One of my favorite Christmas sensations is opening the door to the house and being punched in the face by the smell of pine tree. It doesn’t feel like Christmas without that scent. Growing up, my family always opted for a real Christmas tree. Before my brother and I were born, it seems my parents would take the dogs into the woods and cut down a tree. Then we either picked out tree from a lot, or from a U-Cut farm. My perfect tree is a noble fir, with needles of a particular firmness and specific bluish-grayish-green hue. My parents endured many vetoes of otherwise good Christmas trees based solely on my perception of imperfect coloring.
In my current life stage, I am developing new Christmas tree traditions and expectations because my boyfriend already owned a fake Christmas tree at the time I moved in. We don’t venture out to pick a perfect tree (we carry a box from the garage to the living room).
We don’t have to worry about making sure the tree trunk fits into the tree stand (the three segments consistently fit together year after year). We don’t have to trim away dense branches to make room for ornaments (we just bend the wire branches). We never forget to water the tree. But we are also never punched in the face with Christmas tree scent. I missed the Christmas tree smell so much in 2010 that I bought a centerpiece from a coworker’s kid this year.
My boyfriend purchased this artificial tree because of its alleged environmental benefits. I appreciate and understand his desire to not contribute to the yearly tree massacres. I was also under the impression artificial trees were good “eco” choices, but in contrast to many other sustainable and eco-friendly movements, the adoption of artificial Christmas trees has not been widely embraced. In fact, there are many who disagree with the environmental claims of the artificial tree industry. In keeping with my sustainable theme of 2011, I wanted to know how artificial trees compared to real trees in terms of sustainability.
Here is the truth: the majority of our artificial tree is plastic. The Nature Conservancy says that most fake trees are made with PVC. The manufacturing and shipping [to stores] of artificial trees uses oil and energy resources. I might prefer the smell of real trees, but I feel that in order to justify the resources that went into our artificial tree, we need to continue using it for at least ten years.
On the flip side, on a drive through Oregon’s Willamette Valley I saw many large trucks loaded with freshly cut Christmas trees. I do not know their final destination, but I do know that the Rockafeller Center Christmas tree (NYC) consistently comes from Oregon or Washington (or another western forested state). Fuel was required to cut it down and disassemble some of the branches (via chain saws) and then transport it cross-country. But, perhaps that large tree is an exception. Its size requires older forests, which are found in the western states.
A recent Wall Street Journal article, interviewing a Nature Conservancy employee, emphasized that buying a LOCAL tree helps create jobs (on the farms, and in the tree lots). While the trees are growing, they serve as wildlife habitats and oxygen factories, and prevent soil erosion. This article also points out that when the time comes for the EVENTUAL disposal of the fake tree, it will end up in a landfill where the PVC won’t decompose.
A blogger for Etsy.com linked to the same WSJ article, but also noted that her family’s fake tree has been going for 25 years and is still going. I enjoyed reading the comments and seeing the range of thoughts on this topic. Many readers preferred real trees, some had reused the same fake tree for 20+ years, others noted that unfortunately some people use a fake tree for just a couple years and toss it for a newer version (canceling out any environmental benefit); one woman described her tree which they make each year from fallen branches (evergreen and deciduous) that are tied to a “trunk” and decorated. Another commenter’s family owned a tree farm, which they bought before a land developer could purchase it and convert the farm land into condos.
Another article by the Washington Post, the Green Debate on Christmas Trees, covers much of the same territory as the WSJ, but explicitly reminds readers that both sides of the debate are supported by its respective INDUSTRY. The tree farmers and the manufactures of artificial trees each have an interest in convincing buyers their option is more eco-friendly or sustainable. The arguments in this debate hinge on moderation. A real xmas tree isn not environmentally sustainable if it is shipped from Washington to New York, but if you live in Brooklyn and get it from a New York State tree farm, then you are supporting your local farms and using less gas to get it. And if you are just going to throw out that artificial tree after only a couple years because you want a taller (or shorter) one, then you have just canceled out any possible environmental benefit of your reusable tree.
Residents of the Pacific Northwest are fortunate to have large tracts of nearby farmland (and forestland) that produce ample christmas trees. Washington residents can get permits to go onto Forest Service lands and cut down their own tree. If you go to a U-Cut farm (or to the tree lot in town), make sure you are getting your tree from a local farm that uses few pesticides and few harsh fertilizer chemicals. Organic certification is hard to get, it requires time and money, but Washington has region groups like Puget Sound Fresh that offer lists of “responsible” and “sustainable” farms.
If I were in a position to make this choice today, knowing the amount of plastic and energy that went into making and transporting that fake tree from China to our local Home Depot or Target, I would probably opt for a fresh U-Cut Christmas tree, grown by local farmers and decorated with LED lights. But since we already own one, we are going to try to keep it out of the landfill as long as possible.
Artificial or real, our Christmas tree is trimmed with our memories and interests. Our tree tells our stories as individuals and a couple.
Cutesy animals and Disney characters hang side-by-side with Star Trek and Star Wars vessels…
…interspersed with souvenirs of our adventures together and surprising tokens of our relationship.
(Maybe one day we will be able to recycle our PVC tree.)