Article by Jonelle Kimbrough, Fort Bragg Environmental Management
Strange, but true: the first artificial Christmas tree was created in the 1930s by the Addis Company with the same design and production process used to create another familiar item: the toilet brush.
Now, Christmas trees are a major seasonal commodity – whether they are reminiscent of Charlie Brown’s wan pine or spectacularly realistic replicas of majestic firs. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, consumers in North America purchased over nine million artificial trees and over 50 million live trees last year. A Nielsen survey conducted by the American Christmas Tree Association discovered that consumers will spend over one billion dollars on artificial trees and $984 million on live trees annually. Before you deck your halls for the holidays, consider the environmental impacts of your Christmas tree.
THE PROs and CONs OF AN ARTIFICIAL TREE
Artificial trees are convenient because they may be enjoyed year after year. A variety of styles, sizes and colors are available. They are becoming increasingly realistic in their appearance, and they often feature festive lights and decorations. Since they are purchased only once, they require no annual expense. They also require minimal maintenance. Daily watering is not required, and the removal of fallen needles is unnecessary. After the holidays, disposal is usually not a concern. Artificial trees can simply be stored away until the following year.
However, many artificial Christmas trees are manufactured with petroleum based plastics such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC). PVC and similar plastics can emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the manufacturing process and during the consumer life cycle. These VOCs include carcinogens such as dioxin, ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride. Of the artificial trees sold in the United States every year, 85 percent are imported from foreign markets, and these may contain lead and tin – additives used to create more malleable PVC. In fact, many artificial trees are labeled with warnings due to their heavy metal content. Most artificial trees cannot be recycled. Furthermore, they are not biodegradable and create waste when discarded.
THE PROs AND CONs OF A LIVE TREE
Live trees are a renewable resource. Many are farmed specifically for the purpose of holiday decoration, so seedlings are continuously replanted, and forests are sustainably managed. Live trees provide a habitat for wildlife. Live trees can be recycled for numerous purposes. Mulch can be used for projects such as landscaping, trail maintenance, habitat restoration and beach erosion mitigation. The Packaging Corporation of America in Wisconsin uses wood pulp from recycled trees to power its mill in a unique waste-to-energy initiative. A pharmeceutical company in Canada has even created an influenza medication from the shikimic acid extracted from the needles of discarded Christmas trees. Live trees also improve air quality. A single farmed tree absorbs more than one ton of carbon dioxide throughout its life. Each acre of trees produces enough oxygen for the daily needs of 20 people. While transportation costs are involved in the markets for both live trees and artificial trees, live trees are often grown locally or regionally whereas artificial trees are often imported from foreign countries. Therefore, live trees reduce emissions and fuel costs associated with international shipping.
On the other hand, live trees are often treated with pesticides and fertilizers that are potentially detrimental to public health. Some live trees are even chemically color enhanced. Live trees do have to be harvested and purchased every year, and they require more maintenance such as consistent watering and removal of fallen needles. Live trees are often blamed for fires, but most incidents are the result of electrical fires and not dry trees.
THE BOTTOM LINE
So, is an artificial tree or a live tree more environmentally conscious? The real environmental impact lies not in the amount of use one can garner from each tree but in the content, production process and disposal options. Recent research has demonstrated that an artificial tree would have to be reused for more than 20 years to be as environmentally sound as a live tree. The typical life span of an artificial tree, however, is only six to ten years, depending on its quality.
If the one-time cost and minimal maintenance of an artificial tree are most appealing, choose an option that has been manufactured in the United States to reduce exposure to contaminants. Use your artificial tree as long as possible. When you are ready to purchase a new model, donate your unwanted tree to a community agency such as a school, recreation center or charity to reduce waste. You could even repurpose components of your obsolete tree to create wreaths and garlands.
If you prefer a live tree, choose an organic option that is treated with few or no chemical pesticides, fertilizers or color enhancers. The North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension estimates that each tree grown in North Carolina needs only a quarter of an ounce of pesticides. Most state farmers, though, rely on pesticide-free integrated pest management techniques. If possible, opt for a locally or regionally harvested tree to ensure minimal contamination and to support the local economy. Visit Local Harvest for a list of tree farms and growers in your area.
Recycle your live tree at the end of the holidays. Here are some local options …
– The Fort Bragg Landfill will accept Christmas trees for recycling after December 26. Landfill access is located off Longstreet Road just prior to the ACP. Hours are Monday through Friday, 7:30 AM to 3 PM. Call 396.6873 or 432.0295 for more information.
– Corvias Military Living will offer a curbside Christmas tree collection from December 26 through January 17 for residents of post housing. Residents may place their trees at the curb on their designated trash collection days.
– Cape Fear Botanical Garden will host the annual Grinding of the Greens in January. Volunteers will turn Christmas trees into mulch for the Garden.
– The City of Fayetteville and other municipalities may offer Christmas tree recycling as well. Contact your municipality or waste management provider for more information.
PLEASE REMOVE ALL LIGHTS, DECORATIONS AND STANDS PRIOR TO RECYCLING YOUR CHRISTMAS TREE.
Do not burn Christmas trees or their branches. Fresh pine and fir woods are extremely flammable. Fires generated by Christmas trees can rapidly burn out of control and create an accumulation of a combustible and potentially dangerous compound called creosote in fireplaces and chimneys.