In the ongoing debate over whether a real or a fake Christmas tree is better for the environment, a new option has emerged: renting a tree and returning it when you’re done.
About 90 million American households put up a tree at Christmas, and though the majority of them are fake, about 33 million homes get a real tree. Real trees are green and great-smelling compared to their plastic cousins, but cut trees are dying trees: They’re grown for seven to 10 years, chopped down, decorated for a month and that’s the end of them.
For Scott Martin, the joy of Christmas was spoiled by the sight of discarded trees in the trash as the New Year began, so he founded a company in Southern California that rents living Christmas trees. Now, as his alter ego, “Scotty Claus,” he and a small company of “elves” will deliver, pick up and re-plant your Christmas tree. In return, customers get “naming rights,” the satisfaction of knowing they are saving a living tree, and the possibility of getting “their” tree back next Christmas.
As a teenager, Martin worked for a nursery delivering Christmas trees. “There was no more fun you could have,” he says. “Everybody’s happy to see you. It really means that Christmas has begun in the house. It was just a ton of fun — and you can't complain about the tips.”
The problem, he says, was that the intense joy he felt delivering the trees was dampened when a couple of weeks later he’d see the same trees he had recently delivered thrown out like the trash. He thought, "Why can't we do this with living trees?"
So eventually he started the Living Christmas Company. Customers order trees online, choosing a size and a variety — from trees as small as two-to-three feet to as large as 15 feet. Martin says he is moving toward using primarily the Colorado Spruce tree, because it is drought-resistant and slow-growing, but customers can still rent the more traditional fir and pine.
The back end of the online system designs an efficient travel route, so they can put 20 to 30 trees on one truck and reduce their carbon footprint by delivering the trees more efficiently. When the holidays are over, the “elves” pick the trees up and take them back to Martin’s lot.
“Currently, we're able to use brown fields — land that's been contaminated or its future use makes it unsuitable for development,” he explains. “But our trees all have their own soil and are above ground, so we're able to turn [bare land] into a forest in an urban area.”
During the rest of the year, they fertilize the trees with natural “reindeer droppings,” which Martin says have a special content that makes the trees “magically grow faster.”
Martin encourages his customers to develop personal relationships with their trees: When customers adopt a tree, they have to give it a Christmas name. “One of the things I enjoy most is going through and reading all the different names,” he says. “You know, like Spruce Lee, Treesus Agustus, Little Baby Treesus — reading what people name their trees is really one of the fun parts of the job.”
The only downside is that sometimes customers feel pretty strongly about getting that same tree back the next year. “It's a challenge when you raise that bar of hope and expectation,” Martin says, “but we do our best and try to keep a jolly disposition while doing it.”
Aside from the obvious environmental benefits, Martin thinks people like the idea of renting a tree because it is an expression of their values. “What values do you want to teach your kids,” he asks. “Yes, we're saving a tree, but it's really about [asking] what the symbol of a tree means in the first place, and how important is it to you to have something living at the end of the year that goes on living into next year?”