Every December, seasonal holidays and festivities like Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and others bring together families, friends, and community. Although it can be a tough time for some families and individuals, the days are marked by celebratory foods and drink, festive decorations, music, presents, happy cheer, and, at times, some reflection.
And every year, the preparations, decorations, and aftermath divide their celebrants into two main camps: the environmentally conscious who fret over what type of tree is better (fresh versus artificial), reuse last year’s gently-used wrapping paper and buy only local and organic foods for their festive feasts, and those who like to splurge and not worry about all of that when they have so much on their minds already.
The debate about the impact and environmental footprint of a fresh tree compared to a reusable artificial version is not a new one. I have pondered and discussed this many a time. Now, scientific research results by Montreal based Ellipsos (now called Ellio) put my pondering to rest: they conducted a life cycle analysis (LCA) to answer this ongoing debate. The result: live trees have a smaller environmental impact, especially with respect to resource depletion and impact on climate change.
Without going into technical data, an LCA study looks at the minutiae of what it takes to produce a “thing” plus the impact of disposing of it. It considers all inputs and outputs – from extraction and processing of raw materials, manufacturing processes, growing of a live tree, to transport and distribution, use, reuse and recycling and disposal at the end of its lifespan.
In their study, they assumed an artificial tree to be made in China and shipped to Canada, and used for an average of six years before being discarded.
The fresh tree was assumed to come from within a 150 km radius of the buyer. Based on the study results, you need to reuse an artificial tree for 20 years before it becomes a better option than buying fresh trees over the same time period. Though many producers claim their plastic trees are recyclable, in reality there are no facilities that actually recycle them.
All that being said, the researchers of this study closed with saying that regardless of the tree you choose, its environmental impact is small compared to many other human activities, such as driving a car!
So if you opt for an artificial tree, try to avoid those made from PVC if possible, as this type of plastic is associated with many serious health issues. Look for the safer PE plastic style from Ikea, or trees with PE/PVC mix from Sears or Wayfair. It does take a fair bit of online research, as I found out. On Home Depot’s website, for example, my search for a PE-tree only gave one result, which didn’t specify the material other than saying it was “artificial” (and made in far-flung China).
If you want a fresh tree without the guilt, you can of course buy a small potted tree and later plant it in your or a willing friend’s garden.
Now I must go and wrap my presents with last year’s rescued wrapping paper. And when someone comes up with a way of making PVC-free plastic trees that smell as beautifully fresh and natural as a live tree, then I might convert someday. Maybe.