The great tree debate: artificial or real?

Photo: Ritz/Amanda Rohde
Cutting down trees is good for the environment. Yes, you read that right! It may be counterintuitive but when it comes to the great real vs. artificial debate, real Christmas trees are proving to be the more sustainable choice. Down on the farm In North America most Christmas trees are grown on tree farms, practically in every state and province. The trees are then shipped to nearby cities or towns, or are cut on location by energetic families. These trees are grown specifically for the purpose of decorating a family's living room and are usually about 10 to 15 years old when cut, depending on the species. It's estimated that one acre of Christmas trees produces enough oxygen for 18 people daily. In the U.S., according to the National Christmas Tree Association, there are approximately 500,000 acres of Christmas trees supplying nine million people a day with oxygen. Green all year round Trees are an ideal way to trap any extra carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Carla Grant, executive director of the Ontario Forestry Association, says that a tree's growth rate is linked to the amount of carbon dioxide it can scrub from the atmosphere. Because young Christmas trees are manually pruned each year, encouraging rapid growth, these trees trap more carbon than other types of forests, she says. Grant also says that herbicide and pesticide use is less of an issue when it comes to Christmas trees as opposed to other agriculture crops because of how hands-on the growing is and because growers will often plant a variety of species. Grant suggests that concerned individuals talk to local growers, asking them about the specifics of their own practices. O Tanenbaum Although the use of evergreen boughs or trees during winter solstice dates from ancient times, our modern custom of using Christmas trees actually began in 16th century Germany. They became widely popular in England during the reign of Queen Victoria, and in Canada, the first recorded Christmas tree was in 1781 in Sorel, Quebec. Chinese lead, again The first modern artificial Christmas tree was created in the 1930s by a toilet brush company, and artificial trees are today very popular. You don't have to worry about them drying out, and you are able to put them up earlier in the season. They are also a convenient choice for city dwellers. However, many artificial trees are manufactured in a foreign country, requiring lots of fossil fuels in transportation. The National Christmas Tree Association estimates that 85 percent of artificial trees are from China. These trees are commonly made of PVC or polyethylene. PVC is a plastic and lead is used in its fabrication. After the holidays There are several ways to dispose of your 100 percent biodegradable tree after the holidays. Many municipalities have pick-up or drop-off services; and many of these municipalities then use the trees to generate mulch for city parks. Biolyse Pharma Corporation, a small pharmaceutical company in Canada, has even used the needles of Christmas trees to produce flu prevention and treatment medication. You can dispose of your own tree by sinking it in your backyard pond, where it provides an ideal feeding area for pond creatures, or, after removing all your tinsel and other decorations, you can redecorate the tree with yummy bird treats and set it outside. The Christmas Tree Farmers of Ontario has more recycling tips on their website. Live is better than dead If despite all this evidence, you really can't abide the idea of killing a tree each December, there is a third alternative. Buy a live tree, decorate it for the holiday season and then donate it to be planted in a forest or public area. Many local nurseries sell potted Christmas trees. In Portland, Oregon, The Original Living Christmas Tree Company rents trees, roots and all, to area residents. A $75 returnable deposit gets delivery, pick up and a home for your tree after the holidays. Maybe the idea will catch on out east. So, it looks like the great real vs. fake debate has a clear winner. "Besides, nothing smells better than a real Christmas tree," argues Grant. Shannon Wilmot is a freelance writer based in Toronto.