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Tree or Cut Lights?

December 10, 2011

Christmas decorations lift the spirit, and there’s value in that. I remember how excited I would get as a child to hang ornaments on the tree and see all the houses lit up at night. On extra special years my dad would get out his antique silver candleholders with clips on the bottom, and carefully set these on the tree boughs. Come Christmas Eve, our living room was an enchanted forest.

Nowadays we have a plastic tree. A staunch environmentalist, my wife doesn’t believe in supporting the practice of cutting down trees simply to be brought inside for a month and then discarded. I haven’t argued, this being – in a marriage – the path of least resistance.

But a couple of nights ago, after stringing together the third strand of icicle lights and stapling them to my house’s fascia board, I got to wondering… what’s more harmful to the environment – cutting down trees, or burning lights?

Consider: millions of pine and fir trees are grown every year explicitly for use as Christmas trees. While they mature, they’re providing oxygen for the planet (one acre produces air for 18 people, x 450,000 cultivated acres in the U.S. = 8.1 million people breathing Christmas air every day), providing a habitat for wildlife, and scrubbing dust and pollen out of the air. And since as many – or more – trees are planted for those cut down, the Christmas tree industry is providing a constant environmental benefit.

After the holiday, approximately 93 percent of Christmas trees are recycled, with uses as diverse as sand and soil erosion barriers to shelter in fish ponds. An artificial tree, on the other hand, may last 6-10 years in the home – but will linger for centuries once it reaches a landfill.

How about lights – do those high wattage strands have any environmental redemption? I’m hard pressed to find any. The wire comes with a cancer warning. The bulbs eat electricity – which not only costs money, but also uses resources; resources which could otherwise have been directed toward a greener project. And, like artificial trees, these strands are going to linger for far longer than they’ll ever light your house.

Christmas lights were popularized near the end of the 18th century – scant years after the invention of the electric bulb. Before this, candles were used to light trees – often with fiery results. The one positive impact electric lights had is that they were safer. As with all technological innovations, however, there were unintended side effects. Once this safer method came into being, people began to decorate and light their trees weeks in advance of the holidays.

With the advent of LED lights, we have the ability to cut down on our electric consumption. Though you may spend as much on upgrading to LED bulbs as you save on electricity, you are conserving resources. Perhaps, too, these diodes will last longer than the typical year incandescent strands seem to last, which could partially stem the tide of Christmas junk that annually bloats our landfills.

In conclusion, there are many positive reasons for growing Christmas trees – even if the ultimate goal is to cut them down. The only reason for lights is decorative, but there are ways to minimize their impact.

Next year I’m getting some LED bulbs. And a real tree.





From → Rants

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