Real Christmas tree better for environment

CHRISTMAS HAUL: Joshua Ongun, 4, from Brooklyn, Wellington, drags his family's Christmas tree to the car. He had been counting down the days.
CHRISTMAS HAUL: Joshua Ongun, 4, from Brooklyn, Wellington, drags his family's Christmas tree to the car. He had been counting down the days.

Want a Christmas tree, but unsure if chopping down a real tree or shelling out for a plastic fantastic is better for the environment?

Think natural, not plastic, environmentalists say. If you really want to do your bit to avert global warming this Christmas, use a growing tree, rather than one that's been taken to with an axe.

While plastic trees last longer and can be hauled out every festive season, most have to be shipped in from Asia and are made of environmentally unfriendly substances.

Eventually they wind up in landfills, where they don't decompose.

Real trees are recyclable and biodegradable, and forests grow back, making them an important part of the fight against global warming, as trees take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and release clean oxygen.

And so, New Zealanders should consider climate change when shopping for a Christmas tree, Green Party MP Catherine Delahunty told NZPA.

She was all for natural Christmas trees, especially in light of the international climate change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Plastic trees were toxic for the environment and sent the wrong message to children, she said.

Don't stop at one natural tree -- do your bit for the environment and get two, she said.

Eco-friendly families should get a small fir tree for the living room, and plant a native tree as a holiday tradition, she said.

"This way we're teaching our children that for every tree you take, you make it sustainable."

She was looking forward to planting a hebe with her one-year-old grandson.

But New Zealand consumers still like an artificial tree -- they're perfect shaped, don't moult or die, easy to erect, and free of sticky sap.

The Warehouse general manager Nick Tuck told NZPA artificial trees were a "key driver" of its Christmas department, with sales for 2009 in keeping with previous years.

While the The Warehouse does not stock live trees, it was considering it for next year, he said.

Ecologist Kevin Hackwell of Forest & Bird said fresh pine seedlings are "better every which way you look at it".

"Artificial trees are more than just manufacturing: to make them you have to extract fossil fuels from the Middle East, then ship those to China, then they're made with PVC which is a petroleum byproduct - and then it's all shipped here.

"With a young tree, it's just part of the natural carbon cycle."

But shoppers should not be fooled, he said: freshly cut seedlings will not necessarily reduce your carbon footprint, since trees release their carbon stores as they decompose.

Still, there are other ways to green your evergreen -- Mr Hackwell recommended growing a family tree over several years or seeking out conservation groups which sell "wildling" pines: trees that have been found in areas where they disturb native vegetation.

But ultimately, he said, "it's not a huge deal in the scheme of things: if you buy a real tree but then take your family on a trip to Fiji, those are the things that are worth thinking about."

He said although some people claimed artificial trees lasted a lifetime, most were thrown away within nine years and remained in landfill sites for centuries.

"For me, the choice isn't real or artificial, but whether to buy a cut tree or one that's growing in a pot, which I can plant outside after the holidays."