You may think you’re saving a tree, but the plastic alternative has problems too. While the debate rages on, we’ve got some better ways to help the planet this Christmas.
By Marilyn Lewis
Published Nov. 20, 2007
Which is “greener,” an artificial Christmas tree or a real one?
Fir flew (so to speak) last year when British organic gardening guru Bob Flowerdew, author of “Bob Flowerdew’s Organic Bible: Successful Gardening the Natural Way,” announced he was buying a fake Christmas tree to save the forests. His defection from the ranks of live-tree advocates was testament to conflicting gospels on what exactly constitutes an environmentally friendly tree.
The Flowerdew faction is small but earnest. The logic: Manufacturing and shipping a plastic tree emits a small amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but just once. A tree left in the ground removes many times that amount, year after year.
Doesn’t plastic’s everlasting nature, they ask, make it the least-awful alternative? Because it lasts and lasts, a plastic tree could, in theory, spare more live trees every year it is used. Maybe that would reserve agricultural land for food — or spare the environment from pesticides, herbicides and erosion.
No forests fall
The major reason the Flowerdew faction is small, however, is that the plastic-is-green rationale has more holes than a watering can. If forests are falling, it’s not because of Christmas trees, points out Gary Chastagner, a Washington State University professor of plant pathology who specializes in Christmas-tree diseases and post-harvest quality.
“The notion that people are going out in large numbers and harvesting trees out of forests is not correct,” Chastagner says. “These plants we are talking about — Christmas trees, wreaths, boughs, cut flowers — they are grown as crops,” Chastagner says, not swiped from Mother Nature.
In fact, the market for Christmas trees means millions are planted each year, each “sequestering” by expert estimates, anywhere from 40 to 300 pounds of carbon dioxide a year.
So, by buying a real tree, you’re saving the Earth, just a little, as well as sustaining what many would call the green heart and soul of Christmas. “They were originally put up to show life in the dead of winter,” says Patrick Downey, a Christmas-tree grower in Sherbrooke, Quebec. “Putting up a plastic tree has no meaning whatsoever.”
The industry is “predominately family farms that are supporting rural communities,” at least in his state, says Jeff Owen, a Christmas-tree extension specialist at North Carolina State University. Christmas-tree farms, he says, are restoring wildlife — rodents, songbirds, foxes, wild turkeys, birds of prey, bobcats, deer and — it is rumored — mountain lions. “Some of these counties, the quail had disappeared a generation ago. We’ve started to see quail coming back where they had disappeared because of habitat loss.”
Adding to their green credentials, live trees are often recycled. In North Carolina, discarded Christmas trees are tied to sand dunes to trap sand and slow erosion. They’re bundled and sunk into lakes to make a habitat where fingerlings can hide from big predators. Cities and towns around the country recycle trees after Christmas by grinding them into garden mulch that they sell — or give — back to the folks who discarded the trees in the first place.
At the same time, live trees clean up air pollution. They suck carbon dioxide — a huge contributor to global warming and respiratory disease — out of the air and turn it into wood. The bigger the tree, the more carbon dioxide the tree scrubs from the atmosphere and the more oxygen it returns.
“For every tree we harvest, we replant,” says Joe Sharp, owner of Yule Tree Farm in Oregon, the biggest Christmas-tree-producing state. Last summer Sharp and another big Oregon grower started the Coalition of Environmentally-Conscious Growers, to certify sustainably grown trees. But it’s still hard to find their labels.
The problem with plastic
If you’re thinking you’re keeping a tree alive by hanging on to an artificial tree for nine or 10 years, don’t pat yourself on the back just yet. Once you’re sick of the plastic tree, Chastagner says, it’ll live on in a landfill for centuries. Not eternal, perhaps, but from the American perspective, darned close.
Plastic trees also can cause more-immediate health problems. After just a week indoors, many artificial trees shed a dry dust containing lead, a powerful neurotoxin, the University of North Carolina’s late environmental studies director, Richard Maas, found in his research
“It would still in many usage scenarios expose a young child to enough lead to knock a couple of IQ points off that child’s intellectual ability,” Maas told WSBTV in Atlanta in 2005.
Not that fans of artificial trees aren’t buying forests of them anyway. Last year, the Commerce Department says, China sent 12 million artificial trees to the U.S., most of them plastic. Most artificial-tree buyers have no green pretensions. They just like the things for their tidiness, attractiveness, portability and ease of storage.
You can put an artificial tree up in October — heck, July, if you want — and it’ll stay fresh until you take it down in May, says Bruce Littlefield, author of “Merry Christmas, America!: Megawatt Displays Across the U.S.A.” He has 10 artificial trees, all purchased from yard and garage sales. That’s how to go green and plastic, he says: Recycle someone else’s. He puts his trees up early in the belief that, tough as life is these days, you cannot celebrate too much or too soon.
Green holiday tips
If you want to have an answer when you hear John Lennon sing, “So this is Christmas, and what have you done?” you do in fact have some options.
Reimagine regifting. “People think regifting is something nasty,” says Littlefield. He wants to correct that notion and make the search for the perfect recycled present a yearlong treasure hunt.
At an antique show last summer, he found a copy of his mother’s favorite childhood toy, a wind-up Farmer in the Dell. “When my mother gets this in her Christmas package, she’ll know, first of all, that I adore her and that I know her story — her thing that means something to her,” Littlefield says.
These days, it’s not hard to get stuff. What we really want, he believes, is meaning. His friend Michelle will receive a $5 1950s bingo set, to remind her of her mother, a bingo fanatic, who died this year. “It’s something she’ll carry with her forever. Even if the bingo game gets lost, she will remember that I really know her.”
Bring the outdoors in. Americans spend $9 billion a year decorating for the holidays, Littlefield says. Much of that buys cheap, disposable stuff that soon winds up in the landfill.
Instead of adding to the mountains of garbage, prune a few branches from trees — bare or evergreen — spray-paint them gold or silver, plant them upright and hang them with ornaments. Or pine cones. Or tied bunches of long, gilded pine needles. Assemble candles on a tray filled with pine cones, nuts or cranberries.
Use LEDs. Buy holiday lights that use light-emitting diode — LED — technology.
Unlike some holiday lights, one bad bulb won’t shut down the entire string. They stay cool, reducing fire hazards, and last up to 20 years. Best of all, they reduce energy consumption by as much as 90%. The Alliance to Save Energy estimates the cost of burning 10 light strands eight hours a day for a month (at $0.0853 per kilowatt-hour):
Large incandescent bulbs: $127.67
Avoid tree preservatives and fire retardants. They’re nasty, a waste of money and don’t work, says Chastagner, the WSU Christmas-tree specialist. Fire retardants can actually dry out the tree, making it more flammable, not less. Rather, find the freshest tree possible:
Look for dark green needles that snap crisply — rubbery, flexible needles are a sign the tree’s not fresh.
Other bad signs: falling green needles or bare branches close to the trunk.
A tree can last six weeks after cutting, but it needs supplemental moisture. In dry climates, buy a tree that’s been kept in a container of water. In cooler climates, check the tree lot for hoses or sprinklers — evidence the trees are getting extra moisture.
Ask the salesperson how long ago it was cut, how and where it was grown and how it’s been treated.
Have the trunk trimmed when you buy it, so it will absorb water readily.
Put it in a stand full of water within 12 hours and don’t let it dry out.
Use a stand that holds at least a quart of water for every inch of stem diameter; that means you’ll need a stand that holds a gallon and a half if you’ve got a tree measuring 6 inches across the stem.
Or, consider a live tree that you can plant in your yard.
For more information on the Coalition, please visit www.christmastreeoregon.com/cecg
Public Relations Contact: Rosica Strategic Public Relations