What's the environmentally preferable choice: A real Christmas tree or a faux one?
Sure, you can use a fake tree over and over again, but do you really want something made of PVC in your home over and over again? Matt Hickman investigates.
Mon, Dec 07, 2009 at 05:20 AM
Q: My wife and I finally bought the (foreclosed) home of our dreams and moved out of our cramped studio apartment in the city. Now, with the space to spare, we want to do the holidays right and get a tree. My wife grew up with an artificial one, and I grew up with the real deal. We’re both stubborn holiday traditionalists and have been butting heads over the issue. So we compromised and decided that we’re going to go with the choice that’s better for the planet. Any thoughts? Are there such things as organic Christmas trees?
A: Ah, the evergreen (in more ways than one) dead vs. fake Christmas tree conundrum. First off, while there are eco perks and drawbacks to both artificial and live Christmas trees, it looks like your wish may come true this Christmas … I suggest going with the real deal.
But hold on to your holiday horses. Before jumping in the car and venturing out to a cut-your-own tree farm (the preference of about 23 percent of Americans) or to a pop-up tree shoppe in a supermarket parking lot, I want to share a few thoughts on “keeping it real.”
The downsides to real Christmas trees revolve mostly around, as you may have guessed, conventional, pesticide-based agriculture. Despite the trees’ seasonality, Christmas tree farming is a massive operation and to keep the trees healthy, beautiful and pest-free, agricultural chemicals are employed. Since they’re dosed in chemicals during their lifespan, watershed pollution from contaminated runoff and erosion is a legitimate concern.
But, to answer your question, yes, there are indeed organic tree farms out there that eschew the use of agrichemicals and observe sustainable tree farming methods. Many are even USDA-certified. I recommend perusing LocalHarvest or Green Promise to see if there’s one near you. It might be trickier finding an intown tree lot that specializes in sustainable spruces, but they are out there. I know that in my neck of the woods in Brooklyn, a Vermont-based organic tree farm called Green in Vermont has a popular seasonal presence.
I should also point out that during their short lifespan, Christmas trees (remember, they’re farmed as a crop, not plucked from the wild, so don’t let your wife give you grief about that) do a bang-up job of sucking up air pollution. It’s estimated that each tree — between 40 million and 45 million were planted in 2008 — sequesters anywhere from 30 to 400 pounds of CO2 annually. Not too shabby even though a lifecycle analysis report — commissioned, unsurprisingly, by an artificial Christmas tree industry trade group, the American Christmas Tree Association — concluded that an average artificial tree has a smaller carbon footprint than an average farm-grown tree.
Before I move on to why real trees are preferable to faux ones, the issue of waste should be addressed. As you know with fake trees, messy, temporary, wastefulness just doesn’t exist unless, god forbid, you’re switching up new ones every year. To ease the pressure on overwhelmed municipality waste collection services, you can actually recycle a discarded real tree. Not sure if you’re compost savvy in your new digs yet but that’s the best way (you need to mulch it first; don’t just throw a whole tree into your compost pile) to avoid hauling it the curb. If the tree is dry, you can also use it for firewood.
OK, so here’s the reason why real trees are better (pay attention so you can recite this to your wife): Artificial trees, the more popular choice for Americans in recent years, are usually made from PVC, the most eco-egregious type of non-renewable, petroleum-based plastic. PVC, from an environmental standpoint, is the pits. Most are also made in Chinese factories; in 2006, an estimated 13 million fake plastic trees were shipped from China to the U.S.
And since you’re looking out for the well-being of your new addition, it’s worth noting that vinyl trees are treated with all sorts of chemical additives that aren’t exactly kid- or pet-friendly. Concern is particularly strong over the fact that artificial trees can shed a lead-based dust … not exactly something you want Junior to inhale as he crawls under the tree on his first Xmas.
So there you go, Clark. In defense of vinyl trees, your wife might go for the “they’re less wasteful, easier to store and handle, and cleaner” argument … all good points and all true. But remember, organic Christmas trees do exist, they can be recycled, they support American agriculture instead of Chinese industrialism, and they won’t knock a few points off of Junior’s IQ if he sniffs one. With a little foresight, you can’t go wrong with the real thing. Merry Merry.
Also on MNN:
- The origins of your favorite Christmas songs
- The ultimate guide to Christmas tree recycling
- 6 things you probably don't know about "It's a Wonderful Life"
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