Peter Kuitenbrouwer is a journalist who holds a master of forest conservation from the University of Toronto.
In the weeks following Christmas, the streets of my neighbourhood, as elsewhere, gain a grim character. Lined with dead, dried-out Christmas trees waiting to be picked up by sanitation services, the sidewalks resemble a clear-cut forest. Millions of trees across North America, slaughtered for our month of merry-making, then discarded. How bleak. Is it time to buy an artificial tree?
Canadian Tire says yes to the plastic tree. Last holiday season the retailer released a TV ad in which a father and daughter walk through snowy woods. He carries a bowsaw. Love Is All Around plays. Dad bends down to cut a Christmas tree. The girl spots a squirrel in the tree and stops him. They approach a second tree. The girl spies a bird. She leads Dad out of the woods.
In the last scene, father and daughter decorate a white plastic tree. The girl, a regular little Canadian Greta Thunberg, has saved the natural world: She insisted her family buy a fake tree at Canadian Tire.
This ad, which played as we watched It’s a Wonderful Life on the CBC, filled me with outrage. I conjured my own TV ad in response. It opens with hundreds of workers in a factory in China assembling white plastic Christmas trees. When their shift ends, the workers put on gas masks for the trip home because the pollution in their town is so acute. Cut to crates of fake trees loaded on to a container vessel to cross the Pacific Ocean. Diesel exhaust billows from the ship’s smokestack during the 12,000-kilometre voyage. At the Port of Vancouver, a crane loads crates on a diesel train to travel across the Rocky Mountains, bound for a Canadian Tire store in Brampton, Ont. A family drives to the store, loads the plastic tree in their SUV and gets stuck in traffic on the way home. Cut to a few years later. A garbage truck hauls the discarded tree to a landfill.
Clearly, a natural tree is the environmental choice, right? The truth, it turns out, is somewhere in the middle. The real Christmas tree is itself an intensely cultivated product that raises environmental questions, too.
I grew up on a farm in western Quebec; every December, we set out to cut a tree in our forest. We trounced through waist-deep snow as we debated which tree looked best. A forest in winter is a magical, serene place. Eventually we selected and cut a tree. But the trees we cut in the woods on the farm were “Charlie Brown” specials compared with the bushy, precisely conical firs and spruces cultivated on tree farms. Perfection has a price: tree farms generate emissions.
The U.S. lobby for fake trees has gone to great lengths to prove that a plastic tree is the green choice. A decade ago, the American Christmas Tree Association released a 107-page report called the Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of an Artificial Christmas Tree and a Natural Christmas Tree.
The study looked at two trees. One was a two-metre fake tree that workers in China rolled, cut, stamped and pressed from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polypropylene resin and steel sheets. The second was a two-metre Fraser fir tree that tree farmers grew, and shaped yearly with hand pruners, shearing knives and gas-powered rotary knives, weighing 15 kilograms at age 10 when ready for harvest.
For comparison, the study quantifies the environmental impact to grow and ship the real tree. Farmers burn natural gas to heat greenhouses in the tree’s seedling stage. After transplanting the tree, they spray ammonia, potassium, calcium and magnesium fertilizers. Tree farmers mow between rows of trees, spewing diesel from tractors, or spray the herbicide glyphosate, plus fungicide and insecticide to suppress weeds and bugs. The study measures the packaging foil used to transport seedlings, the plant pot to ship the seedling to the plantation, the fuel and chain oil for the chainsaw that cuts the tree at harvest, and the plastic string that wraps the tree for shipment to a retailer.
The study authors conclude that, if one reuses an artificial tree for a decade, “the non‐renewable primary energy demand of a natural tree is 2.5 times greater” than the fake.
So, go with the fake. Canadians prefer them: Statistics Canada reported that in 2013 the money spent on plastic trees, $56-million, for the first time surpassed the $55-million spent on real trees. Americans have long since embraced the replicas: More than 80 per cent of Christmas trees in U.S. living rooms are made of plastic.
Our trade balance favours the copies, too: In 2017, Canada exported about $49-million worth of real Christmas trees, mainly grown in Quebec, and mostly to the United States; that same year, Canada imported $60-million worth of fake trees, almost all from China.
Shall we declare fake trees superior? Not yet. Forests – and, by extension, Christmas tree farms – are havens for wildlife, including chickadees, grosbeaks, sparrows, coyotes, foxes, mice, squirrels and voles. There’s other good stuff: the real trees use the sun’s energy and carbon dioxide from the air to make their food, and each hectare of the tree farms (some of the closest forests to our cities) emits enough oxygen for 18 people. The trees, often grown on shallow, sandy soil not suitable for food crops, absorb rainwater and stabilize soil, and sequester carbon as they grow. For every tree that is cut, 10 others are at some stage of growth to take its place. Growing trees create jobs for Canadians and a source of cash for farmers in winter.
The clincher for me is the smell of a real tree. That is hard to beat. When I lived in New York, I loved the tree vendors who arrived in late November. Rows of pines, spruces and firs lined the sidewalks; squeezing between them approximated a walk in the forest, and New Yorkers sucked in the tangy aroma. Conifers emit phytoncides, essential oils that, studies show, boost counts of “cancer-killer” white blood cells and lower blood pressure. Plus, as a Quebecker in New York, it warmed my heart to hear the vendors speak French; each December, many Christmas tree salespeople travel to New York from Quebec.
On the downside, real trees make a mess. In New York, one year we left our tree up too long in our fifth-floor walkup in Manhattan’s East Village. My trip to take the tree down to the street left an epic trail of needles on the staircases and landings. But hey – I swept them up, and they rotted away in landfill. Most municipalities in Canada turn real trees into mulch. When crews plant new trees in streets and parks, they spread this mulch around their base. The fake tree is made of PVC, which is tough to recycle, so it sits in a landfill for thousands of years.
Hence, feel good about your real tree. Lord knows we have enough to worry about this holiday season. While the real/fake tree choice is worth pondering, as a proxy for all our other choices and their impact on our troubled, warming planet, it’s worth noting, in the words of the Christmas Tree Association study, that “The impact of the tree life cycle, for all scenarios, is less than 0.1 per cent of a person’s annual carbon footprint and therefore is negligible within the context of the average American’s [or Canadian’s] lifestyle.”
Still, if your family is like mine, plenty of the packages wrapped and placed under the tree contain gifts made hither and yon, often in factories overseas. For me it’s a comfort that the tree, at least, is proudly Made in Canada.
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