Feature

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.

The journey to your home

Both types of tree require transportation to reach your home, which means fossil fuels are burnt and air pollution generated.

The greater the distance travelled, the larger the impact, and plastic trees certainly rack up the kilometres. The vast majority of Australia's artificial trees are made in factories in Asia. If a family in Melbourne buys a plastic tree made in China, then it has travelled more than 8,000 km to arrive at its new home.

Alternatively, someone living near Melbourne's CBD could get a real tree from a plantation less than 50 km away.

Ghosts of Christmas past

A fake Christmas tree can't be recycled and that means its final resting place will be the local dump. Here the PVC will stay in much the same form for thousands of years.

Despite the longevity of a fake tree, the National Christmas tree association in the US estimates they are usually replaced every six to nine years.

Naturally, you'll need a yearly replacement for a real tree. Disposing of a real tree is simple if you have a mulcher at home, otherwise, some councils organise curb-side pick up of Christmas trees in the new year. Some cut tree suppliers will also take back used trees for mulching.

The verdict

Despite the shorter life span, real trees are the way to go. They use fewer resources, create less pollution and can be recycled.

When buying a real tree, try to make sure it has come from a local farm and hasn't been transported thousands of kilometres on the back of a truck. Trees that have come from timber plantations are the best because no extra resources were used to grow them.

If you want to go one step further, Nina Bailey, from the Australian Conservation Foundation, suggests buying a living tree.

"The ideal example is to buy a wollemi pine, or another Australian native plant, in a pot," says Bailey. "If it is not kept for next Christmas, it can be planted and will require less water over its lifetime than an exotic plant."

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Check out the story on the 7pm Project here.