The Christmas Tree Debate

Posted Dec. 17, 2010, at 9:35 p.m.

As many grocery shopping trips end with the “paper or plastic” question, the “real or fake” dilemma complicates the tree search for many Christmas revelers.

For those procrastinators who have yet to get a Christmas tree and wonder whether to get the real thing or an artificial one, here is some perspective.

Especially in a state like Maine, where Christmas trees are locally grown, there are environmental advantages to going the real route. As they grow, Christmas trees absorb greenhouse gases, which is necessary to keep the planet from overheating. When the trees are cut, new ones are planted, continuing the cycle. Fossil fuel is burned trucking Christmas trees to big cities where many are bought, all the more reason to cut or buy one locally.

Towns across Maine, and the country, pick up discarded live trees and turn them into mulch. Some are burned to create electricity.

Artificial trees have the advantage of being cheaper (they aren’t purchased annually) and cleaner — no needles dropping or ornaments crashing to the floor as Dad wrestles his way to the stand to water the tree.

However, just as trimming a real tree to the right height or ensuring it stands straight can lead to spousal frustrations, putting an artificial tree together can test one’s patience.

But there are disadvantages to using a fake tree. According to The Nature Conservancy, 85 percent of the artificial trees sold in the United States come from China. Most are made of plastic, which is derived from petroleum. The process requires energy, which in China means burning coal, which is highly polluting.

The trees are then brought to the United States on ships that burn diesel fuel.

When artificial trees have outlived their usefulness, most end up in landfills.

The bottom line: The carbon footprint of a real tree is smaller than that of its artificial counterpart. A Montreal-based group that focuses on sustainable development, called ellipsos inc., completed a life cycle assessment of real versus fake trees. The results, which were peer reviewed, found that a natural tree will generate 3.1 kg of greenhouse gases per year compared to the 8.1 kg for an artificial tree.

An artificial tree would need to be kept for 20 years or more for the impacts to even out. Fake trees are kept for six years on average.

For those really concerned about the environmental impact of the annual household tree, you can always decorate a live one in your yard.

Now, about fruitcakes …

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