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

Real Christmas trees leave a smaller carbon footprint than artificial ones, especially if replanted after the holidays. Artificial trees, however, can be eco friendly if they're used for more than 20 years.
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?

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5 Comments

  1. Buying locally grown Christmas trees is a great option. Like any plant, the real/artificial debate is the same. Do you want fake plants in your garden or the real ones?
    If you have a large yard, real trees can also be left in the yard after use, providing much needed shelter for wintering wildlife.
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  2. says: Pete

    In areas where irrigation is not always needed, it tips the scale a bit. However, if you can buy a cut-your-own locally, it not only takes CO2 out of the atmosphere while growing, it also helps the local economy. Each dollar spent on agriculture tends to multiply as it travels through the community, thus raising the value of your home. At the end of the season, cut the branches off and use them for mulch around the home. I put straw on my flower beds and over with spruce branches. It does need a little extra lime, but the needles add to the organic content of the soil. The trunk is cut a stacked for a year, then burned in my fire-pit. The ashes also help my garden. The Agricultural Extension Service in each county usually has a list of local growers if there are any near where you live. Thinking green does not end with the purchase. Merry Christmas y’all.

  3. says: The Mike

    Considering price and convenience, I would choose a fake tree over a live tree. I’ve been getting live trees for years and factoring the $40-$60 per tree and fighting with the stupid thing to fit in the tree stand, not to mention NEEDLES, I’m gonna have to go to a fake tree. You can get a nice fake tree for around $60-$100 and it’ll last a long time in you treat it well. Save money, no mess, no war with the tree stand. Huge win for me. Before I make the switch though, I do want to shop around and see if I can find a fake made from recycled materials. If I find one, it would be perfect. I will miss making tea from my tree though.

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