Real or plastic Christmas tree?

The Christmas tree: it’s a quintessential part of the holiday season. But it turns out not all festive trees are made equal — at least not when it comes to environmental friendliness.

So, which is better for the planet — a freshly cut tree or a fake one?

The short answer, which may come as a surprise to some, is a real tree. But it’s actually more complicated than that.

It ultimately depends on a variety of factors, including how far you drive to get your evergreen and how you dispose of it at the end of the holidays ― and, if you choose an artificial tree, how long you end up using it.

Here’s an explainer on how to make the more Earth-friendly choice this Christmas season:

1 If you choose an artificial tree, you need to use it for a very long time

An artificial tree needs to be reused for many years to make it more environmentally friendly than buying a fresh-cut tree annually. According to forester Bill Cook, a fake tree would have to be used for more than eight to nine years. A 2009 study out of Montreal, however, concluded it would take more than 20 years of use to make it a more eco-friendly choice.

Artificial trees have “three times more impact on climate change and resource depletion than natural trees,” said the study, conducted by the consulting firm Ellipsos.

2 Most fake trees are made from toxic, non-recyclable materials

Artificial Christmas trees are made of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, a non-recyclable plastic. PVC has been linked to adverse health and environmental impacts. Fake trees may also be manufactured with lead and other toxic additives.

There are artificial trees on the market that are not made from PVC. Polyethylene plastic (or PE) trees are said to be a less toxic option.

3 If you’re going to buy artificial, choose domestic

More than 85 percent of artificial Christmas trees in the U.S. are imported from China, significantly enlarging their carbon footprint.

If you’re opting for a fake tree, aim to buy one with a “Made In USA” label.

4 Similarly, if you’re buying a real tree, go local

Minimize the number of miles driven to get your Christmas tree. Research shows that driving to get your tree often has more environmental impact than the tree itself.

“If you pick up a real tree close to your home or pick it up on a trip you were going to make anyway, the impact of the real tree is almost nil,” Bert Cregg, a horticulture expert at Michigan State University, told HuffPost.

Buying local also means supporting your community’s growers and businesses, as well as preserving local farmland.

The Christmas Tree Farm Network maintains a comprehensive list of farms in the U.S., organized by state.

5 Real Christmas trees are grown specifically for that purpose

“You’re not doing any harm by cutting down a Christmas tree,” Clint Springer, a botanist and professor of biology at Philadelphia’s Saint Joseph’s University, told The New York Times in an earlier interview. “A lot of people think artificial is better because you’re preserving the life of a tree. But in this case, you’ve got a crop that’s being raised for that purpose.”

6 Christmas tree farms can serve as a habitat for local wildlife

About 350 million trees grow on Christmas tree farms in the United States, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. About 30 million of these trees are harvested annually.

These farms have environmental costs of their own, noted Thomas Harman, who sells artificial Christmas trees. “If you use an artificial tree for 10 years, you need 10 trees, and that is 70 years’ worth of growing trees,” he told Weather.com in 2013. “You have 70 years of water and pesticide consumption.”

Researchers say, however, that pesticides aren’t actually too much of an issue on Christmas tree farms.

“If you look at the continuum of chemical use in U.S. agriculture, Christmas trees production certainly ranks on the low end,” Cregg told Mother Jones in an earlier interview.

Christmas tree farms can also serve as important habitats for local birds, insects and other wildlife.

7 Real trees can be composted or recycled

Don’t just chuck your used Christmas tree in the trash after the holidays. Repurpose or recycle it!

Many towns and cities have curbside pick-up options for recycling Christmas trees, or recycling drop-off centers. Some also offer tree mulching and chipping programs, allowing residents to recycle their trees and take home a free bag of mulch for their garden.

Feeling handy? You can also turn your tree into a DIY project. Create coasters and decorations with the branches and trunk of your tree. Or make some Christmas-scented potpourri.

The bottom line

All things being equal, it seems real Christmas trees are better for the health of the Earth ― and of your family. But depending on a variety of factors, either option can be a good choice.

If you have an artificial tree, reuse it for at least a decade and consider choosing a domestically manufactured, non-PVC option. If you want a real tree, get one close to where you live, and recycle or compost it when the season is over.

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Quirky Ways to Celebrate Christmas

If you’ve ever considered it odd that U.S. Christmas traditions revolve around indoor trees (real and plastic) and a plump, bearded man sliding down chimneys… you’re not wrong.

In fact, our conception of Santa Claus can largely be attributed to a single 1828 poem, Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which enshrined the nation’s image of Santa–with his “little round belly” and a beard “as white as the snow–and propagated the idea of him coming through chimneys to deliver gifts in stockings, now common knowledge to children across the country. It’s just one of the ways our Christmas traditions can be traced to quirks of history.

But odd and seemingly arbitrary Christmas traditions are not only the purview of the United States. Around the world, in countries that are majority Christian and countries that are majority not, unique practices emerge as the holiday approaches.

Here’s a look at some of the notable and sometimes bizarre Christmas time traditions around the world.

Japan

The vast majority of Japan is not Christian, but one Christmas tradition persists: a trip to KFC. Since a “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (Kentucky for Christmas!) marketing campaign was launched in Japan in 1974, the American chain has become a popular Christmas Eve hotspot. The campaign worked so well that sales that night typically outpace those of the rest of the year. Some people even order their bucket of fried chicken ahead, to beat the Christmas crowds.

Sweden

In the Swedish town of Gävle, it is traditional to construct a 30-foot tall giant straw “Yule Goat” — a Christmas symbol in Sweden for centuries. And it’s tradition for some meddling kids (actually, unidentified criminal arsonists) to try to burn it down. According to the Gävle tourist board, the goat has been burned down 25 times since its construction became an annual tradition in 1966. So far this year, the Gävle goat is safely standing, as you can see on this webcam. You can also follow him on Twitter.

India

Christians comprise roughly 2 percent of the Indian population, or 24 million people. But Christmas trees in the warm climate are in short supply, so in lieu of the evergreen conifer many Indian families will adorn banana or mango trees with ornaments. In Christian communities, which are mostly in southern India, people put oil-lamps of clay on their flat roof-tops to celebrate the season.

Ukraine

Americans would recognize the Christmas trees decorated in Ukraine, as they’re similar to the traditional, Western fir tree, but Ukrainians will sometimes decorate them with an unlikely ornament: spider webs. The tradition stems from a Ukrainian folk tale, about a widow whose family was so poor they had no money to decorate their tree. Instead, a spider span a web around it on Christmas Eve — and when the first light of day hit it on Christmas morning, it turned into a beautiful web of gold and silver.

Iceland

Beware the Yule Cat! This traditional Christmas fiend is said to terrorize the Icelandic countryside, particularly targeting those who don’t receive new clothes for Christmas. But the frightening festive feline is just one of Iceland’s “Christmas fiends”, who include Grýla, a three-headed ogress with goat-horns. The creature’s sons, the “Yule Lads”, hand out Christmas gifts to children who have been good (and rotten vegetables to those who have been bad).

Italy

Only in Italy do the witches bring gifts to children. That’s La Befana, a broom-flying, kindly witch who effectively takes over from Santa–in Italy, “Babbo Natale”—about two weeks after Christmas on Epiphany to deliver gifts to the good, and ash to the bad. Though the witch has her roots in the pre-Christian pagan tradition, she features in some tellings of the Christmas story in Italy — as an old woman who refuses to give the Wise Men directions to Bethlehem because she is too busy cleaning, and is forced to ride a broomstick for eternity as a result. The town of Le Marche, in northwestern Italy, celebrates her coming every January.

Czech Republic

Save the ham. In the Czech Republic, carp is the mainstay of a Christmas dinner. The tradition of eating carp on Christian holidays dates back as far as the 11th century, when Bohemian monasteries would construct fishponds for the express use of farming the fish. Until recently, Czech families would buy a live carp in the weeks before Christmas and keep it in a bathtub, before slaughtering it on Christmas Eve ready for the following day’s meal. Many Czechs still take part in the festive superstition of saving a dried (and cleaned) scale from the Christmas fish in their wallets for luck over the coming year.

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