Green Millions Is it the real thing

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Going green: Are fake Christmas trees more eco-friendly than the real thing?

A real tree needs to be grown and chopped down, while a plastic one can be re-used year after year – so which one is actually greener?

By Erin Munro, University of Melbourne

’Tis the season when many of us who celebrate Christmas ponder the merits of buying a real or artificial tree to decorate our home.

For many Australians, investing in a fake Christmas tree might appear to be a more eco-friendly approach; after all, they can be used year after year and don’t involve cutting down vegetation.

But according to the experts, when it comes to real versus plastic, the genuine article is greener in more ways than one.

In Australia, Christmas trees are farmed specifically each year and replanted with seedlings. Picture: Pixabay

The production of real trees

The argument against buying real Christmas trees is that it necessitates chopping down living plants every year; however, in Australia, Christmas trees are primarily a species called Pinus radiata that are farmed specifically. Those cut down each year are replaced by new seedlings, and actually do plenty of environmental good during their lifetime.

Dr Chris Weston, an ecosystem ecologist who researches forest net productivity, nutrient and carbon cycles, says it’s “not surprising” some people believe artificial trees are preferable to real ones, but stresses that Christmas tree farming provides numerous environmental benefits.

How a numbers man and a botanist are helping business go green

“We’re not destroying native vegetation to grow Christmas trees. We’re putting them in on already cleared land for agricultural plantation purposes,” says Dr Weston, from the University of Melbourne’s School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences.

“Australia has 2 million hectares of tree plantations that are planted in kind of an industrial style, plus we have several hundred thousand hectares of farmed forest. But of that 2 million hectares, around 700,000 hectares is Pinus radiata, and Pinus radiata is the major softwood timber or species that’s planted for timber in Australia.

“So, really, Christmas trees are like mini Pinus radiata that are grown for their Christmas value rather than allowing them to grow into big trees for their timber value.”

Plant hormones are applied in low concentrations to increase the tree branches, create denser needle foliage and a more conical shape.

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The environmental benefits

As a researcher of carbon cycles, Dr Weston says trees are hugely beneficial because of how they convert carbon dioxide into organic matter through photosynthesis, thereby removing it from the atmosphere.

This process is called “carbon fixation”. Carbon fixed into organic matter isn’t released back into the atmosphere until the wood is burnt or decays.

Fake Christmas trees are generally made of polyvinyl chloride, commonly known as PVC. Picture: Pixabay

“This could be years, decades, or even longer,” Dr Weston explains. “They also create organic matter that’s put into the soil and gives life to the soil.”

Additionally, growing Christmas trees helps filter the air, helping to remove aerosols, and provide habitats for insects and birds. And because they’re grown locally, they have potentially a smaller carbon footprint, and provide local agricultural jobs. By buying from a nearby grower, nursery or distributor, customers can minimise their ‘Christmas tree kilometres’, and support local industry.

Last, but not least, they’re 100 per cent recyclable and biodegradable.

Seeds of hope lie in forests

“I like to say we can ‘re-use’ them,” says Dr Weston. “You could take the needles off by running your hand along the branch and add them as compost to your garden. You could cut the branches up and bury them in the back garden to sequester carbon. It lives on and has other uses.”

For those without gardens, tree recycling and mulching programs are another green way to dispose of trees, and some Christmas tree farms invite customers to return trees to be recycled post-December 25.

The alternative

Professor Barbara Ozarska, also from Melbourne University’s School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, says while real trees are a renewable resource, fake Christmas trees are generally made of polyvinyl chloride (commonly known as PVC), a non-recyclable plastic that produces carcinogens during production.

“The artificial Christmas trees are both non-renewable and polluting,” she says. “Also, in order to actually create the needles, lead is often times used – and lead can have a number of significant negative health effects, including kidney, neurological, and reproductive system damage.”

Because most artificial trees are made in China, they have a greater distance to travel, and subsequently a significantly larger carbon footprint than home-grown Pinus radiata.

Most fake Christmas trees have a significantly larger carbon footprint than a real tree. Picture: Miriam Preis/imagebank.sweden.se

And while people might think they’re doing the planet a favour by purchasing a tree that can be used over and over, a 2009 study by Canadian consultancy firm Ellipsos – which took into account the resources expended and greenhouse gas emissions in producing artificial trees, plus human health ramifications – concluded a fake tree would need to be used for more than 20 years to be more sustainable than a natural one.

“The short answer is that artificial trees actually do more harm to the environment than cutting natural trees grown on farms,” adds Professor Ozarska.

The thin green line

A woody meadow in the heart of the city

All in all, natural trees are the clear pick for consumers keen to make sustainable choices. And on top of having environmental advantages, they “provide an opportunity for education and experience”, says Dr Weston.

“It gives the family the opportunity to talk about the value of trees, and more generally to be a tool for education.

“I think the only drawback, once you get them into the house, is they’re a little bit more messy. They will tend to dry out and lose their foliage, lose their needles, but I can’t think of any real negatives for them. I can only think of positives.”

Banner image: Pixabay

First published on 20 December 2020 in Go Figure

Перевод песни The real thing (Lisa Stansfield)

The real thing

Что-то настоящее

Never mind the stars in the sky
Never mind the when and the why
Got a feeling higher than high
This is the real thing

No more living in shame
And I’m not gonna run or gonna hide away
No more telling all those lies
It’s been too long

No more living in chains
No, I don’t give a damn what the people say
There’s no use holding back desire
We’ve burnt our fingers now let’s jump into the flames

Never mind the stars in the sky
Never mind the when and the why
Got a feeling higher than high
This is the real thing
Never mind the rain and the storm
We’ll keep each other warm
We got something stronger than strong
This is the real thing

Gonna walk out hand in hand
So let them criticise ‘cos they don’t understand
We’ve got nothing to hide
It’s just love

I’ve had enough of shy
So let’s go out and show them what we have inside
There’s no use holding back desire
We’ve burnt our fingers now let’s jump into tho fire

Never mind the stars in the sky
Never mind the when and the why
Got a feeling higher than high
This is the real thing
Never mind the rain and the storm
We’ll keep each other warm
We got something stronger than strong
This is the real thing

Never mind what people may say
They can’t take this away
Let them try, I say hey
This is the real thing

Неважно, что написано судьбой
Неважно, когда и почему
Чувствую, что это выше самой выси,
Это что-то настоящее

Хватит жить, испытывая стыд,
Я больше не стану бежать и прятаться
Хватит продолжать лгать,
Это длилось слишком долго

Больше не буду жить скованной, будто цепями
Мне все равно, что скажут люди
Не имеет смысла сдерживать свои чувства
Мы уже обожгли пальцы, так давай прыгнем в это пламя

Неважно, что написано судьбой
Неважно, когда и почему
Чувствую, что это выше самой выси,
Это настоящее
Неважно, дождь или шторм,
Мы согреем друг друга
Между нами что-то сильнее самой силы,
Что-то настоящее

Мы уйдём, рука в руке
Пусть они осуждают, потому что они не понимают
Нам нечего скрывать,
Это просто любовь

Мне надоело стесняться
Давай покажем всем, что мы чувствуем
Не имеет смысла скрывать свои желания
Мы уже опалили пальцы, так давай прыгнем в огонь

Неважно, что написано судьбой
Неважно, когда и почему
Чувствую, что это выше самой выси,
Это настоящее
Неважно, дождь или шторм,
Мы согреем друг друга
Между нами что-то сильнее самой силы,
Что-то настоящее

Неважно, что они скажут
Они не смогут у нас это отнять
Они продолжают пытаться, но я говорю,
Это настоящее чувство

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