Student Intern Column: Christmas Trees Through a Sustainability Lens

“On Christmas Tree Farm” by Flickr user Slavik Volinsky, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
“On Christmas Tree Farm” by Flickr user Slavik Volinsky, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Norma Behrend-Martinez is a sophomore double majoring in Journalism and Environmental Studies. Brought up on Gene Roddenberry, Norma values differences in ideas and hopes to spread discussion on issues as an environmental journalist. She began interning at the Office of Sustainability in the summer of 2019 as part of the Communications and Green Office teams. During her free time, she can be found analyzing books and movies, jamming to classic rock, and cooking Hispanic food.

Christmas trees au naturel 

It’s the week before Christmas and many families across the nation are readying themselves to celebrate around a tree. But the question is, what kind of tree should you buy? Real or plastic?

Wisconsin is one of the top Christmas tree-growing states, so those of us who purchase real trees in the state should be aware of the impacts of Christmas tree farming before we make our decision. Those impacts include pesticide use, migrant labor, and tree waste.

The Christmas tree industry sells about 30 million trees in the U.S. every year. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, there are around 350 million trees actively growing in the U.S. On average, trees take about 7 years to reach the ideal height of 6-7 ft, at which point workers harvest them.

There are benefits of Christmas tree farms, according to North Carolina State professor Jill Sidebottom. Sidebottom states: “The diversity of ground covers around trees provide pollen, nectar, support insects which in turn are food, and provide seeds and forage. It is a good habitat for mice and rabbits and ground dwelling birds such as grouse and quail.”

However, Sidebottom neglects to mention the effects that pesticides may have on the workers and the local population.

Chlorpyrifos, a pesticide used on nut trees, broccoli, corn, and Christmas trees, can cause various health issues. According to the EPA, Chlorpyrifos has been produced since 1965, but was banned from household use in 2000 and farmers have become increasingly restricted with its use. In 2017, the federal government denied a ban on Chlorpyrifos despite recent evidence that it causes neurological damage during brain development. For example, the EPA states that “(Chlorpyrifos) can overstimulate the nervous system causing nausea, dizziness, confusion, and at very high exposures (e.g., accidents or major spills), respiratory paralysis and death.” The EPA also has strict instructions on how workers should handle the pesticide, including wearing chemical resistant clothing and restricting entry to the fields for five days after Chlorpyrifos has been applied.

Undergraduate students help sell conifer trees and load them atop customers' cars during the UW-Madison Forestry Club's annual Christmas tree sale at the Stock Pavilion at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Dec. 4, 2015. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)
Undergraduate students help to sell conifer trees during the UW-Madison Forestry Club’s annual Christmas tree sale at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

Then there is the issue of the workforce at Christmas tree farms. The New American Economy Coalition found that the number of U.S. farmhands dropped by 20% between the years of 2002 to 2014, so many farmers employ legal and illegal migrant workers in order to harvest Christmas trees. And hiring legal migrants is not easy. The Los Angeles Times interviewed a North Carolinian farmer name Barr, reporting that  Barr “spends $1,000 per worker for visas, consulate fees and transportation to North Carolina. He’s required to pay for their housing, and he estimates he has spent more than $80,000 building a house on his property, plus $36,000 to buy a mobile home and $5,000 a year to rent an apartment for the 48 workers he employs during the growing season.” The L.A. Times also notes that “The government makes him pay them $9.68 an hour.”

Despite these regulations, migrant workers still face a range of issues. According to Wake Forest University professor Thomas Arcury, “Enforcement of migrant housing regulations is limited. For example, more than 25% of migrant camps violate regulations for sufficient laundry facility and bedroom space, and 1 in 5 camps has signs of rodent infestation.” Arcury continues, “Farmworker housing exposes workers and their families to toxicants, including lead and pesticides; to allergens, including mold, mildew, and insect and rodent dander; to electrical and structural hazards; and to crowded conditions.”

What about artificial trees?

The alternative to real Christmas trees are manufactured trees made of plastic and other materials. According to USA Today, sales of artificial trees doubled from 2004 to 2017. On the plus side, the average artificial tree will last anywhere around 7 to 12 years depending on the quality of its lights and the tolerance of its owner.

"Small artificial Christmas tree" by Flickr user Your Best Digs.
“Small artificial Christmas tree” by Flickr user Your Best Digs.

Yet artificial trees are not biodegradable, unlike real ones. In addition, the type of plastic used to make most plastic trees is PVC. PVC, or Polyvinyl chloride, is commonly found in plastic piping and old LP records. It is labeled with the number 3 recycling code, but according to EcoMENA, an environmental awareness non-profit organization, PVC is hard to recycle due to its high chlorine ratio of 56% of the item’s weight.

PVC also contains heavy metals, including lead. Lead is often used in PVC in order to stabilize the polymer. This means that lead dust particles can rub off from the plastics over time. “Lead is particularly dangerous to children because their growing bodies absorb more lead than adults do and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead,” the EPA warns. “Babies and young children can also be more highly exposed to lead because they often put their hands and other objects that can have lead from dust or soil on them into their mouths.”

According to the RTK Environmental Group, a study from the University of North Carolina – Asheville found that three out of four artificial trees contain lead.

Making the choice

After reading this article, you may feel like your only two Christmas tree options either require pesticides or cause lead poisoning. Of course, some people choose neither of these options and buy a small pine tree in a pot instead. Such trees can be grown indoors or transplanted in the spring to an outdoor location.

Finding a tree farm that does not use pesticides and that employs its workers with care is another option. If you are unsure of those parameters, it may be useful to know that Chlorpyrifos is generally sprayed on the trees during the summer. So, by the time you bring your real tree into your house, the pesticide should be gone.

For me, I chose to put up a real Christmas tree. I find I can make an impact on the social aspect of the Christmas tree industry by using my vote to support leaders whose policies help local farmhands. Sadly, though, no amount of political activism can get rid of the plastic toxins that is already in our landfills.

So there you have it, which side are you on? Have a Merry Christmas, and may your Christmas tree worries be gone!