How to Have the Greenest Christmas Tree Ever

christmas ornaments and pinecones hang from living potted fir tree

Treehugger / Christian Yonkers

These eco-friendly decorating tips will make your tree greener than the color of its pine needles.

1. Go with a real tree.

three potted living fir trees decorated for christmas with ornaments

Treehugger / Christian Yonkers

It may seem counterintuitive, but cutting down a living tree is a more eco-friendly option than importing a plastic one. As the New York Times reported in 2010, you'd have to use a plastic tree at least 20 times before it broke even with using a real tree for each of those years. Think of what happens when you throw it away. A real tree will biodegrade, while a plastic one will languish, unrecycled.

There are other options, though. Consider a potted tree from a local nursery, make a different sort of tree out of branches, get a stand-up cardboard tree, or put up a Christmas tree poster on the wall. (OK, this probably won't go over well with kids, but you get the point.) Check out this weird but wonderful list of 31 DIY Christmas trees made from recycled materials. You could even make a ladder tree like one of our Treehugger writers did.

2. Choose lights that have replaceable bulbs.

box of glowing Christmas lights and glass ornaments

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

Is anything more annoying than fishing out a string of lights from storage and finding it doesn't work anymore? Whereas my parents used to carefully replace individual bulbs, I've had to throw away entire strings of lights because the bulbs are not removable. (In my defence, I'd bought them at the thrift store, but I've learned my lesson.)

A recent trip to Canadian Tire educated me in the way of holiday lights. Certain brands, such as NOMA, do offer removable and replaceable bulbs. I opted for a string of their outdoor lights that are weather-proof and warrantied for 10 years. Old-style lights, with the incandescent glass bulbs, are still available, though they are fragile and use far more energy than the LED ones. I do like, though, that the bulbs can be replaced.

3. Skip the tinsel.

It may be pretty, but it's an environmental disaster. Tinsel is made of plastic and cannot be recycled, which means it goes straight to landfill. It is difficult to reuse tinsel, too, unless you patiently remove every single strand and save it for next year, although even then it seems to get everywhere. House pets, especially cats, are drawn to tinsel (and it's safe to assume wild animals would feel the same attraction near a landfill). One veterinary hospital writes:

"Cats will eat the long strings of tinsel. If they eat enough, it can fill up their stomach and cause a blockage (obstruction) there. If they have an obstruction in their stomach, your cat may be lethargic, not eating, and may vomit."

Stick with safer, green alternatives, even if they're less sparkly. Popcorn garlands are an old standby, or wrap burlap around your tree for a rustic look. Make garlands from loops of paper or fold paper stars or snowflakes and string them together.

4. Choose your ornaments wisely.

three potted living christmas trees decorated for holiday with ornaments

Treehugger / Christian Yonkers

The greenest ornaments are the ones you already own, so best practice is to make do with what you have. That being said, updates are needed once in a while to replace ornaments that have broken or lost their appeal. Consider giving one new ornament per person as a stocking stuffer; it's a good way to build a collection over time.

Make your own ornaments. The Internet abounds with clever DIY projects using natural or recycled materials.

Buy ethically-made, green ornaments. My go-to store for all things Christmas is Ten Thousand Villages, which sells fairly traded handicrafts from around the world. The Christmas section is vast, gorgeous, unique, and affordable. Many ornaments feature unusual materials like dried gourds, jute, and metal. They range from sophisticated to adorable.