Nature vs. nurture
Star Wars vs. Star Trek
Pepsi vs. Coca Cola
All great debates of history. But today I’d like to focus on a particular debate: paper vs. plastic. No, I’m not talking about grocery bags – I’m firmly in the reusable camp on this one; I’m talking Christmas trees. (I celebrate the Christmas holiday as a secular one, so don’t feel like you have to be Christian to keep reading).
The debate over real versus artificial Christmas trees has raged for years. If you had asked me during my childhood which I preferred, I would have answered real Christmas trees. Hands down. There’s something about the smell of pine, the feel of the needles as you hang each ornament on the tree’s branches, and the stringing of lights through the bouncing tree arms that you just can’t replicate with an artificial Christmas tree.
However, as I’ve grown older I’ve come to give more thought about the environmental impacts of both kinds of trees. It’s something worth considering, as everything we do has an impact on the environment. During the holidays this is especially pertinent, what with wrapping paper, plastic packaging, ribbons, air and road travel, and the like. Yes, a Christmas tree is only a drop in the environmental bucket, but each drop is important. It’s easier to start with something small than something large, so thinking about Christmas trees may be the place to start for some.
I’m not here to settle the debate: each type of tree has pros and cons. I’m simply here to explain my yearly habit and provide arguments for both sides so as to stimulate some thought.
Real Christmas Trees
On the one hand, the procurement of a real pine tree involves killing a live organism that had worked for the last 8-10 years converting carbon dioxide into oxygen, an important process considering the current state of our environment. However, the majority of holiday trees are grown as crops on Christmas tree farms rather than in the wild, and are thus replaced by at least another tree once felled. Further, oftentimes these farms are placed on hillsides where other crops may not survive, taking advantage of lesser-used space.
Real Christmas trees can be “recycled,” meaning they can be chipped into mulch or saw dust and used for other purposes, thus rendering them more useful and certainly more biodegradable than artificial trees.
However, similar to the minute amount of plastic water bottles that are truly recylced, I tend to question just how many Christmas trees are actually disposed of properly, rather than tossed into landfills. Even as a biodegradable item, if disposed of in a landfill Christmas trees will generate harmful gases during breakdown, as landfills don’t allow for enough airflow or space for a natural biodegredation. Something else that shouldn’t be overlooked is the use of pesticides on the growing process of natural trees.
Artificial Christmas Trees
Artificial trees can be used year after year if taken care of properly. They have a lower flammability risk than real trees, and may be cheaper.
However, artificial trees are made from plastic, typically PVC, and metal. Plastic has a limited lifespan if recycled (unlike metals and glass), and takes hundreds of years to decompose. During this time, it simply breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, which then pollute our farmlands, oceans, animals, and our general environment. Furthermore, to manufacture such a tree requires gallons of oil; this is without considering the fossil fuels required to ship said tree to the U.S. from China, where most plastic trees are manufactured. Another thing to consider is that artificial trees are only typically used anywhere from 4-9 years.
So which type of tree do I have?
Back in 2014, a friend gifted me her artificial Christmas tree. It came with lights pre-attached and was a pretty blue color. The only thing missing was one of the pegs for the stand, so I ordered a set of new pegs (you can see I couldn’t find them in blue, so I settled for white). This Christmas tree is only about three feet tall, so it’s been the perfect size for my small apartments over the years. I love it so much that when I moved from Atlanta to Washington, DC and accidentally forgot to pack it I begged B’s brother to bring it with him on a visit (big shout-out to my former roomie and B’s brother for that coordination!)
I acquired this tree far before a low-waste lifestyle was on my radar, but I’m quite happy with the choice in retrospect. I’ve set up my tree for at least a month every year since 2014, so this Christmas is it’s fifth with me (upon request, B has set up said tree in my absence). Since it was pre-used I’m guessing we’re nearing the average lifespan of an artificial tree, but I plan to use it until I run it into the ground. It’s certainly better off being used by me than being thrown in a landfill, although to say it won’t end up there one day would be untrue. Though the tree loses plastic needles every year upon set-up and break-down, I believe it still has at least a good five years left in it.
Once this tree bites the dust I’m not sure what option I’ll choose, but it will probably be a second-hand artificial tree again or a real tree. Until then, I’ll be rocking my second-hand Christmas tree ’til January!