By Dr. Mercola
Christmas celebrations often revolve around a Christmas tree, decked out with decorations, lights and maybe even a string of popcorn and berries. Do you purchase a live tree or an artificial one? Which choice is the more eco-friendly?
According to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), in 2015 people spent an average of $50 on a real tree and $69 on an artificial tree.1 If a live tree was purchased, 76 percent bought a pre-cut and 24 percent cut their own tree down. But once Christmas is over, what happens to your live tree?
Natural or Artificial?
Whether a real or artificial tree is more eco-friendly or sustainable depends on a variety of factors. According to a 2014 survey, one-third of people think an artificial tree is better for the environment, while half of those surveyed thought a live tree was more sustainable.2
Christmas tree farms are big business in both Canada and the U.S., generating millions of dollars each Christmas season.3,4 Canada exports over 1.5 million trees, many of which go to the U.S.
They also import $65 million in artificial trees, many from China. Many of the artificial trees are made from non-biodegradable polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
In addition to the negative aspects of using artificial trees, explained by Andrew Laursen, Ph.D., of Ryerson University, Toronto, who specializes in ecosystem function, there is the added carbon footprint as most are shipped from overseas. Laursen says:5
"There are manufacturing costs, there are resources that go into making that tree — and at the end of its life you do end up typically landfilling it."
As they grow, trees naturally sequester carbon from the atmosphere. However, transporting the trees to their destination and burning the wood after use contribute to more carbon emissions.
Reports are inconsistent on the number of years necessary to use an artificial tree until the carbon footprint is less than purchasing a live tree each year, but it is at least four years.6
In many cases people appear to make their decision based on convenience. Artificial trees may be easier for people living in urban areas, some are allergic to live trees and others like being able to reuse the same tree year after year. If you purchased a live tree this year, you may have found it was more expensive than you anticipated.
Why Christmas Trees Were More Expensive This Year
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was granted a regulation enabling the department to levy a fee on the sale of all live trees.7 The additional cost was to support a national marketing program to advertise the advantages of purchasing a real tree for Christmas.8
However, while the fee levied amounted to 15 cents per tree, the agency decided against implementation in 2014.9 The assessment on Christmas trees was in effect during this holiday season, though, and was levied against both domestic and imported trees.
Businesses that produced or imported less than 500 trees each year were exempt. The budget for live tree promotion in the U.S. is $1.5 million, which the board fully expected would be funded by current sales.10
However, while this 15-cent tax may have slightly increased the price of your tree, drought and fuel costs drove the cost of trees up even more.11
Oregon and the Pacific Northwest are big suppliers of Christmas trees in the U.S., but suffered drought conditions in the past couple of years that triggered a shortage.
Tennessee, ravaged by wildfires, produced fewer varieties of trees.
Prices were up between 3 percent and 10 percent, depending upon the area of the country. However, while Alabama also experienced a significant water shortage, producers did not raise prices. The Christmas trees in Alabama were slightly shorter than normal, due to the drought.
Stockholm Using Inventive Plan to Recycle Christmas Trees and Yard Waste
If the scent of a real tree is what you desire in your home, what are your options for removal and disposal? U.S. residents currently may mulch the wood for their gardens, burn the tree or chop it up for the garbage collector and the local landfill.12
In some areas, non-profit agencies will recycle the trees and some businesses like Home Depot will recycle the tree free of charge.13
In Stockholm, Sweden, a collaborative project between Stockholm's Tree Officer and Jonas Dahllof, the city's waste disposal head of planning and development, resulted in a unique way to recycle Christmas trees and other yard waste into a beneficial product to help improve Stockholm's soil and vegetation.
Bjorn Embren, Sweden's tree officer, was struck by the difference between trees growing along the train tracks and those growing in the city.
The trees in the city were negatively affected by soil that had been compacted over the years and land covered by concrete leaving the roots starved for oxygen and water, while the gravel along the tracks kept soil aerated and the trees healthier.14
At first, Embren and his associates used soil additives to increase the porousness and aeration of the soil with good results. Several years later they added charcoal and experienced dramatic results. Dahllof commented on the differences, saying:15
"Just as the surroundings of a reef start to teem with life, so does the soil around the charcoal. Valuable fungus, bacteria and microorganisms start to flourish, creating a real concentration of organisms that are useful for healthy soil.
The charcoal also functions like a sponge. It can hold nutrients, and hold moisture in the earth right up until the surrounding plants need it."
What Is Biochar?
The Stockholm project uses biochar produced by converting biological material in a limited oxygen environment and relatively low temperatures.
This process emulates the natural production of charcoal, with the exception that charcoal is used mainly as fuel and the primary application for biochar is used to amend the soil with the intention to improve soil function and reduce carbon emissions.16
The production of biochar is the combination of time, heat and pressure that may vary between different processors. The main process is called pyrolysis, or the heating of biomass in limited or absent oxygen environments.17
With the production of biochar, energy is produced in the form of gas or oil that may be recovered and used. The Stockholm project anticipates using the energy byproduct to heat homes.18
The biochar will be put back into the soil to stabilize carbon and serve as a basis for improving soil microorganisms, retaining water and preventing soil erosion. While the application of biochar may have an immediate and positive effect on the soil and plant life, it is actually the beginning of a long-term process of restoring the soil.
Colonization of the soil with beneficial microbes and fungi and the increase in surface area may dramatically increase the ability of the land to nurture growth.
Biochar Is the Coral Reef for Soil
In this video, Wae Nelson, mechanical engineer and publisher of the Florida Gardening magazine, explains the benefits of biochar and how its use may help to reduce carbon pollution while improving plant growth and providing safe, clean energy.
Modern day agriculture has plowed under native grasses and replaced those deep root systems with corn, soy and cotton mono-cultures. This process releases much of the carbon in the soil (where it is of benefit) and increases it in the atmosphere (where it does harm).
Plants naturally absorb carbon from the air and isolate it in the plant, as it is used for nutrients. When yard waste is burned in an oxygenated atmosphere, carbon is released and the process increases the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere. As yard waste decomposes or is composted, carbon is also released back into the air.
However, when the same waste is treated to create biochar, the process becomes carbon negative, as the carbon remains inside the product and is not released into the atmosphere. Once the biochar is added to the soil, it may remain for up to 1,000 years, providing a home for beneficial soil microbes and efficiently keeping carbon in the land.
By using processes that reduce carbon emissions and are carbon neutral or negative, atmospheric damage by carbon may be slowed. The production and use of biochar is also sustainable, reduces agricultural waste and produces clean and renewable energy.19
The Many Uses of Biochar
While it produces dramatic results in your yard and garden, this isn't the only use farmers have found for biochar. This product is one of the most exciting fields of research and has practical applications for storage of nutrients, as insulation in building, and as filters, silage agents, feed supplements and energy storage in batteries.20
Presently, 90 percent of the biochar used in Europe is utilized in animal farming. When biochar is used beneath poultry litter it absorbs the ammonia, reducing the smell almost immediately.21 Poultry farmers may also find that, used as a feed supplement, incidence of diarrhea and allergies in the animal decreases and feed intake improves.
In the construction industry, the extremely low thermal conductivity and ability to absorb water makes biochar outstanding for insulating and regulating humidity in buildings.22 Biochar also efficiently absorbs electromagnetic radiation, making for a healthier interior environment.
Since biochar has a large surface area for the size of the product, it also has great potential to filter water and can be used as a soil additive for remediation in areas of former mines and landfill sites. It can also be used to prevent pesticides from entering surface water and to treat pond and lake water contaminated with pesticides and fertilizers.23
As biochar is an excellent absorbent material, it may even be added to mattresses and pillows to absorb perspiration and odors, and shield against electromagnetic radiation. The insulation qualities help reflect heat and reduce heat build-up during the summer months.
Mercola.com is currently supporting several projects utilizing biochar, and the results are incredible. As you can see in the video above, some of the techniques utilized at the Via Organica ranch in Mexico are nothing short of amazing. Some additional images from the ranch are included below.
Thanks to all of our loyal customers, we are able to provide the resources necessary to help rebuild our soils as well as the community.