OK, so maybe the title of this post isn’t entirely appropriate.  In this case, “paper” is referring to wood, i.e., trees.  And plastic is referring to, well, yeah, plastic.  And the seasonally-appropriate subject for this latest edition of the Drought Diaries is Christmas trees.

So, as you decorate for your winter holidays, you’re probably putting up a tree: it’s a tradition going back hundreds of years: some histories even trace it back to before the birth of our nation. 

Most households face two options: buy a real tree, or a plastic tree.  So as you set about decorating your home, you can make a water-conscious decision.

A real tree grows for 4 or 5 years and needs about one inch of water per day while it’s growing (that’s about 20% of a gallon per day).  It will be cut down weeks before it reaches your home, and during those couple of weeks, it will continue to drink about a quart a day.    All in all, an individual Christmas tree will use around 300-350 gallons before it’s cut down, and depending on how fresh your tree is when you buy it and whether you continue to water it, another 2-5 gallons after it’s cut down.  We’ll convert that into liters for comparison’s sake, and we’re looking at around 1200 liters.  All in all, that’s not bad (that tree probably uses less virtual water than you consume in an average dinner), but let’s see if we can do better, shall we?

Plastic trees are made of PVC.  A kilogram of PVC uses less than 15 liters of water to produce. An average plastic tree weighs 35 kg, so your total virtual water for the manufacture of the plastic is 525 liters.  This is far less than that to produce the real tree, but there’s another added bonus of the plastic tree: this is a rare instance where the plastic option is the reusable option.  So, if you buy a plastic Christmas tree and use it for five years, that’s a five-fold increase in your virtual water savings.

Of course, there are other environmental factors at play.  Production of plastic creates lots of pollution, and most artificial trees are produced in China, meaning gasoline must be used for the transportation to your home.  Finally, the large tree farms to grow Christmas trees help offset global warming as the trees clean the air.   In short, there are many environmental factors to consider, but strictly in terms of water consumption, the artificial trees win, hands-down.

Of course, there is another option.  You could buy a Christmas tree that’s still alive, and plant it in your yard after the holiday season is over.  If you’re willing to go non-traditional and go with a drought-resistant tree  like the China fir (which looks plenty Christmas-y to this writer) , or if you use greywater gardening, you can have your cake and eat it too- er, have your tree and save water, too.