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Which is more eco friendly – real or artificial Christmas trees?

By Micki Ream | 8 Dec 2010

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The Peninsula Press is partnering with SAGE, an eco-advice column where students from Stanford University answer readers' environmental questions.

Question: What’s better for our environment: buying a real tree each year or using a “fake” tree? Asked by Michael Thurman, South Pasadena, Calif.

Answer: If you’re dreaming of a green Christmas, the tree is a great place to start. And the best option is pretty clear: buy a living tree and then replant it after the season.

“Bah Humbug,” you say? Don’t have a plot of land to call your own, or a climate that will support a spruce or pine? Perhaps it’s just as well—too much time at room temperature can make even the hardiest tree unfit for outdoor conditions. Anything more than oh, say about 12 days, and you’d be planting a ghost of Christmas trees past. If you want a tree that will last from Black Friday’s post-Thanksgiving shopping spree until the New Year, we’ll have to survey the landscape of Christmas trees a little more closely.

Sustainable? Real Christmas trees leave a smaller carbon footprint than artificial ones, especially if you find one that can be replanted after the holiday. (Photo: Thomas Hayden)

Checking the list twice, both farmed and artificial trees may seem to be more naughty than nice to the environment. The problems with artificial trees are pretty obvious, from the steel trunk and needles made of either polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyethylene (PE) to the energy needed to put them together and ship them, usually from the other side of the world. Live Christmas trees may look harmless, but they generally require pesticides, irrigation and fertilizer during the six to 10 years it takes them to grow.

Before we give natural trees their proverbial lump of coal, let’s consider their greener (environmental-wise) aspects. Like all plants, natural Christmas trees pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and produce oxygen. Christmas tree are farmed in at least 48 states. (The lack of data for Alaska probably means they get by just fine without the farms.) Oregon leads the way, growing 6.85 million pines in 2007, but the transportation impact will be lower if you can find a farm close to home. Transportation reduction is important in the overall carbon dioxide benefit, whether it’s in moving the tree from the farm to a lot, or from the customer driving to the point(s) of purchase. (Everybody knows you don’t buy the first one you see!)

Artificial Christmas trees, meanwhile, do not exactly arrive in one-horse open sleighs. Most are made in China, where the largest manufacturer, a company with the decidedly un-jolly name Polygroup, makes more than 6 million evergreen stand-ins each year. That includes everything from the standard green to varieties that are flocked, frosted, pre-lighted, fiber-optic enhanced and even a variety that sings. Each must be transported from the factory in China to a nearby port, shipped to the United States and then transferred to a retail outlet.

Worse, most recycling facilities won’t touch artificial trees—separating the components is too much work to be profitable. In contrast, the environmental information website Earth911.com lists more than 4,000 sites nationwide that will recycle your natural tree, either by turning it into mulch or burning it in place of oil or other fossil fuels.

Simply put, artificial trees usually have a significantly larger carbon footprint. According to a Canadian environmental consulting firm, a natural tree will generate 3.1 kg of greenhouse gases per year, compared to 8.1 kg per year for the artificial tree. And so for this comparison, artificial trees get the lump of coal in their stocking.

But if you’ve already got an artificial tree, be of good cheer: those numbers are based on an artificial tree used only for six years. If one extends the lifetime of the artificial tree to 20 years or more, the fake tree becomes the more environmentally friendly choice. How’s that for a gift that keeps on giving?

Read more scientific details behind this answer >>

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