Christmas trees: Plastic or real? That′s the eco-question | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 21.12.2016
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Christmas trees: Plastic or real? That's the eco-question

One is natural, grown locally and must be bought every year. The other is made of plastic, but can be used again and again. Which is more environmentally sustainable: a real or an artificial Christmas tree?

Wearing thick gloves and a red hat, Hal Horton had already been outside for a few hours when the first families pulled onto the lot early Sunday morning.

Exactly a week before Christmas, a fresh layer of snow covered the ground, along with the rows and rows of pine, spruce and fir trees at the Horton Tree Farm, a family-run business in Whitchurch-Stouffville, about an hour north of Toronto.

Horton was doing what his family has done for three generations: helping local families find - and cut down - their very own Christmas trees. "Some people like pine, some like firs, some like spruces," Horton told DW.

But choosing a Christmas tree is no easy task.

And it brings up a debate that is almost as old as the commercialized version of the holiday itself: Is it more sustainable to buy a natural tree every year from a local store or farm, or pick up an artificial one that requires very little maintenance and can be used over and over?

Hal Horton at his Christmas tree farm in southern Ontario (Jillian Kestler-D'Amours)

Hal Horton's Christmas tree farm in southern Ontario has been in his family for three generations and dates back to 1964

Big business

While everyone has their preference, a 2014 survey commissioned by Forests Ontario, a group that promotes healthy forests and tree planting, found that one-third of people thought artificial trees were better for the environment, compared to nearly half who would have favored real Christmas trees.

Natural, fresh-cut Christmas trees are big business for Canadian farmers, generating 78.4 million Canadian dollars (about 56 million euros) last year alone. Canada also exported 1.7 million trees in 2015 - with nearly all of them going to the United States.

Rob Keen, CEO of Forests Ontario, stressed that many municipalities in Ontario will dispose of natural trees after the holidays in a way that keeps the trees' life-cycle fully sustainable.

"The real trees have a fantastic aroma, they look great, and they are 100 percent biodegradable - so a lot of municipalities at the end of the Christmas season will collect the Christmas trees, mulch those trees, and then spread that mulch throughout their areas," he said.

Christmas trees lining the property at the Horton Tree Farm in southern Ontario (Jillian Kestler-D'Amours)

Natural Christmas trees hold a certain appeal, especially when they're in a winter wonderland setting

But of course, real trees also come with environmental impact.

Some conifers require more pesticides to help them grow, and these chemicals can harm bees and other helpful insects. Horton said that although his farms have moved away from pesticides over the last 20 years, fir trees do generally require the most pest control.

Driving long distances to pick up a natural tree from a farm also adds to their carbon footprint.

Re-using fake trees

In the case of Canada, more than $65 million (about 47 million euros) worth of artificial trees were imported last year, mostly from China.

Most artificial trees are made from a variety of plastics, including polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a synthetic plastic polymer thatis non-biodegradable. All plastics, in fact, never biodegrade - they only break down into ever-smaller pieces, causing an environmental hazard, especially for the world's oceans.

Chinese worker cutting fake branches into pieces in Sun Xudan's artificial Christmas tree factory in Yiwu (Getty Images/J.Eisele)

China - origin of most plastic Christmas trees

Professor Andrew Laursen at Ryerson University in Toronto, who specializes in ecosystem function, points out some downsides of artificial trees.

"There are manufacturing costs, there are resources that go into making that tree - and at the end of its life you do end up typically landfilling it," he explained.

Artificial trees have an added carbon footprint when you factor in that most are being shipped from overseas.

Factoring in carbon footprint

While natural trees sequester carbon when they are growing, the use of fertilizers in production and transportation, along with burning the wood after use as a Christmas tree, all contribute to overall carbon emissions.

Ultimately, use of a natural tree contributes release of around 3.1 kilograms of CO2 into the atmosphere per year, according to a 2009 life-cycle study conducted by sustainable development consulting firm Ellipsos on real and artificial Christmas trees in Quebec. By way of comparison, that's roughly the same as driving a car for 21 kilometers.

Boxes of potted trees at a Canadian Tire box store in Toronto's west end (Jillian Kestler-D'Amours)

Artificial trees come in all shapes and sizes

A 2010 study by consulting firm PE International suggested that if a fake tree is used for four years or more, its carbon footprint will be less than if a household buys a new, natural tree every Christmas.

But the Ellipsos report, conducted in the Montreal area, found that a family would need to hold onto their fake Christmas tree for 20 years for it to be more eco-friendly.

Louise Hénault-Ethier, head of scientific projects at the environmental awareness and advocacy group David Suzuki Foundation in Montreal, said that if you don't intend to keep a fake tree for a long time, going natural is best.

If you opt for a natural tree, make sure it's local, that it was grown sustainably, and that you aren't traveling long distances to get it, Hénault-Ethier advised.

A convenient option

The choice boils down to a matter of convenience for many.

Bright pink and white Christmas trees at a Canadian Tire box store in Toronto's west end (Jillian Kestler-D'Amours)

Bright pink or white trees provide a somewhat fantastical option

Picking up an artificial tree can be easier for families that live in cities and may not have a way to get to a Christmas tree farm, or lug a fresh tree home, whereas fake trees can be carried out of the store in a box and assembled easily at home.

Patty - who did not want to give DW her last name - was shopping for tree ornaments about a week before Christmas at a Canadian Tire box store in Toronto's west end.

She said she first opted for an artificial tree when she discovered she was allergic to pine trees.

"I did have a real tree many years ago, and realized that every time I walked into the room, I was coughing - I couldn't breathe. And realized that I was allergic to the pine," Patty said, adding that she kept her first artificial tree for around 20 years.

According to Laursen, that's the key point.

"If you do have an artificial tree, that's great - but try to get life out of it. Try to make sure that you use it for a long period of time, so that the resources that go in don't result in a short life-cycle," Laursen advised.

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