Real tree vs. plastic tree

| 09 Mar 2012 | 10:59

Real tree Many don’t realize real Christmas trees are grown on farms just like other crops and are a renewable resource. For every tree harvested, a new one is planted. Christmas trees are grown all over the U.S. and Canada, so there’s always a local source. Tree farms provide habitat for a wide variety of birds and animals. Trees help filter the air, prevent soil erosion and provide oxygen. And the Christmas tree industry, with an estimated 21,000 growers nationwide, employs almost 100,000 full- and part-time domestic workers.

Post holiday season, a real tree can be recycled into bird feeders, mulch or fuel chips for biomass furnaces.

Some argue that real trees are sprayed with chemicals, and it takes a lot of trucks and fuel to move those trees around.The fact is that real trees are not produced for sale on a grocer’s shelf, so they don`t need to look perfect. Valued for their natural appearance, they are often grown with fewer chemicals than most of your store-bought produce.

Speaking of chemicals, most artificial trees are made from PVC, a potential source of lead. Ever notice the warning label on the box to wash you hands after handling your plastic tree? The manufacture of PVC creates dioxins, the most toxic of chemicals. There are relatively few artificial trees manufactured in the USA; the majority are imported from China, which is notorious for weak enforcement of environmental regulations.

There are statistics that state artificial trees could be greener if kept for eight years. In today’s throwaway society, many people don`t keep cars – or even houses – that long. When they do throw away their old artificial tree it will sit in some landfill for centuries.

If you ask me, the only thing green about an artificial tree is the money big companies make selling them.

Dan Daly, nursery manager at Hudson Valley Nursery in New Hampton

Plastic tree It might seem obvious that since plants consume carbon dioxide, a real Christmas tree would have a smaller carbon footprint than its manmade counterpart. In truth, although the average Christmas tree consumes about 9 kilograms of CO2 on the farm, as that once glorious symbol of Christmas lies rotting in the mulch pile in the spring, it releases about 5kg CO2. Another 7.5kg for transporting your tree, lashed to the roof of the family minivan, brings the grand total to an emission of 3.5kg CO2.

The numbers for an artificial tree initially look a lot worse. The combination of production in a far-off Chinese factory, transportation by truck, boat, and a car to reach your doorstep, and the eventual breakdown of all that PVC in the nearest landfill produces a whopping 30kg of CO2. But, unlike the cycle of the real Christmas tree, which is repeated every year, a well-treated artificial Christmas tree will last for many years.

In fact, after nine years, the carbon footprint of using your plastic tree will be smaller than nine years of real trees. And for every additional year you string lights around your artificial tree, your Christmas footprint will continue to diminish until it disappears into the snow.

So, yes, a decade of an artificial Christmas tree, with its cold steel trunk, wire branches, and plastic needles that smell more like a chemical plant than Christmas morning, has a smaller carbon footprint than ten years of fresh-cut trees, but are the two even comparable? A real Christmas tree provides experience. I look back fondly on years of picking out Christmas trees with my dad and sitting on the floor while my parents struggled with each massive evergreen, loudly “discussing” whose fault it was that the tree was not perfectly vertical. But, what are these experiences worth? How many kilograms of greenhouse gas? The answer to that question cannot be determined using a mathematical formula.

Alicia Marrie, chemical engineer, grew up in Warwick