Which is Greener a Real or Artificial Christmas Tree?

Decorated Artificial Christmas Tree with Wrapped PackagesA whopping 94 million or 78% of all U.S. households will celebrate the 2014 holidays with a Christmas tree of which 8 out of 10 will be artificial trees. 1 Thousands or perhaps millions of additional trees will be displayed in offices, retail stores, factories, restaurants, and public spaces and buildings across the country.

I am a fan of real Christmas trees but over the past few years, I have been wondering if an artificial tree would be more environmentally friendly or if we should forgo a tree altogether. This year, before heading off to buy a Christmas tree, I decided to do some research.

Real vs. Artificial Christmas Trees – Environmental Issues and Benefits

Interestingly, the industry websites and life cycle assessment reports I reviewed did not include the environmental impacts of their inputs, for instance, manufacturing pesticides for real trees or extracting materials and manufacturing plastic and steel feedstock for artificial trees.

Real Christmas Trees

Aerial View of Christmas Tree Farm - Photo: National Christmas Tree Association

Two of the environmental issues associated with real Christmas trees are:

Pesticides – can harm people (especially those who dispense them), kill surrounding wildlife and beneficial insects, and pollute streams and rivers. Tree farms often grow one specific type of tree (e.g. noble fir) or grow the same type over large areas. Just like with food monocrops, diseases and pests can spread quickly and damage or wipe out entire crops, which leads to increasing pesticide use, pests developing resistance, using more powerful pesticides, etc.

Transportation – in 2012, of the 17.3 million Christmas trees cut for sale in the U.S., over 78% were grown in four states: Oregon (37%), North Carolina (25%), Michigan (10%), and Pennsylvania (6%) 2. Each year, diesel semi-trucks emit tons of carbon pollution as they crisscross the country delivering trees to stores and tree lots in every state. Customers add to their tree’s carbon footprint by driving to and from tree lots and stores.

Environmental benefits of real Christmas trees include:

Carbon Sequestration and Oxygen Generation – trees store carbon and produce oxygen.

Renewable Resource – a real Christmas tree is ‘made’ from a tree, which is a renewable resource. Typically, growers plant one to three seedlings for every tree cut down. 3

Recycling – a real Christmas tree is a cradle-to-cradle product meaning that at the end of its useful life gracing your living room or office; it can be recycled and become an input for a new product. For example, chipping trees into mulch and spreading it in yards or on farms nourishes soil for growing new plants, crops, or even Christmas trees.

Artificial Christmas Trees

Artificial Christmas Tree Store Display

Three of the environmental issues associated with artificial Christmas trees are:

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) – many parts of an artificial Christmas tree are made of PVC, a plastic made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource. Vinyl in PVC outgases toxic fumes and can contaminate the plastic recycling stream.

Transportation – according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, 80% of the artificial trees bought in the U.S. are manufactured in China. 3, 4 Trees are packed in containers and shipped overseas via cargo ships burning enormous amounts of fossil fuel and contributing to air and water pollution. Upon arrival, trees are transported to online store warehouses and retail stores all over the country using the same diesel-powered trucks that deliver real Christmas trees. Fortunately, after the first year, customers who reuse their trees have zero travel emissions.

Waste – an artificial tree is a cradle-to-grave product, meaning that after its useful life it cannot be recycled into an input for a new product and thus becomes waste. Technically; PVC is recyclable, however recycling it is a difficult and costly process. Regardless, it is impossible to separate the materials that make up an artificial Christmas tree so 100% of discarded trees end up in landfills.

I have not found any article or report that states artificial Christmas trees are good for the environment, yet they do have one potential benefit, reuse.

Reuse – there is no consensus on how many years an artificial Christmas tree must be reused for its environmental impact to break even with or be better than a real tree, the longer the better. The American Christmas Tree Association recommends reusing an artificial tree for at least 9 years. 5 I wonder how many artificial trees are reused for a decade or longer.

The Bottom Line

Both real and artificial trees share a common environmental issue, which is transportation. Although production and use of pesticides on real trees is a concern, it is likely far outweighed by the environmental damage associated with extracting materials and manufacturing inputs for artificial trees. Real and artificial trees can both end up in a landfill, but only the real tree can be recycled.

Cut Christmas Trees Loaded on Trucks - Photo: National Christmas Tree Association

Of course, skipping a tree is the greenest choice, but Christmas trees are traditional and beautiful so that seems too drastic, at least for now. I think the environmental impact of extracting materials and manufacturing the steel and plastic used to make artificial trees tips the green scale in favor of real trees.

We can make our real or artificial Christmas tree purchase more environmentally friendly by keeping the following three things in mind.

  1. Real tree buyers do not buy a flocked tree because it cannot be recycled, select a tree stand built to last, and make sure your tree gets recycled after the holidays.
  2. Artificial tree buyers select a tree that is well made, and one you really like and are willing to use for at least a decade, preferably longer.
  3. Real and artificial tree buyers shop close to home.

This year, we continued our family tradition of real Christmas trees. We bought our tree at a nursery about 1 ½  miles from our house and ran another errand on the way. Our tree stand is in its third decade. After the holidays, our tree will be recycled in our yard with trees from other Christmases past.

During my research, I was pleased to discover that organically grown and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified Christmas trees do exist. They represent a tiny fraction of the Christmas tree market and are not available where I live, but it is something to aspire to in years to come.

A Tree for a Tree

Real and artificial Christmas tree enthusiasts, I propose a new holiday tradition, a tree for a tree. Each year we buy a real or artificial tree or put up an existing artificial tree, let’s plant a new tree in our yard, a park, or a forest.

Noble Fir Tree Branches with Needles - Photo: National Christmas Tree Association

I am planting a tiny cypress seedling rescued from a street median in our yard.

Nurseries offer tree seedlings and trees in a variety of sizes and price ranges so you are sure to find something to fit your yard or patio and your wallet. If you do not have a place to plant a tree or place a potted tree, type “plant a tree” in your web browser to locate an organization that will happily plant a tree on your behalf for a small donation.

Imagine planting 94 million plus trees every year! What a terrific gift for the Earth and everyone living on it.

Happy Holidays.

Related Posts

References

  1. American Christmas Tree Association – Numbers Don’t Lie–Christmas Trees Remain the Centerpiece of U.S. Holiday Celebrations, December 11, 2014
  2. National Christmas Tree Association – States by Total Trees Harvested (based on data from USDA 2012 Census of Agriculture)
  3. National Christmas Tree Association – Quick Tree Facts
  4. U.S. Census Bureau – Facts for Features: The 2012 Holiday Season
  5. American Christmas Tree Association – Choosing an Artificial or Real Christmas Tree? — Either Way, Both are Green (link not valid as of September 2016)

Resources

Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information, spark conversation, and convince people to take action to keep earth habitable for all. She believes our individual actions do matter—it all adds up.

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