In these weeks leading up to the Christmas holiday have you been wrestling with that timeless dilemma of trying to figure out which is better for your carbon footprint: a traditional, single-use farm raised “cut” Christmas tree or a man-made artificial Christmas tree?
Italians firmly favor artificial trees, whereas Americans prefer natural, cut trees.
So let’s looks at the pros and cons of a real Christmas tree versus an artificial, re-useable Christmas tree.
Essentially there are four options for embracing in this ancient pagan tradition:
1 – Forego Buying A Tree or Maybe Even Share One – As everyone’s statistics professor taught us, the “do nothing” option is always the base case. But in this situation not always realistic for many of us.
2 – Fresh Cut Tree Bought Locally – The best smelling option, but after the holiday we have to mournfully drag it to the curb and cast it off for the community mulch pile or pyre.
3 – Artificial Tree – Durable and pretty real looking. Plus it’s simple to store and hopefully use it again and again for many years thereafter. If you’re clever, you can even leave it fully decorated and just drag it out from the closet, and viola – you’re instantly done.
4 – Fresh Cut Tree Cut At Nearby Tree Farmo – The best smelling option, but after the holiday we have to mournfully drag it to the curb and cast it off for the community mulch pile or pyre. – an uncut tree with its attached root ball carefully wrapped in burlap so that you can plant it after the holidays. Green is so many ways.
Artificial Trees – Myths and Facts Let’s look at the specifics surrounding the artificial tree option from a carbon footprint perspective.
Manufacturing Process and Surprising Materials Used Artificial trees are made with 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.
Growing Trend – the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA), reports that “nearly 100 million households across the U.S. will display a Christmas tree. Of which, 81 percent will be artificial Christmas trees and 19 percent will be real trees.” We’re scratching our head about these numbers because intuitively they do not jive with other our sources, but in fairness, we wanted to share their perspective.
The Pros/Cons of Real Cut Christmas Trees – These Facts Are Convincing
The Necessary Mindset – First of all, its all about mindset. Christmas trees are literally an agricultural product, 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. Nearly all Christmas trees 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. http://grist.org/article/bough-wow/ the North Carolina Extension measured the amount of active pesticide ingredient applied per tree (1/4 oz. over the tree’s lifetime). So it’s safe to assume that like many of the other natural products in your home, Christmas trees are neither truly green nor organic.
Good For The Stressed-Out 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 every year. Given that thous/ands of acres are planted with these 450 million trees, that’s the equivalent to the interior volume of many, many Trump hotels. An acre of Christmas trees produces 1,000 pounds of oxygen. So when you are out choosing your tree, be sure to soak it all in. One acre provides the daily oxygen requirements for 18 adults.
Good For The Land – Trees are grown on land that isn’t readily suitable for typical annual crops and provides a natural setting for wildlife and prevents 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 remove over 500 pounds of carbon dioxide every year. Given that thousands of acres are planted with these 450 million trees, that’s the equivalent to the interior volume of many, many Trump hotels. An acre of Christmas trees produces 1,000 pounds of oxygen. So when you are out choosing your tree, be sure that you take a moment and soak it all in. One acre provides the daily oxygen requirements for 18 adults. And despite fairytale images, they are not cut from pristine forests.
Big Annual Harvest – Every year about 30 million trees are harvested. To give you a sense for the consumer choice profile in terms of Christmas tree purchases, in 2015 there were 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 choosing 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% of all cut Christmas trees were ordered online last season.
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 car trip to the tree farm.
Good For The Land – Trees are grown on land that isn’t readily suitable for typical annual crops and provides a natural setting for wildlife and prevents soil erosion. The typical tree is harvested after 5-8 years, depending on species, rainfall, and growing conditions
Real Trees Are Terrific At Absorbing Methane – Researchers 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.
Miscellaneous BenefitsChristmas trees remove dust and pollen from the air. Christmas trees can be recycled. When chipped, the real tree can be burned as fuel, used as mulch, or composted, thus being used as a renewable resource of energy, stabilizing the soil to prevent erosion, or producing new soil & nutrients. Young Christmas trees produce more oxygen than older Christmas trees, thus cutting of older trees is encouraged. The U.S. Christmas tree industry creates more than 100,000 local U.S. jobs. Although this benefit is not directly an environmental issue, but the impact of local jobs and less long-distance shipping – is always a good.