It comes down to the plastic. I want as little of it in my life as possible.
Several weeks ago, a friend stopped me in a restaurant and asked, "Real or fake?" It took me a second to figure out what he was talking about, but then I replied, "Real." He looked surprised. "Not the answer I was expecting, but OK!" I told him to look it up on TreeHugger, but when I checked, I saw that the last article weighing the pros and cons of Christmas trees dates back nearly a decade. It's time for an update.
I am a dedicated real-tree buyer for a number of reasons. Back in 2009, Pablo Paster calculated the embodied carbon emissions to be about 57 kg for a fake tree weighing 35 kg on average. (That does seem like an excessively heavy tree.) By contrast, a 7-foot Douglas fir generates 11.6 kg of CO2 if it biodegrades or burns – but, as Paster writes, "because this carbon was originally removed from the air (sequestered), the real tree can be considered carbon neutral because it does not add more greenhouse gasses than it removes."Numbers tell a valuable story, but there are other factors to consider as well. For me, the most appealing aspect of a real tree is that it's not made of plastic. I make a point of minimizing plastic wherever possible in my household, so to bring a big plastic tree into my house goes against every other effort that I make on a daily basis.
I try to buy things that I know can be recycled or rotted at the end of their life cycle, and fake trees are notorious for not meeting these requirements. Real trees, on the other hand, are often collected by city programs and turned into mulch. Sometimes they're used to prevent beach erosion. They can be used as firewood for a backyard campfire. Most importantly, over time they will biodegrade fully without leaving toxic microplastics in their wake.
That leads to my next point, which is that real trees are healthier. The vast majority (80%) of artificial trees are made in China, where environmental regulations are notoriously lax to begin with and implementation lacking. The chemicals from which trees are made are not something I want in my house. From the Star's analysis:
"The trees are usually made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which releases cancer-causing chemicals — called dioxins — into the atmosphere during production... [The] World Health Organization recently called [dioxins] 'highly toxic' and 'dangerous' to human health. Apart from causing cancer, these chemicals have been found to cause developmental and reproductive problems as well as damage endocrine and immune systems."
As if that's not bad enough, PVC trees contain phthalates (linked to birth defects, breast cancer, hormone disruption, and miscarriages) and sometimes even lead. A 2004 study published in the Journal of Environmental Health examined the threat of lead in fake trees and went so far as to advise families to "thoroughly wash their hands after assembling and disassembling artificial trees and especially to limit the access of children to areas under erected trees."
There is some contention about the break-even point at which fake trees become better for the environment than real ones. The industry-representing American Christmas Tree Association is unclear on its website, saying the magic number is between five and nine years (most people use theirs for a decade); but a 2009 study by independent research group Ellipsos says it's twenty years before the two balance out.
While cutting down a living tree undeniably comes with a measure of guilt, it makes me feel less terrible than the thought of throwing a plastic tree into a landfill. Until it's cut, a living tree benefits its surroundings by sequestering carbon, cleaning the air, providing habitat and shade to animals, drawing moisture into the ground, and preventing erosion.
I have the added benefit of living in Canada, where trees are plentiful, and I don't have to go far to get one. Where I grew up in Muskoka, my family always headed straight into the bush behind our house and found a scrawny specimen that we dragged back home through the snow. My parents continue this tradition today, as you can see in the header photo and below.
I understand that real trees may not work for everyone. If you live far from a forest and must drive a distance to buy a tree and have no place to compost it afterward, or if you are allergic to trees, or if you simply can't stand the idea of killing a tree for a few weeks' visual pleasure, then artificial is a better choice. Alternatively, consider buying a live tree in a pot. I've done this before and now have a beautiful fir flourishing in my yard. Or cut down a very small tree, suitable for a table top, which still creates the same effect without as many years of maturity at stake.