Maybe the Italians know something the rest of the Christmas celebrating world doesn’t know about the environmental pros/cons of artificial Christmas trees. It was recently measured that 70% of Italians (chart below) are buying artificial trees (20% natural). Hopefully, Italians keep and reuse these trees year after year, to begin realizing their environmental benefit. But this Italian penchant for artificial trees is probably more of a matter of simple supply and demand with more local agrarian land dedicated to high yield food and wine than to Christmas trees.
From a carbon footprint perspective, examining the specifics surrounding the artificial Christmas tree shows that there are surprising CO2 benefits. With another year of record CO2 emissions, maybe its time to rethink the benefits of real versus natural Christmas trees.
All Sorts of Consumer Choices There are so many artificial tree types that the choice can be mind-boggling, A simple online search reveals literally thousands of options in every shape, size, species, type, and color. Most are even pre-wired with lights. On Houzz, that absorbing home decorating and design website, there are literally 577 options. Home Depot has 500+ choices. You can order online and have it at your doorstep the next day ready to plug in.
Manufacturing Process and Surprising Materials Used Artificial trees are made of PVC, polyvinyl chloride, a petroleum-based plastic. The same material used to make pipes. The PVC is sliced, then woven around wires to form branches that are then wired together into the form of a tree. So it’s basically PVC coiled around wire. This curious National Geographic video walks you through a Christmas tree factory in China. The Smithsonian reports that 85 percent of artificial trees are imported from China.
The Breakeven of Artificial Christmas Trees – This is the really important factor from a personal carbon footprint perspective. We estimate that if you store and reuse an artificial tree eight or more years in terms of it’s a carbon footprint – it’s a break-even compared to purchasing a cut tree each of those years. The carbon footprint of artificial trees comes from all the embodied energy and its associated CO2 that’s generated refining the oil used to make the PVC, manufacturing the PVC, converting the PVC into an artificial tree, and then shipping the end product to your home.
So, in terms of the directly related CO2 that’s been pumped into the atmosphere on your behalf for your tree choice: it takes eight years of real trees to equal one artificial tree – and that’s assuming that the artificial tree gets reused year-after-year. Because it’s only in the ninth holiday season of using your artificial tree, will the carbon footprint associated with its manufacture become neutral and no longer be another level on your annual carbon footprint.
The key is continual re-use and delayed discarding the tree. Artificial trees will last for centuries in a landfill or burn as a smokey burn in your local municipal incinerator.
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