Environmental ROI of Christmas Trees

christmas-trees-absorb-methane-greenhouse-gas-2As you start planning this Christmas holiday season, have you been wrestling with that consumer dilemma of trying to figure out which tree purchase option is better for your carbon footprint? Which purchase option generates the least CO2?

Your carbon footprint is the cumulative CO2 that you kick out into the Earth’s atmosphere with every consumer purchase decision.

This Christmas tree shopping season, you basically have three purchase options: (1) the traditional, single-use picked up from a nearby vendor; or (2) the farm-raised, cut-your-own Christmas tree from some far flung tree farm; or (3) the factory produced multi-year artificial Christmas tree?

In terms of your carbon footprint and your overall environmental impact, fretting over this purchase decision is not the most meaningful way to reduce your carbon footprint. As part of the big picture, it’s a relatively small compared to other readily available more impactful options. Nevertheless it is one small way to continually reduce the amount of CO2 you and your family unconsciously launch into the atmosphere.

But since you’re wondering, here are a few “real” facts to make your holiday consumerism a little more environmentally friendly.

Overall, your holiday tree decision impacts maybe 0.01% of your annual carbon footprint. Alternatively, one less airplane trip; or one less SUV trip to the store; or even a few less ounces of red meat in your diet; or one less bottles of European spring water; or even one less outfit from China would do considerably more to shave off precise CO2 particles from your annual carbon footprint.

Making smarter carbon footprint decisions is all about being more informed and conscious about every decision’s impact. So, let’s looks at the pros and cons of a real Christmas tree versus an artificial, re-useable “fake” Christmas tree.

Artificial Trees – Facts and Myths

Mind-boggling Number of Artificial Tree Options – A quick online search will reveal that there are literally thousands of choices in every shape, size, species type, color, and even pre-strung with lights. On Houzz.com, that absorbing home decorating and design website, there are literally 577 options. Home Depot is just as extensive online. With a click, you can have it at your doorstep in a few days. Some artificial options come ready to pull out of the box, lights already incorporated into the branches and ready plug-in.

Manufacturing and Materials – The skinny… fake trees are manufactured using PVC (polyvinyl chloride) a petroleum-based plastic. The PVC is sliced and woven around wires for branches that are then bound together into a tree. So the tree is essentially PVC coiled around wire. This curious National Geographic video walks you through a Chinese christmas tree factory.

Environmental ROI – Some groups estimate that if you store and reuse your artificial tree eight or more years, (some report as few a four years) in terms of it’s a carbon footprint – it’s a breakeven compared to purchasing a cut tree each of those years. The carbon footprint comes from all the embodied energy and its associated CO2 that’s generated refining the oil used to make the PVC, manufacturing the PVC, and then manufacturing and shipping the end product, the artificial tree. So, in terms of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere for your annual real tree, it takes eight real trees to equal one artificial tree. Only in the ninth season of using your artificial tree, will your carbon footprint relative to real cut tree, become neutral and no longer add to your family’s annual carbon footprint.

Majority Are Made In China – The Smithsonian reports that 85 percent of artificial trees are imported from China, complete with all the unchecked factory emissions and unregulated bunker-fuel burning ships that haul it across the ocean.

Real Cut Trees – Facts Overcome The Myth

Christmas Trees Are A Crop – Face it, christmas trees are an agricultural product, literally a multi-year crop grown by a farmer or a farming corporation. Think of your tree as a squash plant or stalk of corn, it was planted for your consumption. Most christmas trees (99.9%) are grown using conventional agricultural methods, and the growers regularly spray pesticides for various tree pests, and apply fertilizer in what’s called Integrated Pest Management (IPM). According to Grist, the North Carolina Extension measured the amount of active pesticide ingredient applied per tree (1/4 oz. over the tree’s lifetime), while other sources point out the real damage organophosphates used on tree farms mostly impact the workers and the environment.

Not Hacked From Some Pristine Forest – Only a very, very small percentage are harvested from forest – but it is allowed “Buying a real tree is not depleting the forests,” says Rick Dungey, “It’s like buying any food or fiber product.” http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/dreaming-of-a-green-christmas-8557020/

Good For The Land – Trees are grown on land that isn’t readily suitable for typical annual crops and provide natural setting for wildlife and prevent soil erosion. The typical tree is harvested after 5-8 years, depending on species, rainfall, and growing conditions.

Good For The Atmosphere – Currently there are 450 million trees being grown on farms across the U.S., according to the National Christmas Tree Association. One acre of real Christmas trees removes over 500 pounds of carbon dioxide each and every year. Given that thousands of acres are planted with these 450 trees, that’s the equivalent to the interior volume of many, many Trump hotels. An acre of Christmas trees produces 1,000 pounds of O2. So when you are out choosing your tree soak it all in. One acre will provide the daily oxygen requirement 18 adults.

Every Year About 30 Million Trees Are Harvested – To give you a sense for the consumer choice profile in terms of Christmas tree purchases, the National Christmas Tree Association latest consumer survey in reports that 26 million real and 13 million fake trees were sold in 2015, at an average cost of $52. In terms of pre-cut versus cut-my-own, it was a 75/25 split. Purchase outlets for real trees broke-out to be 30% from choose and harvest your own farms, 20% from garden centers and retail lots, 25% from chain stores, and 12% from non-profit groups. An estimated 3% are ordering their tress online.

Locally Sourced – Unfortunately, it is difficult to always be able to buy local because a majority of the trees come from a handful of states. According to the National Christmas Tree Association report of harvested trees by state, the largest producers are Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Washington. Together these states account for 85% of all the trees harvested. Trees are grown in every state, so it is possible to find a locally sourced tree to minimize the CO2 belched out from long-haul truckers or when you and your family are caroling in the cartrip to the tree farm.

Local Job Creator – The U.S. Christmas tree industry creates more than 100,000 U.S. jobs. Not really a point about the environmental issue, but good to know nonetheless.

Real Trees Are Terrific At Absorbing MethaneResearchers at Lund University and Stockholm University in Sweden discovered that spruces, pines, and firs are exceptionally adept at absorbing methane, a greenhouse gas that’s about 25 times more harmful as carbon dioxide. Previous studies speculated that these types of trees actually emitted methane, but this study suggests that trees might be rising to the challenge, actually sucking methane out of the atmosphere in addition to carbon dioxide. Making yet another case for protecting existing forests, planting more spruce, pines, and firs.

Buy A Live Tree And Eventually Plant It Option

If have a strong back or dolly and empty spots in your landscape and live in a warmer climate where you can plant in January, buying a live tree with its root ball intact and wrapped in burlap is overall, by far, the most environmentally friendly option. But its not for everyone. I know friends and family who have done this over the years and landscape their suburban lots with a progressive array of trees that they wistfully look out upon as their trees from Christmas pass. The critical keys to success are being diligent in keeping the root bulb moist, digging a hole before the holidays, PLUS, most importantly a few strong backs around after the holidays, followed by a mild winter.


About the author

Eda North

Eda recently joined the Green Blizzard writing team and is our expert about how not to unknowingly expand your carbon footprint while gardening. With today's manicured lawn, dyed mulch, and highly fertilized gardens, our steams and waterways are choking with nitrogen and other chemical runoffs.