Real versus fake Christmas trees

G Magazine

A living pine tree is natural; fake trees are cheap and easy to store, but which should we choose to put our pressies under?

Fake christmas tree

This plastic-fantastic tree may look nice, but is it a good choice for the environment?

Credit: iStockphoto

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Christmas time is upon us, the mercury is rising and Santa is probably considering breaking out the red singlet and shorts for the Australian leg of his trip. Summertime Australia is an odd backdrop for the bushy alpine trees that suddenly appear in living rooms across the country, but tradition is powerful force and there won't be many families without some type of Christmas tree this year.

Most will choose between a cut pine tree and an artificial plastic tree. The question is, which is truly the greener option?

Plastic fantastic

Artificial Christmas trees are usually made from steel and the plastic known as PVC. To produce one kilogram of raw PVC you need over a kilo of fossil fuels plus half a kilo of minerals and 10 L of water. The process also releases about two kilograms of CO2 - which contributes to climate change - and eight grams of hazardous waste.

To turn the PVC into Christmas trees requires further processing and additives that vary amongst manufacturers. Lead is sometimes used as a stabiliser in Christmas tree PVC and constitutes a heavy environmental load.

Tree farms

Most live Christmas trees (Pinus radiata) come either from small plantations dedicated to growing trees just for Christmas or are the rejects from large pine plantations. Using pine plantation "thinnings" (as the rejects are known) for Christmas trees could be considered a form of recycling.

In both cases, the growing trees provide some long-term soil protection without requiring significant irrigation and suck up climate-change-causing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, the use of herbicides, pesticides, fertilisers and pollution from machinery can have negative impacts on the local ecosystems.

Pine plantations are also "biodiversity deserts", says Cam Walker from Friends of the Earth. The pines displace native vegetation when land is cleared for their growth, he says, and native life does not thrive inside plantation boundaries.

"The trees are always young, so there are no nesting hollows…and there is little understorey, so there is almost nothing for small animals to hide in."

To provide all of the six million Australian family households with real Christmas trees every year, it would take 2,200 ha of dedicated land (based on a five year rotation). That is about 0.0005 per cent of Australia's land already used for agriculture.

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