British Columbia

Get real when picking the greenest Christmas trees: experts

It's time to deck the halls, and for many families that means picking out, cutting down, or assembling a Christmas tree. But which kind of tree is best for the environment — real or artificial?
Artificial trees may be pretty, but they are not that green, according to environmental experts. ((CBC))

It's time to deck the halls, and for many families that means picking out, cutting down, or assembling a Christmas tree.

But for those trying to have a greener Christmas, the question remains: which kind of tree is best for the environment — real or artificial? Both have their good and bad points, making it confusing for consumers trying to sort out which choice is best.

This year CBC News decided to tackle the debate and asked some experts what they thought. Here is what they told us:

Artificial advantages

In recent years, artificial trees have become increasingly popular, with imports growing steadily every year. Statistics Canada figures show the number of imported artificial trees grew 20 per cent from 2006 to 2007.

Many people believe they are eco-friendly because no tree is cut down, and the trees are used an average of seven to 10 years.

But Mairi Welman of the Recycling Council of B.C. says there many problems with plastic trees, and she is not surprised by the confusion.

"Even in my own personal life, I have friends who have great misconceptions about whether fake trees or real trees are better," says Welman.

Mairi Welman of the Recycling Council of B.C. says artificial trees are not very environmentally friendly. ((CBC))

The truth is there are many environmentally damaging aspects to artificial trees, according to Welman.

Most artificial trees are produced abroad in China, Taiwan, or South Korea, where they have less stringent or no environmental regulations, poorer working conditions and lower wages, she says.

And they are made from PVC, which contains chemicals called phthalates, which accumulate in body tissues and can pose health risks, she says.

PVC is also derived from oil, which is a fossil fuel and a non-renewable resource.

Artificial trees are also shipped thousands of kilometres before reaching Canadian consumers, requiring the burning of fossil fuel by ship engines, which creates air pollution and greenhouse gases.

Once the trees are no longer wanted, they cannot be recycled because the plastic and metal cannot be separated, and so must be dumped in a landfill or incinerated.

In the landfill, the materials will not break down, but if they are incinerated, they can release dioxins and other potential carcinogens into the air.

Still, some people will prefer the fact that fake trees don't shed needles or need watering and are easy to set up. In that case, one guilt-free option is to buy a second-hand tree on a website such as Craigslist.

Real or rumour?

But does all that mean that cutting down a real tree can really be better for the environment? According to Welman, the answer is yes.

"They don't realize that the real trees are farmed.… They think people go out into the wilderness and chop them down or something," says Welman.

Local trees are the best choice, according to environmental experts. ((CBC))

Tree farms have several positive environmental effects, she says.

Every acre of Christmas trees grown provides a day of oxygen for 18 people and supports a complex ecosystem.

Tree roots also stabilize soil, protecting water sources from sedimentation, while the branches take carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from the air.

In addition, Christmas tree recycling programs are offered after the holidays in most municipalities, were the trees are recycled into mulch for gardens and parks.

The biodegradable mulch then decomposes, providing the nutrients plants need.

Plus there are economic benefits to buying a real tree, Welman notes.

"The other thing is they're supporting Canadian jobs and Canadian economy by buying real trees, whereas the artificial trees almost all come from overseas," she says.

In fact, as many as 5 million to 6 million Christmas trees are grown each year in Canada, providing year-round and seasonal employment, and income for many local charities.

Grow organic

But there are downsides to farmed trees, according to Andy Miller, the staff scientist at the Western Canada Wilderness Committee in Vancouver.

Andy Miller of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee says he keeps a living tree in his house for Christmas. ((CBC) )

"As a forester, as I observed Christmas tree plantations and saw the sprays and saw the workers wearing gas masks. It concerned me," says Miller.

Improper use of pesticides can have potential health risks and implications for water quality, aquatic fauna and wildlife, Miller warns.

He recommends asking around to find trees that come from local farms, which he believes are better all around.

"Go small, because the smaller the operator, generally, the better care they take of their trees environmentally, the less pesticides, the less insecticides they use, and the more sustainable their operation is," says Miller.

But even in Canada, finding locally grown tree may be harder than you think. For instance, B.C. imports trees from Alberta and the U.S., where prices are cheaper.

That means the trees are transported long distances to reach the consumer, using fossil fuels.

And allowing a cut tree to dry out is a potential fire hazard, so remember to recycle your tree within a week, experts say.

The greenest option

Finally, there is one option that Miller says is the greenest of all — growing a live tree in a pot to keep year after year.

His family has a Norfolk Island pine, and although it does not have the triangular shape of traditional Christmas trees, it makes a nice house plant, which they can decorate for the holidays.

For those looking for a more traditional tree, many stores sell local varieties that can be kept outdoors, moved indoors for the Christmas season, and eventually planted outside when they get too large.

Finally, some people might want to cut their own tree in the wild.

Millers says that's also considered a green option if you get a permit from your local forest district, and find a suitable tree along a roadside or under a power line on Crown land, where it would likely be cut down anyway.

With files from Lisa Johnson