A Real Christmas Tree, Or An Artificial Christmas Tree - Which Is Best?

It's a question that many people ask themselves as the festive season starts to approach. To green-minded consumers in particular, it is an important topic. I asked myself this very same question last year, when, after years spent decorating our faithful, plastic, artificial tree that spends fifty weeks of the year imprisoned in the attic, I suddenly fell for the idea of a real tree. Just for once.

I don't know why, really. Perhaps it just seemed that, to real tree buyers, the very act of going out to choose the tree and bringing it home was a ritual in itself - sort of like the beginning of Christmas. Plenty of other people seemed to do it - there was a man no more than a quarter of a mile up the road selling them on the street. And perhaps it was because a real tree seemed more to be a part of nature, with its outdoorsy scent and its non-plasticy branches. Somehow it just seemed more traditional.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

However, for me the whole issue of buying a 'real' Christmas tree was frought with issues.  I consider myself to be someone who likes to support the environment as much as I can, so making the choice to buy a real tree or to dig out the old one from the attic was a big deal.  There are advantages and disadvantages to both, and perhaps no clear cut answer.  The best I could do was to research the pros and cons as far as possible, and then reach a decision.   

Image: Suat Eman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image: Suat Eman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

So What Are The Pros and Cons?

 

Artificial Trees

Cost

Well, obviously one of the main advantages to opting for an artificial Christmas tree is the cost. Artificial trees come in all shapes and sizes, and there is a tree suited to any budget. There are many different colors - green; white; silver; even black. Some are even pre-lit, saving you the bother of fussing around with strings of lights. The main point, though, is that once you have chosen your tree there will be no further costs to incur - you just store it away and use it year after year.

No Trees Are Felled

As the tree isn't real, nothing is chopped down just for the sake of a short, annual celebration called Christmas. Surely that is a good thing, as trees are best left with their roots in the ground, right? However, the reality isn't as clear cut as that, for reasons that shall be explored further down.

The Environmental Costs of Artificial Christmas Trees

While it is true that once you have purchased an artificial Christmas tree you can keep it for years without using any further resources, there are indeed environmental costs incurred in the actual production of the Christmas tree. Artificial Christmas trees are typically made in countries likes China, which means that they, like most other products we buy, have to travel an awful long way before they end up in a store near you. And, as we know, transporting products around the world uses energy,

What Are Artificial Christmas Trees Made of Anyway?

Artificial Christmas trees are usually made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). PVC is actually one of the most hazardous plastics to produce - it is the most environmentally damaging of all plastics. Dangerous chemicals have to be transported for use in its production, and during manufacture huge amounts of dioxins are released into the air, even ending up in water. In the food chain, fish have been found to contain high amounts of dioxins, which ultimately end up on our plates for consumption. The worrying thing is, dioxins are cause for concern because they have been found to have cancer-causing potential.

How Long Is The True Life Span Of An Artificial Tree?

Well, theoretically you could use your artificial Christmas tree every year for as long as you celebrate Christmas. However, how many consumers really do this? The truth is that most people do not keep the same artificial tree forever, choosing to change it for a new one when they tire of it, or when new designs emerge which they prefer. After all, we are living in a throwaway society. When we see something we like, we get it, discarding the old one with little regard. A consumer might have several trees throughout a lifetime, resulting in more environmental damage.

And, as I have detailed further down, under the heading 'Recyclable and Biodegradable', PVC in landfill takes hundreds of years to degrade.

Image: Suat Eman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image: Suat Eman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Real Trees

Locally Sourced

Most real Christmas trees are locally sourced, usually on Christmas tree farms. There are not planted for any other reason, so if the demand for Christmas trees wasn't there, the tree would not have existed in the first place.  The planting of trees also helps to absorb CO2 in the atmosphere, and a pine tree will grow for about 7 years before it is large enough to be sold as a Christmas tree. And because the trees are local, little energy is required for their transportation.  In fact, the overall energy consumption of a real Christmas tree is only around 1/5 of that of its artificial counterpart.  Real Christmas trees are also generally sustainable: you should be able to verify this at the time of purchase.

Recyclable and Biodegradable

A real tree is biodegradable, whereas an artificial tree will sit for hundreds of years in landfill.  What's more, nowadays most recycled Christmas trees are used to make other products, such as mulch for gardens.  There is literally nothing left, whereas PVC is a material that is notoriously difficult to break down, creating more left-over waste to go along with all the other millions of items we discard each year.     

Potted Trees

So are there any downsides to purchasing a real Christmas tree? Well, there are always two sides to a debate, and very few of our decisions as consumers have no environmental consequences at all. Decorating a real Christmas tree is a very old tradition, but now that the population has risen so much over the years, we require more pine trees for our festive season than ever before. Thousands upon thousands of acres are used by farmers to grow Christmas trees each year. We would certainly have a lot more trees if we just left them all alone. However, it seems doubtful that land owned by a farmer would end up being turned into a forest. And Christmas trees can be grown in poor quality soil, where crops cannot grow.

Buy A Tree With The Roots Attached

To cut the environmental costs of purchasing a real tree still further, you could purchase a potted tree with the roots still intact. This means that, rather than discard the tree after use, you could keep it and watch it grow over the years, using it time and time again. Beware, however - sometimes the roots are only partially intact, which means that it is unlikely the tree will survive long term. Also, to grow a pine tree you are going to need quite a bit of space. Another factor to consider is that trees do not particularly like being brought indoors with all the warm central heating, so your experiment will not necessarily succeed - in fact it is fairly difficult to keep a festive pine tree alive; you would have to keep it very well watered. Also, try not to place your tree too close to a radiator or other source of heat, as this will make the pines drop more quickly.

Image: Suat Eman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image: Suat Eman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Chemical Pesticides

Unfortunately, most pines destined to become Christmas trees are sprayed heavily with a cocktail of pesticides to protect them during growth. Therefore, the tree that eventually arrives in your living room will likely contain the residue of the chemicals used. Pesticide use is another environmental concern. In the United Kingdom, it is now possible to buy Christmas trees that have been certified by the Soil Association, which provides you with the confidence that minimal pesticide use has been implemented. Elveden Christmas Trees were the first in the UK to achieve Soil Association recognition. In the USA, 22 states currently have providers of organic or environmentally friendly, low-spray trees.

Of course, one way to avoid the use of chemical pesticides altogether would be to grow your own Christmas tree. Obviously, it would take several years, so would be a long term plan, and you should plant quite a lot of trees, as many will not survive. Growing your own tree and using it time and time again is the most environmentally-friendly method of all. It might be a rather hit-or-miss experiment, but it will be fun trying, especially now that gardening and allotmenteering are now considered 'cool'.

Don't The Needles Drop?

Perhaps against the popular belief of those who opt for artificial trees, the needles on 'real' Christmas trees can drop far less than you think. The key is to purchasing the right type of tree - a popular type in Europe is the Noordman Fir, which is well known for its low needle droppage. Yes, there will be some droppage, but you will probably find that it is a lot less than imagined. On top of that, with a real tree you get the added pleasure of the natural smell of the tree. Some trees are scented, some are not - however, even the outdoorsy smell of a non-scented tree somehow adds to the magic of Christmas.

The debate between real Christmas trees and artificial look-a-likes shows that there are both pros and cons associated with both choices. However, most environmental organisations seem to be encouraging consumers to opt for real trees, over artificial.  Because they are locally grown, and do not require the heavily detrimental manufacture of materials like PVC, the environmental costs certainly seem to be less.  Well, I know I was very happy with my first 'real' tree last year - choosing our tree was a family activity in itself, and this year we will be doing the same again.

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