Released December 5, 2008
LAWRENCE, Kan. – No matter their color, artificial Christmas trees simply aren’t “green.”
“The idea that they’re eco-friendly is sort of an urban myth,” said Jennifer Smith, horticulturist with Kansas State University Research and Extension. “If you consider what they cost in terms of the environment, they really aren’t cheaper than buying a real tree every year, either.”
Cash costs can vary widely for the two Christmas tree types, she admitted. Nowadays, however, they don’t necessarily favor the artificial trees.
For one thing, fake trees don’t really last forever, Smith said. Industry estimates suggest the trees tend to last five to 10 years before they start looking too ratty to want to reuse.
“Beyond that, Good Housekeeping’s tests on quality artificial trees identified a top three that cost from $300 to $859,” she said. “Good trees aren’t cheap.”
Owning one of those GH-recommended trees would average out to an annual cost of $60 to $172 in five years and $30 to $86 over 10 years.
In contrast, one Kansas Christmas tree farm that combines Internet with on-farm sales promises to deliver a 4- to 6.5-feet “hand-selected, premium” tree to a Web shopper’s door for $33 to $55.
“Of course, if you actually went to a local tree farm, you might do just as well, if not better on price,” the horticulturist said. “Plus, you’d have the freshest tree available – which also is a value.”
To back up her claim about which trees are eco-friendly, Smith also offered these comparisons:
1. Local Resources –
Today’s real trees rarely come from forests. They’re grown on Christmas tree farms in every U.S. state and Canada. Many of the farms allow you to choose your own, plus they provide such bonuses as hayrides and hot apple cider. Those farms often replant three trees for every one cut.
China is the giant in making artificial trees for the U.S. market. The U.S. Department of Commerce puts artificial trees in the nation’s top 30 imports from China, accounting for between 80 and 90 percent of U.S. artificial tree stocks.
2. Environmental Effects –
As they grow to harvest size, real evergreens absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen for years. They stabilize soil, filter rainwater runoff and shelter wildlife. They even smell good.
The basic material in artificial trees is a petroleum-based plastic -- generally the one known as PVC (polyvinyl chloride). Manufacturing PVC releases cancer-causing dioxin into the environment. Just as worrisome, apparently some nations still allow the use of lead as a stabilizer in making PVC.
California now requires that artificial trees from China carry a warning label.
In a 2008 report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a multi-agency review panel on U.S. children’s exposure to lead noted, “Artificial Christmas trees made of PVC also degrade under normal conditions. About 50 million U.S. households have artificial Christmas trees, of which about 20 million are at least nine years old, the point at which dangerous lead exposures can occur.”
Smith explained, “Recent studies have found that as plastic trees age, they can start to release a kind of lead dust into your home. That alone could have a real impact on how long we want to keep an artificial tree before replacing it – perhaps with a live tree.”
3. Recycling –
Thousands of communities now have programs for recycling real Christmas trees. The people in charge of lakes and ponds sometimes use them, as well, submerging them to create fish habitat or using them to prevent bank erosion. Gardeners with chippers can turn them into mulch. Even if deposited in a dump, however, natural trees will degrade and enrich the soil.
Artificial Christmas trees become centuries-long residents of city landfills.
4. Fire Risk –
Christmas trees – real or artificial – do not cause fires. The United States Fire Administration says that neither fire-resistant artificial trees nor well-watered real trees are a problem. In fact, in their research trials, the fire safety engineers were unable to ignite a properly watered tree.
The USFA says the most common causes of residential holiday fires are overloaded electrical circuits, faulty wiring and open flames (candles, lighters, matches, popping fireplace wood).
To back up that finding, the National Christmas Tree Association has posted photos at the bottom of the Web page at http://www.christmastree.org/faketrees.cfm#fire, showing the before and after from a test conducted by the Farmington Hills Fire Department in metropolitan Detroit. The test’s real and artificial trees both burned eventually. But, the well-watered real tree remained mostly intact. The artificial tree was destroyed while creating significant heat, as well as smoke containing such toxins as dioxin and hydrogen chloride gas.
5. Availability –
Artificial trees are widely available in stores and online.
A number of organizations and Web sites provide listings of U.S. tree farms, combined with driving directions.
“For Kansas, I personally like the National Christmas Tree Association’s complete, state-by-state list. Just be warned, that’s not the same as the one you’ll get if you just enter your zip code,” Smith said.
A list of Kansas growers is available at http://www.christmastree.org/s_location.cfm?x_type=state&x_state=KS The listing for Missouri is the same, except for the substitution of “MO” for the “KS” at the end of the address.
Fun Facts about Christmas Trees
- To help promote the use of real-live Christmas trees, the grower-members of the National Christmas Tree Association helped develop a computer game called “Attack of the Mutant Artificial Tree.” The association’s link to the game is at http://www.christmastree.org/kewlbox.cfm.
- Although historical records are less certain, tradition credits Germany for originating the Christmas tree. The records themselves prove, however, that Germany is where the first artificial tree was developed. To protect their shrinking forests, the Germans made trees from metal wire, covered with green-dyed goose feathers.
The Addis Brush Company created the first U.S. artificial trees. Initially, it used the same machinery that produced its toilet brushes. In 1950, however, the company patented its “Silver Pine,” which came with a revolving, colored gel-topped light to place underneath.
- One way to find out whether an existing artificial Christmas tree contains lead is to contact the manufacturer.
Because so many of the artificial trees come from China, however, the Environmental Quality Institute at the University of North Carolina offers an alternative. Americans and Canadians can order a $15 test kit by sending a check to: CWLTI//EQI, UNCA, One University Heights, Asheville, NC 28804. Or, they can order online by following the instructions at http://www.leadtesting.org/.
For Safety’s Sake, Keep Live Christmas Trees Well-Watered
MANHATTAN, Kan. – Freshness and water are key to ensuring a real Christmas tree doesn’t become fire fodder before Boxing Day, according to Charles Barden, forester with Kansas State University Research and Extension.
“If you’re buying from a lot, rather than a Christmas tree farm, look for trees with flexible branch tips and dark-green needles,” Barden said. “Shake any tree you’re interested in buying. If it sheds a few yellow needles, that’s okay, but otherwise, no needles should drop.”
The forester added that a fresh tree will still be holding so much water inside that it also seems heavy for its size.
“To keep your selected tree well-watered when you get home, cut an inch or two from its stump– even if you just cut it at a tree farm. This reopens any pitch-clogged pores, so the tree can drink again,” Barden said. “Then place the tree in water immediately.”
He advises storing newly bought trees in a cool place, such as a garage or basement, before setting them up to decorate.
“A cut tree can easily absorb a gallon of water while rehydrating during the first 24 hours you have it,” Barden explained.
After that, to extend the tree’s natural fire-fighting ability as long as possible:
1. Locate it away from such heat sources as radiators, heat ducts or heaters.
2. Use a stand large enough to hold an inch of water for every inch in the tree trunk’s diameter.
“Placing a penny or aspirin in the water won’t accomplish much,” the forester said.
3. Check the stand’s water level frequently, to ensure the tree doesn’t run dry.
“Generally, you’ll be supplying 1 to 2 quarts of water every day,” Barden said.
4. If the stand runs dry but the tree remains flexible, cut off another inch from the stump and start over again. If the tree seems dry, too, get it out and away from the house and recycle.
Contacts: Jennifer Smith, 785-843-7058, firstname.lastname@example.org
Charles Barden, 785-532-1444, email@example.com
Kathleen Ward, firstname.lastname@example.org