Keep It Real: Christmas Tree Selection

Real or Fake (AKA “artificial” or “plastic”).  The debate over which Christmas tree is “greener” continues, but when you look at the evidence, there’s only one environmentally friendly option (unless you suffer from horrible allergies).  A real tree is the best choice.

Tree farms employ 100,000 people in America, an acre of Christmas trees supplies enough oxygen for 18 people, and Christmas trees are a renewable resource.  A fresh-cut balsam smells wonderful and when the holidays are over they make excellent habitats for birds and rabbits in your back yard.  93% of real Christmas trees get recycled somehow through over 4,000 city or county programs. Some places use the trees for soil erosion barriers or fish shelters in ponds.  Most municipalities will collect old Christmas trees curbside and chip them into mulch.  Many also offer an exchange of a tree seedling for an old Christmas tree — although every Christmas tree harvested gets replanted by the industry.   Most tree farms plant one to three trees for every real one cut.  Real trees are a renewable resource, biodegradable and recyclable.   They’re grown in America and over 21,000 American tree farms contribute to the health of our environment.

And of course there are the less tangible but equally meaningful reasons to choose a real tree at Christmastime.  Can you imagine a giant plastic tree standing in front of our nation’s capital?  There’s little romance in hauling the same hunk of plastic and metal out of the basement or attic each year, dusting off the cobwebs and decorating it.  Selecting a real tree, either cut yourself in the countryside or chosen from a tree lot, means a different tree every year.  A real tree smells fresh and because it was once alive, possesses more character than any fake tree found at the nearest Big Box store.  Taking out a plastic tree and trimming it — it’s as ridiculous as presenting your wife with a bouquet of plastic flowers on your anniversary!  The plastic version is a mere shadow of the original.

Enviro Girl’s tree, Christmas 2009.

Some folks argue that the Christmas tree industry is a bad thing, polluting the environment with pesticides and herbicides, but Enviro Girl grows firs and pines on her property and can attest to how hardy a species they are.  The amount of chemicals required to grow a “healthy” Christmas tree is pretty minimal when compared to the amount of chemicals the average homeowner sprays on their lawn.  And tree farms have a vested interest in NOT using chemicals — or using them as sparingly as possible–because they are cost-prohibitive.  Tree farms also provide plenty of habitat for woodland creatures to enjoy — they are more environmentally friendly than a Christmas tree factory.  Squirrels, birds, bugs and chipmunks all live on Christmas tree farms, you don’t see these species hanging out in factories, no matter how environmentally friendly they are.

Enviro Girl’s tree, Christmas 2010.   Each tree is different from year to year…

Fake trees?  They’re made out of landfill-clogging polyvinyl chloride (petroleum-based PVC), yet people bought them to the tune of $60.63 a tree in 2008, which added up to a total of $709  million spent on artificial trees — paid directly to China, the main manufacturer of faux Tannenbaum full of lead and other unsavory chemicals that come with petroleum-based  plastic and vinyl.   You don’t see warning labels on live trees, but fake Christmas trees have them because of the chemicals. No one recycles old artificial trees.  Once the branches get broken or bent beyond repair, there’s no recycling or reusing them — they end up on the trash heap alongside everything else headed for the local dump.  (The chemicals, like lead, leach out as the plastic and vinyl bits become more malleable over time, too.)    Artificial trees never “last a lifetime,” disputing any claim that they are somehow gentler on the environment, one source claiming they only last 7.5 years.   Fake trees come with packaging, too, ironically, cardboard packaging made from trees.  Perhaps they’re less work and less mess, but they require storing and assembly and leave a pretty huge carbon footprint for something that looks like a tree.  And Enviro Girl has noticed that most people don’t buy one fake tree — they tire of their fake tree, desiring a pre-lit or a bigger or skinnier tree after a few years — so the old fake tree ends up in the classified ads or in a garage sale.  The idea that “once you buy a fake tree, you’ll only buy one tree” doesn’t seem substantiated.

People make the argument that fake trees are neater — but a properly cared for real tree doesn’t shed that many needles.  When you get a real tree home, cut a 1/2 inch off the bottom of the trunk and keep it well-watered (Enviro Girl adds a half cup of sugar to the initial water in the tree stand), standing in a place away from vents, fireplaces or heaters.  A properly watered Christmas tree will not dry out and become a fire hazard.  In fact, 0.0004% of house fires are related to Christmas trees — and 28% of those fires involved fake trees.

The best choice for an environmentally friendly Christmas tree is a real tree, not a plastic tree.  A local tree, not an imported tree.  Period.  (And there’s no law saying you have to decorate a fresh-cut balsam fir, you can decorate a potted tree of any kind.)  And you don’t have to burn any “pine scented candles” to compensate when you have the real deal in your living room!

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7 thoughts on “Keep It Real: Christmas Tree Selection

  1. We’re real tree people all the way. Since our girls were babies, we’ve driven out to the same tree farm every year and cut our own. We spend the drive out talking about what kind of tree we want, then we tromp around the fields considering different possibilities until we all agree on one. Then the Man of the House cuts it down and his helpers assist with carrying it back across the fields to our car. Because the tree is freshly-cut, I don’t worry about leaving our Christmas lights on for hours at a time, so we get to enjoy the tree all that much more. After Christmas, we haul our tree to the curb, where it’s picked up to be mulched by our town.

  2. Also, I’m allergic to pine, but we’ve found that fir trees aren’t a problem for me, but it took a few years of experimenting to find out what does and doesn’t work.

  3. I have no doubts that real trees are better for the environment, but I can’t handle it. We have a plastic tree for two reasons: 1) we live in a 4th-floor condo with no elevator, and no one relishes trying to fit a tree up several flights of twisting stairs, and 2) I’m allergic to the entirety of the known natural world. I take a daily allergy medicine just to be able to pet my dogs, but I still get extremely sneezy and sniffly in the spring and fall, even while on allergy meds. When I was a kid, my folks tried real trees for several years – different varieties of pines and firs and other evergreens – and all of them made my allergies go bonkers, even though the tree was in the basement and our family lived upstairs. I suspect Dave and I will never have a real tree because of my allergies. I will, however, use our fake one until it breaks entirely (this will be its 7th Xmas with us, and last year it was still perfectly fine). After it finally bites it, I will probably Freecycle it for the crafty folks to scavenge.

  4. We go the real route as well, and like Jen we’ve been visiting the same tree farm since we moved into our home, 13 years ago. There are actually a lot of tree farms out by us (we live in the boonies) but we found one early on that’s very rustic –no buildings, just a few guys and some kids, a roaring fire, a baler, and an outhouse 🙂 Last year we recycled one of our old political yard signs as a kneeling pad –Rob’s knees are not as young as they used to be.

  5. We have a fire safety guy come through our business every year and give a safety lecture. He recommends that you cut off an inch or so of the trunk and then pour hot hot water into the reservoir of the stand. That initial dose of hot water powers through any sap or goo that might be blocking the tree’s veins and makes it easier for the tree to stay green and fresh.

  6. We cut down a tree in my ILs woodlot every year now that we have moved nearby– we cut down a quite tall tree, then trim the top. (the rest gets used for firewood, eventually). It’s far from perfect, but it’s beautiful and a total adventure to walk around the woods with your neck craned, trying to decide what the tip top would like in the living room.

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