“Real Or Artificial?” The Ethics & Practicalities Of Choosing Your Christmas Tree:

“It matters not if a tree is green, plastic or aluminium – as long as it is decorated with smiles”. So the American author, J. Allen Harrison, once declared. This is definitely not an opinion shared by the “British Christmas Tree Growers Association” (BCTGA). Their website emphasises that the trees supplied by their 350 members are “real”, “environmentally sound”, that “no long-haul transportation is involved” and that they all subscribe to a Code of Conduct which “ensures their crops are sustainable and do not harm the local wildlife. Furthermore (they say), “every acre of Christmas trees grown produces the daily oxygen for 16 people and a hectare absorbs six tonnes of carbon dioxide each year”.

All this – the BCTGA points out – is in stark contrast to artificial trees, most of which “are made of metal and plastics, typically PVC (polyvinyl chloride, a petroleum-based plastic)”, are manufactured in and transported from the Far East (thus adding to carbon emissions) and are ‘non-biodegradable’, so will remain for centuries in landfills if thrown away. The “Christmas Pictures” blogspot agrees with the BCTGA, noting also that “Production of artificial trees in China and elsewhere is done in sweatshop conditions without health concern for the workers, who are exposed to dangerous chemicals” and that the manufacturers, “in order to make the PVC needles on artificial trees more ‘malleable’, use lead and other potentially hazardous additives”.

According to the BCTGA, approximately eight million real Christmas trees are sold in the UK every year – only 5% of which are imported from abroad. The “most popular height is 6ft” (which takes 10-12 years to grow from seedling) and the preferred type is “the Nordmann Fir, due to its excellent needle retention and beautiful soft foliage”. The winner of this year’s BCTGA “Champion Christmas Tree Grower ” competition (Andrew Ingram of the “Tree Barn”, Watlington in Oxfordshire) on 6th December delivered the Christmas tree now standing outside the Prime Minister’s official residence at 10 Downing Street. The wreath on the front door was supplied by Will & Ella Miles from Northamptonshire, who won the BCTGA’s “Champion Wreath 2013” title.

A survey conducted by the “Which” consumer organisation, however, has indicated that the sales of real Christmas trees are in decline: “Around two-thirds of us now opt for an artificial tree”. “Which” attributes this trend to the fact that “Realistic artificial trees have improved hugely in the past few years and it can be difficult to distinguish the best ones from the genuine thing. Many even bear the name of the type of tree they mimic – for example “Norway Spruce” or “English Pine”. They usually consist of sections “that slot easily together”, the “quality ones” are sold with a guarantee and  “should last for 10-15 years”. Other advantages are that they don’t have to be recycled as they can be used year after year, there’s “no needle mess”, the branches on some models are “adjustable” and little care or maintenance is required. The disadvantages (in addition to the environmental factors) are that there’s “no pine smell”, not all of them look realistic and “they can be very expensive”.

The Gardening Deputy Editor for “Which” (Veronica Peerless) has expressed regret that the “Christmas ritual of choosing a real tree, wrestling it into the car, dragging it through the house, giving it pride of place in the living room, breathing in the pine scent and vacuuming up the needles afterwards is becoming a thing of the past”. She “can’t abide fake plants of any kind. It’s like we’re turning our backs on nature”. Similarly, her colleague, Ceri Thomas: “You can’t beat the smell of a real tree. Buy locally (she recommends) as your tree won’t have travelled miles to get to you and should have been freshly cut”.

Current prices certainly seem to support the contention by “Which” that artificial trees are generally more expensive than real ones. Street vendors have been retailing the “genuine thing” for between £25 for a small one in a pot and £60-£80 for a 6ft version (plus extra for the stand). Marks & Spencer have been offering (among others) a “3ft Pre-Lit Wall Mounted Tree” for £25, a “6ft Pre-Lit Highland Tree” for £99.0p and a “6ft Woodland Tree with Artificial Snow” for £125. At John Lewis, prices have varied from £45 for a “Green 4ft Fireside Mixed Tip Christmas Tree” to £500 for a “Green 7.5ft Pre-Lit Dual Light Christmas Tree”.

Meanwhile, IKEA – as the “London Evening Standard” reported on 10th December – has upset all of them and “triggered a price war” by marketing  6ft Christmas trees for only £25. As  purchasers have been given a “£20 discount voucher”, in practice they have only had to pay £5. The garden centres (average charge: “£40-£50” for Christmas trees”) have thus been “in danger of losing a huge amount of their trade” to IKEA, whose fierce promotion drive “is designed to drum up trade before Christmas and in its New Year sale”.

What will happen to all these Christmas trees after the decorations are taken down on 6th January? The artificial ones will go back into the cupboard or attic until next December. They can’t be incinerated as that would release dioxins and carcinogens into the atmosphere. Most local authorities in the UK now arrange “special collection days” between 2nd-15th January for real trees and other recyclable material.  The tree “should be left outside the property but not block the pavement. If it’s more than 3 metres long, it should be cut into small pieces. All decorations must be removed”.

If you’re not sure whether something (for example, gift wrapping) is recyclable, you are advised by Swindon Council to do the “Scrunch Test”: If you can “crumple it in your hand, it’s foil and so recyclable. If it expands again, it has plastic in it, so should be included with your general waste”.

Filed under: General, Society | Posted on December 17th, 2013 by Colin D Gordon

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