount of petroleum and diesel, each of which have their own environmental cost as a non-renewable, refined fossil fuel.  Similarly, many cities dispose of used Christmas trees in the trash, and that trash is often trucked to far away landfills.  New York City trash, for example, ends up in landfills in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Ohio.  Cities that route trees through a mulching chipper also use petroleum products to fuel that machinery.  In fact, if an artificial tree is re-used for several years (different studies stating somewhere between 10 and 20 years), it–a product made from non-renewable resources–might actually use less total petroleum than the annual repurchasing of a live tree.

Transportation issues aside, Christmas tree farms also incur a decent carbon cost in their use of oil-based fertilizers and pesticides.  Even if these chemicals don’t have a petroleum origin, they still have a significant environmental impact.  Located as most tree farms are are on hills, rocky soil, or both, and as shallow as young pine roots are, most of the fertilizers and pesticides end up in local water ways.  This can result in algae blooms, fish death, and eventually have effects on land animals that rely on aquatic flora and fauna in their own diets.  The chemicals can also have a health effect on the tree farm workers and on those who may fish or hunt from local water ways and their surrounding lands.

Luckily, purchasing a live tree from a local, organic tree farm mitigates a great deal of the transportation and chemical concerns, and there are several small companies that supply potted fir trees that can be replanted after holiday use.  Some companies even “rent” these trees, then use the returned trees to help forest-fire afflicted lands regenerate–an excellent choice if the company and lands are local.  Another excellent option is choosing a wild tree.  Many states allow this, so long as a permit is purchased and the wild tree is one that would have been removed by forest services anyway, and these precautions help preserve the local forests and forest ecosystems.

If you have the land, the climate, the time, and the resources, the best option for procuring a Yule tree would be to grow it and dispose of it yourself, thereby removing all non-renewable resource and chemical concerns.  As pagans, we could even ritualize this practice, and the subsequent replanting later in the year.  If, however, you lack in any of these things, then a sacrifice of more than a tree life will have to be made.  We are a religious group that embraces sacrifice, but we must be cognizant of the fact that we are making a sacrifice first.  Understanding the environmental implications surrounding a particular choice–especially around a ritual item like the Yule tree–is something we all have a spiritual obligation to do.


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