Real Christmas trees are the greener choice

fake Christmas tree has some obvious advantages over the real thing. There's no sticky sap. No needles shedding everywhere. It never needs watering, and at the end of the season, it can be folded up, or disassembled (depending on the model) and stowed away in a closet, basement or attic until next year's Yuletide rolls around.

What's more, machine-made pines are evolving, steadily gaining ground on their biological forebears. Every year, more realistic models emerge, with fuller branches, softer needles and subtler, more life-like colors. One day, it may take the arboreal equivalent of a Voight-Kampff test to separate the real from the faux.

It's no surprise then that the fake tree business has boomed into a billion dollar industry, with sales figures fast approaching those of real Christmas trees.

But what about the environmental impact? Is it possible a plastic pine might not be that bad for the planet? Could it even do some good?

he fake tree industry wants you to think so. This November, the American Christmas Tree Association, a trade group funded by artificial tree manufacturers, released a "life cycle assessment," commissioned from an environmental consulting firm, purporting to show that after just five years of use, a plastic tree reached a "break-even" point, after which its environmental impact was less than, or equal to, that of a real tree.

In a brief animated video on its website, a chipper female narrator distills the report's conclusions: "When choosing between a real and artificial Christmas tree, consider that if you buy an artificial Christmas tree, and keep it for more than five years, you're making the environmentally responsible decision."

Could it really be that simple? Alas, no.

Diving into the 94-page report, I was struck by some curious gaps in the research. Most notably, there was little discussion of the primary raw material used to make most artificial Christmas trees: the plastic known as PVC, or polyvinyl chloride. Curious indeed, as PVC has long been targeted by environmental campaigners as a source of dangerous pollution during its manufacturing, which involves hazardous chemicals such as liquid chlorine, huge energy inputs, and vast outputs of toxic waste.

Looking for some more insight, I reached out to Brad McAllister, managing director of WAP Sustainability Consulting of Chattanooga, Tenn., who oversaw the study. By phone, McAllister told me, in a mild Southern twang, that the study was designed to evaluate the "cradle-to-grave" impact of real and fake Christmas trees. To determine the environmental impact of a plastic tree, he used data provided directly by the largest Chinese manufacturer of artificial Christmas trees, regarding factory emissions, raw materials, energy and water use, packing materials, and transportation. "The whole host of environmental data points," he said.

The PVC that went into the fake trees, McAllister told me, was all made in China. "They were all Chinese raw materials," he said.

That was an interesting fact, and seemingly nowhere in the report. And problematic, because roughly 80% of PVC manufactured in China is made not from oil or gas, as in most countries, but from coal, using an obsolete process that requires vast quantities of catalytic mercury. According to a 2015 EU-funded study, the amount of mercury released annually into the Chinese environment from PVC manufacturing is unknown, but "potentially enormous."

There are, of course, few substances more harmful to human health than mercury, a heavy metal that is indestructible, vaporizes easily, persists in nature, and accumulates readily in human and animal tissue. High concentrations have long been known to cause devastating and permanent neurological damage to humans, particularly young children or babies still in the womb.

So, were the fake Christmas trees in McAllister's study made from coal? "I really don't know," he said, a bit testily. "It does seem like a gotcha question." After a bit of back and forth, however, he conceded it was a good possibility. "Is coal used as a feedstock in the production of the tree? Likely," he said.

Jami Warner, executive director of the American Christmas Tree Association, told me she would try and hunt down the truth about the coal in her members' plastic Christmas trees. "No one's asked me that before," she said. I never heard back.

To be fair, growing, harvesting and moving tens of millions of actual trees to market, often across hundreds of miles, has plenty of impacts too, including pesticide and fertilizer runoff, and carbon emissions, primarily from transportation. But unlike their plastic counterparts, real Christmas trees are a product of nature, and easily recycled, with no toxic afterlife.

A plastic tree, on the other hand, is virtually impossible to recycle, and almost inevitably destined for the landfill, where it will likely persist for thousands of years, slowly leaching toxins into the soil and water.

If that prospect doesn't fill you with Christmas cheer, then perhaps you're better off choosing a real tree this year.

By: John Collins Rudolf, The Guardian

Read the artcicle here


Thursday, September 28, 2023