Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) close-up conesjpegBy Michael Rosen, President, Tree Canada

For many Canadians, Christmas is one of the few times of the year when they are allowed to drag a real tree into the house and admire its beauty (and smells. However for many, the decision to cut a “live tree” can be a difficult one – one which involves plenty of healthy debate on the virtues of a real versus artificial Christmas tree.

For those few, unfortunate people who have conifer allergies or are not permitted to bring natural trees into their apartments, their choices are limited.  However, for the vast majority of Christmas celebrants, the decision of what kind of tree to buy is a personal choice based on which will offer the greatest pleasure, while being the most environmentally friendly and of greatest community benefit. Pleasure is highly subjective. But when judging how environmentally friendly/valuable to the community each option is, the key questions that homeowners should ask includes: What raw materials and energy are used in production? Was the air and water polluted to create and transport the tree?  What happens to the tree after I am finished with it?  Where was the tree produced and what (if any) are the economic benefits to my community?

Artificial Trees – Do we need More PVC in our Lives?

It is not difficult to figure out that artificial trees can pose a real hazard to the environment, to workers and to consumers.  Artificial trees are mostly composed of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) a non-renewable and potentially polluting petroleum product.  In addition, large amounts of fossil fuels are required to transport the plastic trees (usually from Asia) adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

PVC also contains Phthalates, which have been shown to accumulate in body tissues and linked to damage in the liver, lungs, and reproductive organs in mammals.  Lead, a cumulative toxin, is often used in the production of PVC and can lead to environmental and health related problems including nervous system damage, particularly in children.

Real Christmas trees are produced from sunlight, rainfall and good soils, period. They may pose a fire hazard if they are allowed to dry out and rigged with unsafe lighting or set close to a heat source.  They can be problematic for some allergy sufferers.  Some fossil fuel pollution is generated in their transport (from elsewhere in Canada) but in general, there are no harmful chemicals within or emitted by, real trees. In fact during their growth these trees actually capture many harmful greenhouse (and other) gases. Once in the home, some researchers claim that the chemical compounds released from tree needles and bark (“phenols” and “terpenes”) actually produce dopamine in our brain stimulating a pleasant felling in our bodies. In other words, real Christmas trees can make us feel better.

Disposing Plastic – Not Good News

On average, artificial trees last 7 – 10 years and cannot be recycled, so they must be land filled or incinerated.  In landfills, the non-biodegradable materials take an extremely long period to break down.  Incineration can cause plastics, such as PVC, to release dioxins and other carcinogens into the air which can pose health risks.

Real Christmas trees are recyclable and biodegradable.  Once used, the trees can be used in the backyard for wildlife habitat, chipped for mulch or used for firewood.  If they are land filled, they will take up space over the short term before naturally breaking down.  If incinerated, real trees release a relatively small amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Where Trees Come From

Most artificial trees are produced in factories in China, Taiwan, and Korea where less stringent environmental regulations, poorer working conditions, and lower wages can prevail. Buying these products does little to support the Canadian economy.

Real Christmas trees are planted much like an agricultural crop, providing wildlife habitat as they grow until they are harvested and replaced by another tree. The trees are pruned on an annual basis and watered in times of drought. Sometimes fertilizers are used to boost growth and colour, and various techniques like hoeing or the use of products are used to limit unwanted weed competition and insect infestations.  When done correctly, none of these pose a health threat to workers or consumers. Real Christmas trees are grown on family farms – worth over $100 million to the rural Canadian economy.

Real Christmas trees include native species like balsam fir, white spruce and white pine but also include others like Fraser fir and Scots pine as well.

Growing natural Christmas trees provides many environmental benefits.  Besides providing wildlife habitat, the trees stabilize and protect soil, watercourses, and help moderate floods and droughts.  They also act as air filters and produce clean oxygen for all breathing creatures.  In fact, every acre of growing Christmas trees provides the necessary daily amount of oxygen for 18 people.  Trees also sequester carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from the air.

All in all, real Christmas trees stack up very positively against artificial trees.  And that is before one even takes into consideration the great smell and look of a natural tree! So enjoy Christmas and enjoy your real Christmas tree!

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Consider buying your real Christmas tree at IKEA – a portion of sales for each  tree sold go to planting trees with Tree Canada!

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