Just How Evil Are Real Christmas Trees?

Uncategorized, US culture

So I tend towards green-ness. I’m not an uber-environmentalist but I do what I can. I’m sitting here in my down jacket because I like to keep the thermostat relatively low in the winter, (and because it’s #@$% cold outside). We recycle. We don’t leave the water running when we brush our teeth. That kind of thing.

That means that when people say that real Christmas trees are evil and that fake trees are a more responsible choice (i.e., that plastic is greener than actual greenery), I am cowed enough to want to look into it before blithely buying another real tree this year. (Even though I LIKE real trees. A lot.)

My initial thoughts include:

– My community recycles (mulches) real Christmas trees. Does that count for anything?

– Christmas tree farms are better than strip malls, aren’t they? (But is that a false dichotomy? Maybe they tear down nice forests to plant the fertilized and insecticided Christmas trees.)

– Isn’t plastic, just, like, icky? And people don’t keep their plastic trees literally forever, do they? So is the environmental cost of dealing with giant hunks of plastic occasionally really less than dealing with gen-you-wine biodegradable trees annually?

So I set out to try to find out what is actually greener.

First, yes, it appears that plastic IS icky!

Some might make a case for fake trees, because they are re-used every year and thus don’t generate the waste of their real counterparts. But fake trees are made with polyvinyl chloride (or PVC, otherwise known as vinyl), one of the most environmentally offensive forms of non-renewable, petroleum-derived plastic.

And its ickiness is not limited to the obvious:

Furthermore, several known carcinogens, including dioxin, ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride, are generated during the production of PVC, polluting neighborhoods located near factory sites. Most of those factory sites are actually in China, where 85 percent of the fake trees sold in North America originate. Labor standards there don’t adequately protect workers from the dangerous chemicals they are handling.

Eek. That’s not all, either. Evidently there is enough lead that the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition has issued a warning about the things shedding “lead-laced dust” on presents, etc. Eek again.

The same article addresses my question about whether mulching counts for anything — why yes it does! They say, “the sheer numbers of trees that get discarded after every holiday can be a big waste issue for municipalities that aren’t prepared to mulch them for compost.” (Emphasis added.) Mine is! Starting to feel better, here.

This Slate article is full of lovely, lovely numbers. Among other observations, it indicates that your real tree would need to travel 143 miles from the farm to your local lot to match the amount of fuel expended to get your fake tree to you. This is based on a fake tree getting 15 years of continuous use, which is evidently optimistic.

I often travel less than 20 miles to get my trees off of a real farm. When I don’t, my local nursery carries them and I’ll ask but I’m really pretty confident that it’s less than 143 miles away. Feeling better yet.

How about the strip mall vs. tree farm equation? (Isn’t that a fun one? Pretty much guaranteed to come out on top, there.) Here‘s some info, though:

In the United States alone, there are approximately 500,000 acres of Christmas Trees — that’s enough trees to provide 9 million people with fresh oxygen every day. Tree farms also reduce soil erosion, filter run off and provide food and shelter for wildlife, insects and plants. Not only are they aesthetically pleasing to look at, but they the trees are often grown on soil that would not otherwise be suitable for growing crops.

The pesticides remain a problem but overall, the conclusion seems to be that while each kind of tree has its issues, real trees are LESS evil than fake ones.

Eviller.  Whew.

Eviller. Whew.

Disclaimers: First, I want to keep buying real Christmas trees and so am biased towards evidence that says “go ahead and buy real Christmas trees!” Second, I am not an arborist or anyone with any particular knowledge of this subject — just Googled “which is better for the environment live or fake christmas tree.” And read about a dozen of the results that looked most authoritative… but hey, they could all be wrong.

Several of the articles I read indicate that the MOST responsible choice is to get a live tree, complete with root ball, and just re-plant it when you’re done. This looks like a really cool option, for example (rented live trees complete with rootballs that are delivered, picked up, and replanted). Evidently there are some issues there, too — trees out of the ground are like “a fish out of water,” even with rootballs intact, and it’s kind of hard to avoid damaging them.

Meanwhile, I’ll go get my real Christmas tree this year with a lighter heart. Especially if it comes from a farm less than 143 miles away. (What if it’s 144 miles? Oh the angst.)



  1. nimh  •  Dec 3, 2008 @11:34 am

    Go real trees. I haven’t often had Christmas trees since I left home half my life ago, but I’d definitely never get a plastic one. Somehow it seems intuitive enough that those can hardly be better, so it’s good to see one’s preconceptions confirmed.

    My gripe is more about just how expensive Christmas trees are. Comes with the territory, I suppose, and I guess you can’t really complain about them not being environmental-friendly enough and not cheap enough.

    Still, I remember the first time I got a tree again, mostly for A’s sake — OK, so characteristically we only decided at the last moment, so by the time I went to the market there were only the bookends of the market available still: the short, scraggy ones and the majestic Nordmann trees, tall, strong and beautiful. But even the scraggy ones were something like 30 Euro, and he Nordmann we got was an amazingly expensive 60 Euro or the like.

    It did have sturdy needles, which turned out not to drop off even after a couple months on our balcony in the new year. And we decked it out properly, lights and shiny ornaments galore, and it was beautiful. Provided much nostalgic comfort at a time when reality was rather, hmm, shaky. A hadnt had a tree like that in many years and felt like a child again about it. I remember that one night I woke up and she was just sitting there, and she said she’d just been watching the tree, for a long time, how pretty it was.

    OK, that flashback from the vaults of raw. Anyway, go real trees.

  2. Mike  •  Dec 3, 2008 @12:06 pm

    I have worked for both Home Depot and Lowes, and can attest that their trees are trucked in from Canada. In Ft Lauderdale we would get a kick out of the French speaking truck drivers and the snow that was often packed into the trucks along with the trees.

    Needless to say, 143 miles and then some.

  3. Robert Gentel  •  Dec 3, 2008 @1:40 pm

    If environmentalism is your concern, no tree would be the best choice, and no presents, and no this and no that… I’m not much of an environmentalist so I’m all for going for what works, but real trees just don’t do it for me.

    I think trees are beautiful and I think Christmas trees are ugly eyesores (lights? Plastic shit hanging from the tree? That’s like covering a work of art in glitter!) so even though they are being recycled (which I don’t care at all about) I find all those dead trees after Christmas time lying in dumpsters to be an ugly sight.

    I don’t care about trees dying (it’s not like I believe they suffer), or the environment so much as the beauty being destroyed. I feel the same way when I see a stuffed animal (taxidermy not teddy bear). A glorious outdoor creature reduced to an ugly indoor display. So like the trees, I wouldn’t care if the animal were hunted or grown for the purpose of doing so, I find the killing of the beauty to be… well, ugly.

    All that being said, I do want to note that it’s not something I’m passionate about. I don’t even give it a thought when seeing other people’s trees and certainly don’t get upset at what other people decide to use (any more than when they pick a bad color to paint their house). It’s like an artistic preference, I think trees are subtly beautiful and Christmas decorations to be gaudy and “plastic”.

    Take a painting of a landscape, and put a bunch of glitter and lights on the trees and you’ll have a picture of what it is to me. The best Christmas tree I ever saw was a live one in a back yard decorated in nothing but icicles with the lighting projected onto it, ’twas beautiful!

  4. sozobe  •  Dec 3, 2008 @7:18 pm

    That does sound beautiful!

    I’m not sure if I buy the animal analogy. More like… do you ever put a bunch of fresh fruit in a bowl, just ’cause they’re pretty? And maybe because they smell nice too? Sure, I bet that apple is even more gorgeous when it’s hanging on a tree and bathed in sunset light — but does that really mean it’s UNpretty when it’s in the bowl?

    I like both — trees in nature, and trees in my house.

    And the smell is really big for me. I bought my first fresh greens today and I was inhaling deeply all the way home. The car still smells heavenly (this is what those “pine” dangly things are trying to do — though they have about as much to do with real pine scent as purple candy has to do with real grapes…)

    Hey Mike. I don’t buy from Home Depot or Lowe’s, though I’m sure a lot of people do so you still have a point. There are several tree farms around here within 10-20 miles (I live in Columbus, OH) that I go to sometimes; the rest of the time I go to a local (non-chain) nursery.

    Today I was doing a bunch of errands and came across two separate local lots — very small. Good prices (I know, nimh, they definitely get expensive). I usually get a good one for under $40, but takes some looking.

    I love gazing at a lit tree — especially with randomly (slowly) blinking lights. With all the other lights off in a room. Casts feathery shadows. I figure it’s some caveman fire-watching urge, but I always love it. Kid does too, it’s one of our holiday traditions. (Just sitting in an armchair together after dark, looking at the tree…)

  5. melissa  •  Dec 15, 2008 @1:00 pm

    I wish I could use a real tree, but I’m deathly allergic to them. I’ll stick to my little 3′ aluminum tree until there’s an anti-histamine invented that I can use for a month without becoming horribly addicted.

  6. anonymous  •  Dec 21, 2008 @5:03 pm

    Some of my family think that,the trees we put are somehow used in ancient rituals or were used for evil and that SANTA CLAUS IS REALLY A DEMON SO WHAT DO U GUYS THINK ABOUT THAT

1 Trackback