Thursday, 11 December 2014

Christmas trees

My favourite day of the year is, in our family, known as "tree day". This is the day in December when we would put up our Christmas tree and would be considered the beginning of Christmas in our home. Since Ian and I bought a home of our own this tradition has evolved to include a trip out in the morning to choose and buy a tree. We also go for a walk in a local wood to collect greenery, although not necessarily on "tree day" itself.

After buying our tree we come home and put on the Christmas music - usually Andy Williams and Michael Buble and then begin to decorate the tree whist eating mince pies and chocolates. I adore the transformation that takes place, when the house becomes filled with fairy lights, candles and greenery.

As a child my best friend and I often discussed the ethics of having a "real tree" at Christmas. This year I've decided to investigate the subject a little more and also to find out a bit more about artificial Christmas trees.

HOW MANY REAL TREES?

Around 8 million real Christmas trees are sold in Great Britain during the Christmas season. In Europe (including the UK) the demand is approximately 50 million trees, with a further 35-40 million sold in the US each year. I haven't been able to find any figures for other parts of the world, but I'm guessing that live trees are not as popular in warmer and/or poorer parts of the world.

As with any other farmed crop, Christmas trees are only planted with harvesting in mind, so if everyone were to stop buying live Christmas trees (whether they replaced them with artificial ones or not), fewer trees would be grown. It's difficult to understand the impacts of this as whilst most of the places that Christmas trees are grown would originally have been forested, the forests would not necessarily have consisted of the same species or even of conifers. The trees would also have existed in a balance with other plants and animals which are largely absent from the intensively farmed Christmas tree farms.

WHAT IF WE DIDN'T GROW ANY MORE REAL TREES?

If real trees were no longer sold then I suspect it's unlikely that Christmas tree farms would be replaced with other trees, so less carbon would be removed from the atmosphere. Estimates are that there are 3.8 billion trees in Great Britain and 400 billion trees worldwide. The following numbers are just my estimate and are probably wildly out due to a lack of information, but I'm guessing that to satisfy demand in Great Britain (assuming that none of our Christmas trees were imported) would require a minimum of 64 million Christmas trees to be planted at any one time (trees being harvested, on average, at an age of 8 years). This would be around 1.7 % of our total trees. However, I've also read that each tree harvested is replaced by three more so this may be a significant underestimate.

The majority of Christmas trees are sprayed with chemicals. Unfortunately I can't find much information on this on the web, but I assume that whatever they're sprayed with is detrimental for the soil and local water systems as well as for wildlife.

Without knowing more about the chemicals used on Christmas tree farms it's hard to weigh up the impacts of the farms, but it is entirely possible that whatever would replace the tree farms (farming of shorter-lived crops, industry, housing...) would be even worse for the environment.

Personally my feeling is that fewer trees in Britain would be a 'bad thing'.

WHERE DO THEY COME FROM?

Christmas trees are grown from seed, but I hadn't anticipated the problems that begin with this very first step - seed collection. From the Guardian website:

"According to the Fair Tree project, founded by Danish tree producer Marianne Bols and Teresa Owen of fairwindonline.com, 90% of seeds from the Nordmann Fir (5m are sold in the UK each year) hail from Georgia's natural forest, as its seeds cannot be farmed. Each spring 20 tonnes of these seeds are planted by European nurseries, especially in Britain. But danger and corruption are endemic to the supply chain. Cone pickers in Georgia are paid so little that they cannot support their families. They scale 30m trees to retrieve the cones, without insurance or safety equipment. Death and serious injury are common.

Bols has fought to secure a licence from the Georgian government to source her own seeds. Her project pays pickers a fair wage, trains them and uses safety equipment. They're insured and a proportion of the tree sales goes into community projects."

I haven't been able to find much information on the source of seeds for other species of Christmas tree, but both the noble and fraser firs are native to the US, so they might be a more ethical species of tree to buy. Norway Spruce, are of course native to Norway, but also to Eastern Europe so may have similar issues to the Nordmann fir.

Buying locally grown trees will reduce your carbon footprint. Our options for buying a live Christmas tree include buying from the nearest garden centre (Otter Nurseries), B&Q, Haldon Forest Christmas Tree Centre or Exe Valley Christmas trees. The latter both sell locally grown trees, but I'm not sure where the others get theirs. Haldon Forest Christmas Tree Centre get all their trees from Dartmoor Christmas Tree Farm and of our local suppliers they provide the most information. They have about 80,000 to 90,000 Christmas trees on their 20 acre farm and for every tree they harvest they plant at least one more tree. Unfortunately they don't grow organic trees. In fact, according to the Soil Association website our nearest supplier of organic Christmas trees is 174 miles away (by road) in Lampeter, Wales.

POTTED TREES
 
We've never had a potted Christmas tree and have always been concerned that it wouldn't like being indoors for a month every year. We also don't have much space for a potted tree in the garden as they're bound to get big quite quickly.

ARTIFICIAL TREES

In Britain, the trend is moving away from buying real trees to artificial ones. Artificial trees are often seen as a more eco-friendly alternative, but most are produced in China and, even ignoring issues relating to working conditions, will have travelled a very long way. The old artificial trees had foliage very similar to tinsel, but the modern ones are remarkably realistic and made from a different type of plastic. I've only enquired about one source of these trees and to my disappointment they were neither made from recycled plastic nor produced in the EU.

An artificial tree is supposed to last many years and we have family members who've had their trees for decades, but apparently most are discarded after only a few years and soon end up in landfill. Perhaps the more realistic ones, being ten times the price, will be less likely to be discarded so soon.


In the future we would love to grow our own real Christmas trees (organically of course) and either cut them down or bring them indoors in a pot for the festive period. Until then I suspect we'll be sticking with a locally grown real tree, although I'd much prefer to find a source of organic trees.

4 comments:

  1. That was a fascinating read Helen. I solve the problem by not having a tree at all.

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    1. It's a good solution GB. I just feel that a Christmas tree is one of a few things that I can't live without. I wonder what else would be on my "can't live without" list. I shall have to think about that.

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  2. Excellent and thoughtful end to your blogging I followed your blog with great interest. Thanks for all of the information and entertainment!
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