Real Christmas trees more sustainable than fakes, forestry professor says


An artificial Christmas tree would have to be used for 20 years before its carbon footprint matches that of a farmed tree, according to a forestry professor at the University of B.C.

Steve Mitchell said most artificial trees are kept only six years before fashions change and owners throw them out. Most end their life in a landfill.

"Artificial trees need to be kept for 20 years for the carbon emissions to be equivalent to using natural trees," Mitchell said, referring to a life cycle study done in 2009 by Ellipsos, a Montreal-based sustainable consulting company.

People can choose a wild tree and either a farmed cut tree or a farmed living tree. Of all the options, the most sustainable is a wild tree, he said.

Since wild trees aren't fertilized or groomed like farmed trees, the only fossil fuels used in turning them into products comes from the energy used in transporting them to the consumer, he said.

In B.C., the greatest source for wild trees is under BC Hydro transmission lines or along forest road rights-of-way. There is no charge for a permit to cut Christmas trees for personal use on Crown land. They're available for most districts from the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. But no trees can be cut in the Chilliwack District which includes Metro Vancouver and stretches from Bowen Island to Manning Park and from the U.S. border to Boston Bar.

Mitchell said one interesting technique that's developed in the Kootenays are Christmas trees grown on Douglas fir stumps that have several branches growing on them.

"They'll train one as a (Christmas) tree, let the others survive," he said. "Once the branch is trained as a tree - they might have to do a bit of pruning - they'll cut that tree at maturity. They can get two or three trees from a single stump."

He said wild trees can be purchased on Christmas tree lots. Most will come from southeast-ern B.C. where it is drier and where they grow slowly. They have a naturally dense form, he said, and it takes 15 to 20 years to get to two metres in height.

Farmed trees don't achieve a conical shape by accident. They're pruned and fertilized. They can be sprayed with herbicide to control insects. Since shipping farmed trees to the home accounts for about 50 per cent of carbon emissions for these trees, the closer the Christmas tree farm is to the consumer, the less fuel will be used, Mitchell said. "I'm not sure who ordained that Christmas trees have to be perfect cones," he said. "I'm personally much more tolerant of defects. I have a little bit of Charlie Brown in me."

There are also live Christmas trees that come with the root ball. Most start out as farmed trees, he said, and end up after Christmas in the garden. A Christmas tree rental service has started in Vancouver that delivers a live tree to a home for three weeks and then picks it up and takes care of it for the rest of the year. Evergrow Live Tree Rentals is already sold out for Christmas 2012.

Mitchell likes the smell of a real tree and grows his own. This year, he'll be decorating a two-metre tall pine tree in his Point Grey home that he grew on a four-hectare property he owns on Vancouver Island.