Plastic or pine, fake or fir?

by Caroline Brown

Curt and I were debating whether to get a Christmas tree this year, and I turned to the Internet to do some research, as usual. Quite a few bloggers have tackled the needle-y issue of the earth friendly Christmas tree. Naturally I’m late to the topic–only a week until Christmas and all, but I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon anyway. Here’s what I read while surfing the blogosphere.

At the Bean Sprouts blog, I learned of the decision of a well-known organic gardener from the UK, whose name is (really) Bob Flowerdew, to buy an artificial tree this year. Flowerdew says that taking a tree into your home is like “torturing it to death” and says that buying an artificial tree is more environmentally friendly.

OK, I don’t think it’s right to take a tree out of the forest, whether it’s legal (you own the forest) or illegal (you’re stealing it from someone else’s property). I don’t know about torture, but it’s certainly irresponsible and just plain wrong–unless, I guess, if you own the land and you replace the cut tree with several other seedlings. But (at least in the US), most Christmas trees come from farms–how is a tree different from any other crop? It seems to me that it’s OK to buy a tree that was grown on a local farm.

Triple Pundit seems initially to support Flowerdew’s decision with an incredible yet mind-numbing calculation of CO2 emissions from the fake tree compared to potential carbon sequestration services from the real tree:

Let’s start with the fake tree. I pick a model that is made in China, and weighs about 35 kg. The frame is made from steel and weighs about 25 kg. The remaining weight consists of small plastic parts made from high-density polyethylene, weighing about 3 kg, the “needles,” made from polyethylene foil and also weighing about 2 kg, and the pre-strung Christmas lights which consist of 2 kg of PVC, 2 kg of copper, and 1 kg of glass. Using the MIPS data tables provided by the Wuppertal Institute, I can determine that the amount of CO2 emissions from the extraction and production of the materials used is around 28.983 kg. Let’s add to this a 25% increase to take into account the manufacturing of the fully-assembled tree ( 28.98 kg + 7.25 kg = 36.23 kg). At 17 g/tkm, shipping 35 kg (0.035t) from China (10,000 km) is responsible for an additional 5950 g (5.95 kg) of CO2 emissions. So the estimated total CO2 emissions for the fake tree are 42.18 kg.

Now lets find out how many years you have to own this tree to justify the emissions from production compared to the carbon sequestration services provided by live trees. Well, it turns out that trees sequester somewhere around 172 kg (some as low as 36 kg, some as high as 342 kg) of CO2 per year. This would indicate that it is far more ecologically friendly to buy a fake Christmas tree once, at a CO2 cost of 42.18 kg, than to cut down a tree every year at a CO2 cost of 172 kg (annual for at least 25 years). Please note that this is not the amount of CO2 emitted by cutting the tree down, but the amount of CO2 not sequestered by the tree because it is now dead. [emphasis mine.]

However, says Triple Pundit:

Most Christmas trees are grown on tree farms and not in actual forests. These tree farms sequester CO2 constantly during the young trees’ period of vigorous growth. Since they were grown for eventual harvest, we are not actually decreasing the amount of CO2 sequestration capacity, but increasing it.

And A Fresh Squeeze notes that the poisonous and difficult-to-recycle attributes of fake trees:

Fake Christmas trees are usually made of PVC, a plastic that is difficult to recycle and contains hazardous chemicals. Last year, over 9 million plastic Christmas trees were imported from China. So despite being reusable, the production and transportation of fake trees is still energy intensive.

While it may seem environmentally insensitive to chop down a tree and decorate it, real trees are actually eco-friendly. Tree farms, which provide 98% of real Christmas trees, fight global warming by converting carbon dioxide into oxygen.

“Trees have a metabolism like people,” says Dawn Peterson of Oney’s Christmas Tree Farm in Woodstock, IL. “The younger ones are more efficient. So by cutting down and selling the older trees and continuously planting, the younger trees do a better job at producing oxygen and detoxifying the air.”

For every tree cut down, Oney’s Farm plants 7 to 10 in its place. A truly renewable resource, real trees are also recyclable. Each January, the city of Chicago collects trees at Park District parks and turns them into mulch.

Guest blogging at Garden Rant, JLB of Arboreality–a tree hugger if ever there was one–notes the benefits of real Christmas trees to the farm economy:

Crop Christmas trees provide a source of income for our farmers, which means that buying a real Christmas tree each year, especially when purchased from a local farm, serves to support your local economy, and the local growers who work there. Those concerned about pesticides and fertilizers can find increasing numbers of organic Christmas tree farms. There are even farmers offering Christmas trees online for home delivery!

Don’t forget the option of buying a potted tree and planting it later. I’ve never done this myself, though I’ve heard the survival rate is low if you live in an area with cold winters. If you decide to have a try at this, JLB has posted some excellent tips for selecting, planting, and caring for a live Christmas tree on her own blog.

So it actually seems to me that the best option is a real, farm-grown tree grown on a local farm, preferably one that replaces cut trees with seedlings. This probably means passing by the trees you see hanging around the parking lots of big box stores and large supermarkets. They most likely truck in their trees in bulk, from say, North Carolina, one of the leading U.S. suppliers of Christmas trees–its farms annually produce more than 4.5 million Christmas trees worth $100 million.

Instead, find a local farm, buy your tree there, and after the holidays, be sure to recycle it. Earth911 has a zip-code based tool for finding the nearest “tree-cycling” program. Toss your tree on the compost heap, or if you have access to a wood chipper, chip it up and use it as mulch on your garden.

Happy holidays, and if you’re like me and haven’t found a tree yet, happy tree hunting!

Photo courtesy of the National Christmas Tree Association.

10 Comments to “Plastic or pine, fake or fir?”

  1. We had an artificial tree for years and found:
    1-it looses needles, too.
    2-pets eat those needles, and while our pets never got sick, this does have the potential to perforate some innards since the plastic needles are very unforgiving.
    3-it has no smell which is very disappointing and not in keeping with the season.
    4-you can get a can of pine scent to spray, but then you’re breathing chemicals.
    5-they can’t be recycled like a real tree.

    All in all, when next I’m in a place that will hold a big tree, I think I’d rather have a real tree than another artificial one. 🙂

  2. Great post Caroline (and thanks for the plugs). I think that the principle of using fake trees is sound, but I just can’t stomach the implementation. And as Michelle points out, fake trees are lacking in all the fine qualities that real trees possess.

    It is indeed a sticky topic with MANY opinions – I’m glad you took the time to share thoughts from several different angles. However you decide to be-tree your home, Merry Christmas!

  3. I helped my parents put up their fake tree when I was visiting them last week….it’s easier for them to have a fake b/c it’s less complicated and they’re older. I can’t begrudge them that but I can’t help but wish it could be made of something else besides PVC. I just read an article that organic clothing has hit the mainstream….maybe in the near future someone will invent an earth friendly fake tree.

  4. I live in the pacific north west in the country and in the forest. However, my partner and I respect the role of trees in the environment and do not choose to slaughter them and hang them above the Christmas altar. As we experience may wild winter storms with gale force winds that take down branches we choose to collect the boughs we find along the roadsides and on our acreage beginning in early November and keep them in buckets of water.

    On the solstice we invite friends from the city over and together we shape all the boughs into large wreaths. We make one wreath for each room and we decorate we them with tiny lights and decorations just as one would do a tree.

    Throughout the holiday season our homes look festive and bright and when we take the wreaths down after New Years we put them through a chipper and make them into mulch.

    Perhaps this would be a workable alternative for those of your readers who live in similar circumstances.

    Have a merry and bright holiday and thanks for blogging all year round. 🙂

  5. Timethief! That’s a wonderful idea, thanks for sharing with us. Happy holidays to you as well.

  6. Agreed Timethief – holiday boughs and wreaths are a wonderful alternative, and a timely PNW-late-autumn-windstorm almost ALWAYS inspires the trees to donate branches right on schedule! (Hug a Doug fir for me, if you would. 🙂 I sure miss them!)

  7. Plastic trees? Support your local nurseryman! Buy live!

  8. Fake Christmas Trees are the best way to go. Real tree’s just fill landfills and create lot’s of headaches. Artificial Christmas Trees are realistic looking, easy to put up, pollen free, and will generally last over a decade.

  9. Dear Fake– you have no credibility since you are a seller of fake Christmas trees. I doubt your trees are sustainably manufactured. And when real trees go to a landfill they decompose, not like plastic trees.

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