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The case against artificial Christmas trees

| Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Every year, on the day after Thanksgiving, my family drives up from the shore to a Christmas tree farm somewhere in north Jersey. It’s a different tree every year, but the image remains the same: a picturesque, family-owned farmstead, a red cottage with a green door selling wreaths and serving hot chocolate, a dirt path leading down to acres and acres of trees. Douglas firs, blue spruces and lodgepole pines line rows of possible living room adornments. After walking through these rows, and finding the perfect specimen, you cut it down — yourself, preferably — and tie it to the roof of the car before heading home to begin the holiday season.

It’s my favorite day of the year. But many Americans don’t share my enthusiasm for real Christmas trees. This Christmas, 94 million American households will put up a tree and more than 80 percent of them will be artificial. Their reasons are varied — convenience, price or environmental impact. But I believe natural trees surpass their fake counterparts in almost every category. Here’s why …

Natural trees look better

This is practically indisputable. Though the average family spent $107 on an artificial tree in 2017, models at this price point hardly resemble genuine pine trees. Even more expensive models (which can cost more than $1000) fail to hide the shiny metal pole that replaces a wooden trunk, or capture the feel of pointed needles on branches. And no artificial tree can fill a room with the fragrance of pine, the familiar scent that warms a home and reminds us Christmas is here.

Artificial trees pose a fire hazard

We often hear about how dangerous a dried-out natural tree can be. This is true — trees start an average of 170 fires per year. But artificial trees are not completely fire resistant. Many home fires at Christmastime are caused not by dry tree branches but by overloaded electrical outlets, and a single spark could easily ignite an artificial tree. When an artificial tree burns, it exposes you to harmful chemicals including mercury and cadmium.

Artificial trees harm the environment

Cutting down a tree to put in your living room for a month does seem wasteful on the surface. But the process is actually environmentally sustainable. Real Christmas trees are not cut from forests. They are grown in farms for the express purpose of being cut down. While being grown, the trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and replace it with oxygen. They provide a home to local animals and prevent land from being developed.

Fake Christmas trees are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), an oil-based plastic which releases harmful carcinogens and creates pollutionn during the production process. Most artificial trees are produced in China and shipped to the United States, a process that requires more fuel, and the production of more plastic packaging. At the end of the tree’s lifespan, it cannot be recycled. It can only be placed in a landfill. Natural trees, conversely, can positively impact the environment long after Dec. 25. They may be incinerated or turned into compost. The New York City Parks Department provides residents with a free mulching service.

A Montreal environmental consulting group concluded that the total carbon emissions linked to a natural tree are just one-third of those associated with artificial trees. In order for an artificial tree to achieve the same level of environmental soundness as a real tree, then, a family would have to reuse it for over 20 years –– and the average family buys a new artificial tree every six. It does seem counterintuitive, but cutting down a natural tree can indeed help save the planet.

Natural trees are what Christmas is all about

Maybe my family’s day long trek to find a tree isn’t everyone’s scene, but it’s an activity that brings us together, at least a lot more than driving to the local superstore and picking up a fake tree would. This strange custom of cutting down a tree and placing it in our homes forces us to think about what we’re doing — and it should. It becomes the center of the room, the center of our attention in a way a metal rod and plastic needles simply can’t. A natural tree can’t be ignored. It brings Christmas to the front of our lives.

Patrick McKelvey splits his time between being a college junior and a grumpy old man. A New Jersey native and American studies major, he plans on pursuing a legal career after graduating Notre Dame. If you can’t find him at the movies, he can be reached for comment at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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