When I was a kid, January 6th was the day the Christmas tree came down. This was not optional; in my WASPy, Catholic-constellated Toronto suburb, ending the holiday season on "The Epiphany" (whatever that is—I don't think I ever knew) was orthodoxy, and families of other religious persuasions who'd followed the Christian lead in obtaining a tree also followed in its disposal.
This came less from empathizing with tradition than practicality: a special municipal collection of Christmas trees took place on the first work day after Jan. 6, and if yours wasn't on the curb that morning you'd have to dispose of it yourself. Since precious few options existed to facilitate this, people religiously defrocked their trees en masse the day before, packing decorations away in the same dusty boxes from which they were perennially liberated. And so, walking to school on Jan. 7—or 8 or 9 (depending on which day of the week the 6th fell)—I'd shadow a veritable forest of perfectly symmetrical fir, spruce and pine, in all shades of brown and green, lying sideways as though some silent solar wind had toppled them, an occasional overlooked string of clinquant tinsel the only hint of the holiday storm that had now subsided.
I passed hundreds of trees, and remember having the schoolboy thought of how extending this to the rest of the city would be multiplicative, yielding a number larger than any I had ever written. That was a lot of trees, and I imagined Toronto's fleet of dirty yellow garbage trucks lining up at a gate somewhere outside the city to dump their crumpled cargo, where it was bulldozed into a pile the size of which could not be comprehended. Whether some form of this was true or not, simply having the picture in my head had yielded another thought that grew stronger every year: what a waste.
I could not comprehend the hubris of nurturing a life for up to 10 years only to sever it for use as an ephemeral symbol. In retrospect, it wasn't the casualness with which trees were discarded—in unceremonious contrast to the anticipation and joy with which they were welcomed and erected—that addled my subconscious (though that would eventually happen as well) but the simpler issue of biomass.
By the time I was a teenager I eschewed the Christmas tree trope, and over the years found more reasons to dislike them: the land used to farm them, the chemicals, the obscene pricing ($500 on a street corner in New York!), and the carbon issue, which involves fertilizer, export, transport, and disposal (e.g., according to U.K.-based Carbon Trust, the decomposition footprint of a two-metre Christmas tree is about16 kilograms of CO2. That's 100,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases from the U.K.'s seven million landfill-bound trees each year).
I never joined the debate over artificial versus real trees sparked by A Charlie Brown Christmas because I found both unconscionable, but there is a difference. Canadians spend about $56 million per year on artificial trees produced overseas with a huge environmental impact that last seven to 10 years before being trashed (not recycled), while Christmas trees raised as crops at home deliver more than $100 million to the rural Canadian economy and can mostly be recycled—and not just chipping and composting as the RMOW does, but in processes that show industrial promise.
Some 85 per cent of an evergreen needle is comprised of the structurally complex polymer lignocellulose. Despite being rich in carbohydrates and aromatics, lignocellulose was traditionally unattractive to industry because of the high energy required to break it down. But a new process called liquefaction uses moderate temperatures and environmentally friendly solvents to convert needles into simple high-value sugars, organic acids and phenolics. A solid byproduct called "bio-char" can also be used as a catalyst for other chemical reactions. The process can handle wet or dry trees, and an industry built on it could also convert much of the biomass waste from both food crops and forestry management into vital products.
Though I've never fully reconciled my own quandary, my partner loves Christmas trees and so we cut a small one each year—one being crowded out by others and unlikely to survive, apologizing to it and compensating in spring by planting a bunch more. But as Jan. 6 passed the tree's still standing, on a life-support diet of sugar and water while I work on a new plan: keeping it alive until next year.
Leslie Anthony is a science/environment writer and author who holds a doctorate in connecting the dots.