Did you know that the first embellished Christmas tree originated in Latvia in 1510? It’s remarkable to think that the tradition that I’ll be engaging in this weekend spans 500 years. If only the individual who with serendipity decorated that first tree could see how the tradition has evolved–that’s a “Fresh Air” interview I’d like to hear.
The National Christmas Tree Association’s website states that close to half a billion trees are growing on tree farms in the United States alone and according to the USDA 2007 Census of Agriculture, more than 343,000 acres of land is used for growing them. And what of faux trees? According to an article in the New York Times, “How Green is your Artificial Christmas Tree”, from December 2010, there were more than 50 million artificial trees set up in homes last year.
So, how does one decide which type of tree to have? For me, there’s never been a contest—a fresh tree is the only way to go. Whether you cut your own or go to a tree lot, the whole selection process is a holiday treat: which species to select; finding the right height; walking around the tree whilst deliberating and lastly, shaking the branches (akin to kicking a tire). Sure, it’s more work than getting a massive box out of the rafters of the garage, but it’s enjoyable and the sight of a car with a tree on top always makes me smile.
The fragrance a real tree imparts to one’s home is fabulous; consider it holiday aromatherapy. On the other hand, an article in this month’s Organic Gardening magazine states that artificial trees are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and metal and can release toxic chemicals into the air and dust of your home. In fact, the EPA released a report in 2008 warning of potential lead poisoning from older artificial trees. Apparently as the plastics in trees naturally degrade, carcinogenic chemicals such as phthalates are released in our homes.
Some folks are under the impression that buying a plastic tree saves a real tree in a forest. The reality is that Christmas trees are grown on farms–they just take longer to be “picked” than most crops. While a tree is growing to its desired size, it creates oxygen, provides habitat for wildlife, can prevent soil erosion and fixes carbon. Few Christmas tree farms use any supplemental irrigation. Especially important these days, trees can be grown on marginally productive farmland near urban areas, preserving land that might otherwise be developed. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, for every tree harvested on a farm, growers plant 3 seedlings.
One of the biggest pluses for choosing a fresh cut tree over a faux one is that real trees are biodegradable and recyclable. Most municipalities offer curbside recycling of Christmas trees—carting them off to be ground down to rich mulch, not thrown in the landfill, as a tired artificial tree must. Studies indicate that most people use a fake tree for 6-9 years before tossing them. According to a New York Times story, a plastic tree would need to be used for longer than 20 years to make it more environmentally sound than buying a fresh one annually. This is based upon greenhouse gas emissions, uses of resources and human health options. For the typical 6 year lifespan of a faux tree, getting a fresh cut tree every year is responsible for 1/3 the carbon emissions of an artificial one.
If you are shopping for a Christmas tree this weekend, read some of the articles below first. I think you’ll come to the same conclusion I have—it’s better to “Get real.”
For listings of local Christmas tree farms and recent articles about the benefits of real Christmas trees, see the following links:
Kitsap Sun article “U-Cut Tree Farms in Kitsap and North Mason Counties”: http://www.kitsapsun.com/news/2011/nov/24/u-cut-tree-farms-in-kitsap-and-north-mason/?partner=RSS
The National Christmas Tree Association www.christmastree.org
“How Green is Your Artificial Christmas Tree”, NY Times, Dec 2010: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/18/business/energy-environment/18tree.html
Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association www.nwchristmastrees.org
“Real Trees for a Healthy Holiday” by Elizabeth Peterson, Organic Gardening December 2011/January 2012; Issue Vol. 59:1. Tips for recycling a real Christmas tree at www.organicgardening.com
© Colleen Miko, 2011