In the beloved television classic A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie chooses a natural Christmas tree over an artificial one. Charlie’s choice is heartwarming. It’s also a sounder decision for environmental, health, and economic reasons.
Purchasing a natural tree is better for the environment. Natural trees are typically grown for eight to 10 years before being harvested. During this period, they provide habitat for wildlife, stabilize soil, filter the air, produce oxygen, and sequester carbon, which helps mitigate climate change.
Further, real trees are generally grown on land that is not suitable for other crops and harvested trees are quickly replaced with newly planted ones. After the holiday season, natural trees can be ground into mulch, which can be used to improve soil fertility. Many Canadian municipalities have dedicated Christmas tree mulching programs in place.
In contrast, artificial trees are manufactured mostly in Chinese factories, where environmental regulations are often weak and their implementation even weaker. The trees are usually made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which releases cancer-causing chemicals — called dioxins — into the atmosphere during production. Fake trees also produce significantly more carbon dioxide than real ones. When their useful life is over, artificial trees cannot be recycled by most municipalities and will end up in the landfill.
Independent research by Montreal-based environmental consulting firm Ellipsos confirms that natural trees are the better environmental choice. Ellipsos discovered that artificial trees contribute to climate change and resource depletion three times more than natural ones. Moreover, they found that a fake tree would have to be reused for more than 20 years before it became a greener choice than buying a real one each year. Typically, artificial trees last just six.
From a health standpoint, choosing a natural tree is also the superior option. Real trees do not produce dioxins, which the World Health Organization recently called “highly toxic” and “dangerous” to human health. Apart from causing cancer, these chemicals have been found to cause developmental and reproductive problems as well as damage endocrine and immune systems.
Fake PVC trees also contain phthalates. According to Environmental Defence, these chemicals have been linked to a wide range of health issues, such as birth defects, breast cancer, hormone disruption, and miscarriages.
Furthermore, PVC products often contain lead. According to the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), lead exposure in adults has been associated with high blood pressure, hypertension, kidney damage, and reproductive problems. The EPA states young children are most susceptible to lead’s effects, which — even at low levels — may include behavioural and learning problems, lowered IQ, hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing loss, and anemia.
The potential lead exposure threat posed by artificial PVC trees was examined in a 2004 study published in the Journal of Environmental Health. While the study found that the average tree did not pose a significant exposure risk to adults, it also determined that “a substantial health risk to young children is quite possible” in “the worst-case scenarios.”
Moreover, the study cautioned families to thoroughly wash their hands after assembling and disassembling artificial trees and “especially to limit the access of children to areas under erected trees.”
Finally, buying a real tree is good for the Canadian economy. According to Statistics Canada, our country imported approximately $65-million worth of fake tress in 2015. Some of this money stays in Canada but a large amount of it flows overseas to China, Taiwan, and South Korea, where the trees are made.
On the other hand, the vast majority of real Christmas trees are grown in Canada. Sales of these trees help keep 2,381 family farms alive, thousands of Canadians employed, and contribute more than $100-million to the economy.
Like Charlie Brown, millions of Canadians will have to make a choice this Christmas between buying a natural tree or an artificial one. When all the evidence is weighed, it becomes clear that the smart choice is to follow Charlie’s lead: go with the real tree.
Sean Petty sits on the board of the Manitoba Eco-Network and is a past board member of the Sierra Club Canada.