Christmas Tree Debate: Real or Fake?

Is your battle cry, “Tradition!” when you back up your decision to bring a freshly cut fir into your living room for the holidays? Or, are you a re-usable, recyclable, environmentally friendly type, claiming that your artificial tree decision is the better choice?

Turns out there are pros and cons to each option, and the impacts on the environment are surprisingly close.

For those of you who imagine we are depleting the forest with our “use it and toss it” behavior; a tiny percentage of Christmas trees are taken from the forest. For the past 50 years, most Christmas trees have been grown on farms. They are a crop, like any other, planted with harvest in mind. Without the demand, these oxygen producing, smog and dust filtering fir trees would not exist. During their growth, Christmas trees can also be a winter habitat for deer and or home for birds and other small animals.

Because these trees are planted as a crop, they are sustainably managed. After the trees are cut, the roots remain in the ground, holding the soil in place; aiding in erosion control. Paul Battalia, president of the California Christmas Tree Association, reports, “ Christmas tree growers are also known for their widespread use of inputs such as Integrated Pest Management (IPM) which is a balanced and environmentally friendly approach to pest control.”

If you buy from a Christmas tree farm you are supporting your local economy. And, after the holiday, please don’t toss it in the trash! There are many environmentally friendly ways your Christmas tree can “give back.” Trees can be ground and recycled into material for, plant food, sand dune stabilizers, coastal shore fish habitats, fuel chips, and mulch for hiking trails or landscaping. Some southeastern states use Christmas trees to shore up coastal wetlands that have been eroded by hurricanes and Christmas trees have also been used to provide nesting habitats for herons.

A negative of fresh cut trees, obviously, is the cost…you have to re-purchase each year. Poor farm management can also be a concern leading to soil degradation and minimal wildlife habitat. Pesticides, like Roundup, and other herbicides and fungicides are often used over the growth cycle of the trees. If you are not buying from an organic farm, spraying your Christmas tree with the garden hose and then letting it dry for 24 hours before bringing it in can help. Because the trees are typically treated in spring and summer, most chemical residue has been reduced by the elements before your winter purchase. Each pesticide also has a “pre-harvest interval printed on the label instructing farmers when they can apply their last spray before harvest. There is a continual push for Integrated Pest Management to lesson direct human exposure and to reduce the amount of these toxic chemicals that trickle into our rivers and oceans.

If you are in the artificial tree camp and you’re convinced that you have lessoned your carbon footprint by purchasing a plastic tree, there may be factors you haven’t considered. Most fake trees are made from PVC (polyvinyl chloride), a petroleum- derived plastic. PVC is non-renewable; you can’t recycle it. PVC contains hormone- disrupting plastic softeners called phthalates. And, many carcinogens, such as dioxin, ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride are created in the production of PVC. Led is also often used to create the needles. Led exposure can create a number of negative health effects such as kidney, neurological and reproductive system damage. Vacuuming around the tree can release lead particles into the air, creating inhalation danger. Some trees containing led come with warning labels about washing your hands after handling to prevent ingesting the brain damaging metal. You might want to warn your holiday guests… though we understand that having a warning sign posted near the tree really takes away from that Norman Rockwell feel! And finally, if you aren’t scared of a few carcinogens, or a little lead…consider that you will need to re-use your fake tree for 8 to 20 years for it to be considered more environmentally friendly than the yearly recycled cut tree.

Now that we’ve depressed you over chemical vs. pesticide exposure let’s address the “Real” American tradition. Are artificial trees just another example of plastic consumerism with no ties to tradition? Not exactly… Christmas trees are a Germanic tradition, dating back to the 1500s but the first written records of Christmas trees in America, are of German settlers in the 1740s decorating wooden pyramids with evergreen branches and candles. During the 1830s Germany saw a resurgence of the Christmas tree tradition and began to worry about potential deforestation. In response they created re-usable feather trees, which were made out of dyed goose feathers bound together with wire and attached to a wooden pole.

So, it turns out both real trees and fake trees represent tradition. And, as we have pointed out, there are positives and negatives to consider with either purchase. In 2011, the American Christmas Tree Association sponsored a peer review study to compare the two trees. An impartial third party, PE INTERNATIONAL, completed a Life Cycle Analysis and found “that the choice of either tree has a negligible impact on the environment.”

Hopefully, your house is not divided in this debate. Choose the Christmas tree that brings a smile to your face and joy into your home! Then, relax and enjoy this wonderful holiday season!!

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