A Canadian forester argues in favor of real Christmas trees

From supporting local farmers to boosting happiness, there are many reasons to use a real conifer in your house.

This weekend Canada's public radio broadcaster CBC tackled the always-contentious issue of fake versus real Christmas trees. This particular interview, conducted by Michael Enright of The Sunday Edition with forester Marie-Paule Godin of the non-profit group Tree Canada, focused on real trees and why they are the most eco-friendly option.

As Godin explained, “The fact that trees are a renewable resource and that more will be planted is actually better for the environment. Artificial trees are made of plastic. They're mostly produced in Asia.” She explained that fake trees are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which cannot be recycled. Fake trees are only ever incinerated or landfilled after their (too-)short lifespan, typically 7-8 years. They could last much longer, but people tend to get tired of them and buy new ones. Real trees, on the other hand, are usually mulched by municipalities and used as compost in urban gardens.

PVC is a real concern, as it emits hormone-disrupting phthalates that accumulate in human body tissues, as well as dangerous dioxins. The World Health Organization has said, “Apart from causing cancer, [dioxins] have been found to cause developmental and reproductive problems as well as damage endocrine and immune systems.”

Lead is another problematic substance found in fake trees. As I wrote last year, a 2004 study published in the Journal of Environmental Health “went so far as to advise 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.'”

Godin said the emissions associated with exporting live trees overseas – which is something Canada does in large quantities – are lower than importing artificial ones from Asia, where most are made. Keep in mind that real trees are grown by local tree farmers who benefit directly from our financial support; and that same farmer will replace the tree that has been cut down.

The act of buying a real tree has additional benefits, Godin explained. It brings families, friends, and neighbors together in a fun, formative activity, and apparently it can boost your mood once it's home. The smell of a fresh conifer tree, created by phenols and terpenes, boosts dopamine levels in the brain and makes us feel happier. (I have asked Tree Canada for more information on this, as I couldn't find a supporting study.)

mom pulling tree© K Martinko – My mother hauls the Christmas tree up from the shore.

It doesn't have to be such a black-and-white debate, however. The CBC discussion failed to mention other alternatives, such as potted live trees and live tree rentals, which sidestep both the issue of importing non-recyclable plastic and killing a healthy tree. Some people opt to make ‘trees' out of potted branches, which can have a similar effect to a tree if decorated well.

You can listen to the whole conversation here.

From supporting local farmers to boosting happiness, there are many reasons to use a real conifer in your house.