Dear EarthTalk: What’s better for the environment, a fake or real Christmas tree?
—R.M. Brandt, Nutley, NJ
While there is no crystal clear answer to the age-old “real versus fake” Christmas tree debate, most environmentalists, “tree-huggers” among them, would agree that real trees are the better choice, at least from a personal and public health standpoint. Some might make a case for fake trees, because they are re-used every year and thus don’t generate the waste of their real counterparts. But fake trees are made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC, otherwise known as vinyl), one of the most environmentally offensive forms of non-renewable, petroleum-derived plastic.
Furthermore, several known carcinogens, including dioxin, ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride, are generated during the production of PVC, polluting neighborhoods located near factory sites. Most of those factory sites are actually in China, from where 85 percent of the fake trees sold in North America originate. Labor standards there don’t adequately protect workers from the dangerous chemicals they are handling.
In addition to PVC, fake trees contain lead and other additives designed to make the otherwise rigid PVC more malleable. Unfortunately, many of these additives have been linked to liver, kidney, neurological and reproductive system damage in lab studies on animals. The Children’s Health Environmental Coalition warns that fake trees “may shed lead-laced dust, which may cover branches or shower gifts and the floor below the tree.” So heed the advice of the label on your fake tree telling you to avoid inhaling or eating any dust or parts that may come loose.
The primary downside of real Christmas trees is that, because they are farmed as agricultural products, they often require repeated applications of pesticides over their typical eight-year lifecycles. Therefore, while they are growing—and then again once they are discarded—they may contribute to pollution of local watersheds. Beyond the run-off issue, the sheer numbers of trees that get discarded after every holiday can be a big waste issue for municipalities that aren’t prepared to mulch them for compost.
The most eco-friendly way to enjoy a Christmas tree is to buy a live tree with its roots intact from a local grower, and then replant it in your yard once the holiday has passed. However, since trees are dormant in the winter, live trees should spend no more than a week indoors lest they “wake up” and begin to grow again in the warmth of your home. If this happens there is a good chance the tree will not survive once it is returned to the cold winter outdoors and replanted.