Plastic or Pine? The Eco-Christmas Tree Debate

The following post is from Katie of Kitchen Stewardship:

Artificial vs Real Christmas Trees

source: Kitchen Stewardship

When I bought my first Christmas tree in college, it was a darling 4-footer purchased at the gas station across from my apartment building. That meant it had a very low carbon footprint and little environmental impact on my end since I didn’t have to drive to get it, although I didn’t calculate that at the time.

I was just happy it was only twenty bucks, and I set about my pine-scented Christmas decorating with my other low-budget purchases – a plastic tree stand and a few strands of lights that I was sure would nostalgically transport me right back to childhood.

The impact I remember quite clearly was the sound of a 4-foot Christmas tree being thrown in disgust at the door of my apartment; this after an hour of wrestling the darling tree in the hallway, attempting to get it to remain vertical (actually, standing up at all, even crooked would have been an improvement).

The tree ended up leaning against the wall in the corner of the living room with lights winding back and forth across the front instead of wrapping around, because I couldn’t reach the back anymore (and didn’t have enough lights anyway).

My husband’s favorite Christmas tree memories all involve him working with his dad to sort artificial Christmas tree branches and put together the tree. He continued that tradition as soon as possible with our oldest son and then subsequent other children, and it’s become a gleeful experience every December.

Our living room plays host to piles of brown, red, and black-marked branches, signifying the various levels going up the metal “trunk” of the hand-me-down tree we’ve had since we got married.

Now that I’ve done some research on the environmental impact of artificial Christmas trees, I’ll have the joy of imagining clouds of lead-tainted dust settling over my home and poisoning my children.

What lovely holiday imagery, right? I say both scenes are worthy of the Griswold’s, sans the squirrel and the RV.

source: Kitchen Stewardship

You may have already guessed on which side of the real vs. fake tree debate I place all my cards, and that my husband is on the other side of the table.

If I can prove to him that the real thing is more eco-friendly, maybe I’ll have a fighting chance of getting a real tree again (I won’t tell him how hard it is to get the darn thing into the tree stand, although he may remember that embarrassing story…).

Here are the environmental issues to consider with a real Christmas tree:

  • gasoline used to get tree from farm to seller to home
  • pesticide use on farms
  • sustainability of land use for Christmas tree farms
  • biodiversity of Christmas tree farms
  • number of times tree can be used
  • waste creation at the end of the tree’s life

Issues to consider when buying an artificial Christmas tree:

  • materials used to make tree, emissions from factories
  • any hazardous materials to family’s health?
  • carbon footprint to transport tree from factory to store to home
  • number of times tree can be (and is in reality) reused
  • biodegradability of tree components

Get the Eco-Facts on Real Christmas Trees

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About 30 million trees are harvested annually in the U.S. Nearly all of them are disposed of by the end of December. What is the net cost to the environment of all these trees?

Emissions from Transport

Compared to artificial trees traveling from China, the gasoline used to get a real Christmas tree from the farm to the seller is negligible. You can cut down on your own gasoline use by finding a tree sale on your way to work or school.

Chemical Use on Farms

“In 1998 and 1999, streams below five Christmas tree farms were monitored to determine the effect of Christmas tree production on stream quality. Little impact was documented. In fact, one Christmas tree farm that had been in continuous production since the mid-l950s had some of the best water quality.” Source

Since the late 1990s when that study took place, farms have continued to reduce their pesticide use and are trying more and more to avoid toxic, broad-spectrum materials such as Thiodan and Di-Syston, which means these figures can only get better and better.

However, pesticide use on Christmas tree farms is still a reality, measuring about a pound per acre in California – that’s more than the average for alfalfa, wheat and broccoli, but far less than nursery plants, pears, potatoes and blueberries. Fungicides, herbicides and insecticides are also unfortunately par for the course in Christmas Tree farming.

More farmers are beginning to use integrated pest management, which means they spray less frequently and less extensively. This article has some interesting points about why pesticides are used in the Christmas tree industry (hint: consumer demand) and a “certified environmentally friendly” program which is lax, but at least trying.

Christmas Tree Farm Sustainability

In order to continue farming Christmas trees, most tree farms plant 1 to 3 new trees for every one that is cut. Clearly the tree population is not reduced due to Christmas tree farming, and in fact the total number of trees may even be increased as a result of farming the trees.

Unlike corn or soybeans, popular agricultural crops, Christmas trees take 5-10 years to grow, which automatically means less tilling/erosion and fewer pesticide applications. Plus, Christmas tree farms generally require no irrigating.

So compared to other crops, Christmas trees are fairly sustainable and shouldn’t kill the soil like a monoculture of corn would.

Do Christmas Tree Farms Promote Biodiversity?

Although a Christmas tree farm does create a “monoculture” – meaning an area with all the same plant – the fields also provide much needed refuge for wild animals whose natural habitats are being destroyed by developers. Each Christmas tree creates about 25 square feet of “green space.”

Number of Times a Real Christmas Tree Can Be Used

source: Kitchen Stewardship

Here’s one major downfall for the real deal – they time out after one holiday season.

Waste Creation at the End of the Tree’s Life

The positive part about the short decorative life span is that when the holidays are over, a real tree can be recycled or ground into mulch.

Positive Environmental Impacts of Real Christmas Trees

  • Living trees generate oxygen, fix carbon in branches and soil
  • Provide habitat for birds and animals
  • Christmas tree farms help preserve farmland and green space
  • Often utilize land that cannot be farmed for other crops
  • Absorbs carbon dioxide (Each year, an acre of Douglas fir trees can absorb 11,308 pound of carbon dioxide.

Get the Eco-Facts on Artificial Christmas Trees

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Twenty to thirty million Americans buy artificial Christmas trees every year, and possibly 50 million have them in their homes. What is the environmental impact of this once-a-year holiday decoration?

Making an Artificial Tree: Materials and Emissions

We start with the factories that make artificial trees: they use polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a petroleum-based plastic. That means they’re using up non-renewable resources and polluting the air with a number of carcinogenic substances, a one-two punch to the environment.

Worse yet for your immediate family, most artificial trees are made in China, where the environmental laws are loose, and they may be contaminated by lead. “The Children’s Health Environmental Coalition warns fake trees ‘may shed lead-laced dust, which may cover branches or shower gifts and the floor below the tree.’”

Carbon Footprint to Transport Artificial Trees

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The trip from China to the U.S. of course uses a great deal of energy, although still far less of an overall environmental impact than most folks’ daily commute to work. Most folks also use so much gasoline to get a real tree to their door that an artificial tree wins the carbon emissions race – as long as you keep the tree for at least ten years.

Number of Times an Artificial Christmas Tree can be (and Is in reality) Reused

An artificial tree can be reused until it falls apart, which, in our family’s n=1 test, can probably be at least 20 years. However, most Americans like the new and improved, trading in their artificial trees after an average of only six years.

Biodegradability of Tree Components

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What happens to all those artificial trees after families replace them? Unfortunately, they cannot be recycled and are not biodegradable, so each tree is either sitting in a landfill forever, or emits carcinogens into the air if someone tries to burn it.

Is There Such a Thing as Christmas “GREENery?”

The bottom line is that neither choice is incredibly green. The best way to have a truly green Christmas is by buying a live tree that can be planted later, although that has its pros and cons:

  • logistics of getting the tree to stand up
  • making sure you don’t kill it
  • finding a place with enough space for a massive full grown Douglas fir
  • making sure you get around to planting it at the appropriate time

Some folks find a local park or other public place where they can (with permission) plant their live Christmas tree.

The Bottom Line

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If the “live Christmas tree” option isn’t for you, yet you don’t want to forgo the tradition altogether, you can “go greenER” and choose a real tree, seeking the shortest drive possible to a farm that practices integrated pest management, and taking care to recycle or mulch the tree after the Christmas season is over.

Another greenER option is to reuse an artificial tree already in existence – that way you’re not really so responsible for the emissions that go into creating the tree, and you’re helping the environment overall by saving the tree from the landfills, at least for a few more years.

That’s what my family is doing, at least until our practically vintage fake tree kicks the bucket completely. Then we’ll have to re-open the conversation of tree type…or buy a house big enough to accommodate two Christmas trees.

What’s your tree of choice, and do you have Christmas tree dissension in your house?

Katie Kimball is a mom of three who spends a ton of time in the kitchen making real food with whole ingredients and then blogs about her successes and failures at Kitchen Stewardship. She believes everything in life is a gift from God and should be taken care of wisely.