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Dreaming of a greener Christmas tree

Today, January 13, is Saint Knut's Day. In Sweden, it marks the end of Christmas and the associated holiday season. Assuming that Christmas was celebrated, and with a real tree that still has needles on it, the day is celebrated by taking out the Christmas tree and dancing around it. The question then becomes what to do with it – reuse, recycle or energy recovery?

Saint Knut’s Day – Tjugondag jul or Tjugondag Knut in Swedish, Knutomasso or Nuutinpäiväis in Finnish – is a traditional festival celebrated in Sweden and Finland on January 13. In Sweden, it marks the end of Christmas and the associated holiday season celebrated by stripping off the decorations and taking the Christmas tree out of the house or flat to its post-consumer afterlife – reuse, recycle or energy recovery?

Of Sweden’s 4.5 million households, over 3 million buy a Christmas tree to spread the Christmas cheer so three million juvenile spruce and fir trees suddenly strewn out on the street is something to be avoided. Indeed, illegal waste disposal carries a prison penalty.

Reuse is the general idea of plastic or other synthetic Christmas tree, to pack it back in the box for next year. Needless to say, reuse of this year’s spruce (Picea sp.)as next year’s Christmas tree, is going to be, well needleless. A fir (Abies sp.), on the other hand, will have most of its needles in situ but will have changed colour. Both are likely to be aesthetically displeasing and pose a serious fire hazard.

Recycle the tree is something that those with gardens tend to be proficient at. Delimbed and the tree has become a pole for use in the fence, in the vegetable patch for runner beans or other ornamental climbers whereas the branches find use as weed suppression under a shrub.

For those without access to or interest in gardening, recycling options are more limited. However, in Solna, greater Stockholm, discarded Christmas trees are collected and deliberately “dumped” in designated areas in local lakes. These function as fish and crustacean nurseries improving the biodiversity in the water.

Energy recovery is, as one may expect, by far the most prominent post-consumer treatment method in Sweden for expired Christmas trees. Almost every village, town and city has biomass-fired district heating and municipalities are generally good at ensuring that organic waste is collected and treated appropriately.

While many municipalities organise collection ensuring that the spent trees end up in the clean wood waste destined for fuel in a local heat and/or power plant, not all do. Waste collection trucks don’t take trees on their rounds. Instead, the tree has to be hauled or transported to a designated collection point just like other recyclables.

That is where an environmental trade-off appears. An average Christmas tree has the energy equivalent of about 2 litres of gasoline so there is “limit” on mileage for it to make sense. And while “reduce” in the waste hierarchy, ie not use a Christmas tree at all is, of course, an option, it just wouldn’t seem like Christmas without one way up here in the northern hemisphere.

On the frontend, ironic as it may seem in a forest-rich country like Sweden, most Christmas trees are actually imported from neighbouring countries, in particular, Denmark and Norway but also from Germany and Poland.

Furthermore, according to Dr Martin Pettersson, the first in Sweden to write a doctoral thesis on the subject, no reliable statistics are available for the number of Christmas trees sold, land area cultivated, number of growers, or how many trees are actually imported annually.

Yet, as Pettersson points out, Sweden has the potential to be self-sufficient in Christmas trees.

Clear is that the Christmas tree and greenery business is big business. In the United States (US), all 50 states have Christmas tree production. The National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) estimates the sector to be worth about US$0.5 billion.

In Europe, where the decorated tree tradition began, the Christmas Tree Growers Council of Europe (CTGCE), an umbrella organisation of 13 national associations, pegs annual production to 75 million trees.

According to the Danish Christmas Tree Association (Danske Juletræer), the European industry has an annual turnover of around EUR 1.5 billion. Germany and Denmark are the two top tree producers – in 2016 the former produced around 24 million trees and the latter circa 12 million trees.

Sens moral is to plant a tree, a Nordmann fir (Abies nordmanniana) each year and in about six years time log the first homegrown backyard Christmas tree – a Perpetuum arbor Xmas.

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