Christmas is only a week away. For those of us celebrating the holiday, many have already installed and adorned the household tree. Our family is waiting for relatives to arrive before bringing down the decorations and trimming our tannenbaum. And we find ourselves contemplating a post-modern quandary: Should we break out our fake tree, or do we want to splurge on a real tree?
The fake tree in my attic dates back to my grandmother, who purchased it from a catalog sometime in the 1960s. It brings back warm childhood memories, despite being a bear to assemble. A real tree would smell much better. And it would be a finer frame for our ever-increasing bounty of bird ornaments.
My husband is firmly advocating for the real tree. But, as you might expect from someone who works at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, I felt the need to work out the environmental cost of splurging on a 6-foot spruce. Thankfully, this is easy to do when you work with ecologists like Cary President Bill Schlesinger. It turns out that he’s had a similar debate in his own home.
Per his research, real trees acquire half their biomass from carbon, which is taken from Earth's atmosphere during photosynthesis and stored in their wood. Most fake trees contain carbon, too, but of an ancient source. PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is the most common material for faux Christmas trees. And this nonrenewable, petroleum-based plastic originates from carbon that was removed from the atmosphere some 70 million years ago by marine phytoplankton.
Real trees are grown on tree farms. In New Yorkstate alone, there are more than 1,600 operations. Together they help preserve the rural economy and provide habitat to nesting birds and other animals. But they have a dark side too. Pine and fir plantations are vulnerable to aphids, adelgids and other pests and successfully rearing trees to harvest (some three to six years) often requires pesticide use.
The majority of artificial trees sold in the United States are manufactured in China. They require the conversion of oil to plastic, refining, factory assembly and international shipping. And there is a lot of debate about their safety, as PVC manufacturing can release cancer-causing dioxins into the environment. On the upside, you can keep them for decades — unlike the real trees, which must be replaced yearly.
By January first, most real Christmas trees are heaped at the curb. Hopefully they are headed to the recycling center and not the landfill. When they decompose, they release their stored carbon back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Plastic trees are disposed of less frequently, for which we should be thankful. When we burn PVC, it raises the concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere, contributing to global warming.
It turns out, when all is said and done, the best option is to buy a live Christmas tree and replant it in the early spring, so it can resume its role removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
In my house, the new question is can we keep a real tree alive until April? In the spirit of starting a family tradition, we are going to give it a whirl. This means opting for a slightly smaller tree. If it can endure the cat, the kids and wintering on our unheated porch — next summer it can upgrade its bird ornaments to real avian activity.
We’ll put Grandma’s tree in the foyer. I’m just not ready to recycle it yet!