Are real or artificial Christmas trees better for the environment?
The question: Is a real Christmas tree better for the
environment than a fake one?
The answer: It depends on your plans for the future.
Every year, 95 million families in America put up a Christmas
tree. Deciding whether to go with the real thing or an artificial
version involves lots of factors. Some people don't think it's
really Christmas unless their living room has that "real tree"
smell. Others would rather have Santa trap them in the chimney than
spend the season sweeping up pine needles and crawling under the
tree to refill the water.
In other words, environmental considerations are probably low on
most people's lists.
But it's something that Christmas tree
growers and manufacturers think about. Their industry trade group,
the American Christmas Tree Assn., commissioned a study of the
lifetime environmental impact of both real and artificial trees.
(Calling them "fake trees" is something of a faux pas in the
Christmas tree industry.)
In both cases, there are costs, according to the 2010
To grow real Christmas trees, you need dirt, water, pesticide,
herbicide and fungicide. Then you need gasoline to harvest and
transport them, as well as the human labor to do all of that. (Some
tree farms also spray the trees with colorant to maintain the
There's a common misconception about where real trees come
from. Lynn Wunderlich, who works with Christmas tree
farmers in her role as farm advisor for the University of
California Cooperative Extension, said many people assume the trees
are cut down in forests and stolen from nature. In reality,
Christmas trees are grown on farms in California, Oregon,
Washington, Michigan, North Carolina, Tennessee and other states,
and they are meant to be cut down.
items at a Balsam Hill popup store at the Stanford Mall in Palo
Alto, California. (David Butow / For The Times)
Christmas trees - including the Monterey pine, which is the most
commonly grown variety in California - are a bit less
water-intensive than fruit trees, Wunderlich said. Also, while the
tree is growing, it's removing carbon dioxide from the air and
turning it back into oxygen.
To manufacture an artificial Christmas tree, you need PVC
plastic, steel and aluminum, plus cardboard for the packaging and
the resources to ship the trees from Asia, where most of them are
made. The total amount of raw materials needed to manufacture an
artificial Christmas tree is roughly equal to the amount needed to
make an upholstered patio chair.
What happens to the tree after the presents have been opened is
another factor to consider. Some areas let residents compost real
trees. Others incinerate them or send them to a landfill. Each
option has its benefits and drawbacks. Artificial trees can be
donated to places like Goodwill and nursing homes, but their
ultimate destination is a landfill - they can't be recycled.
So which one has the greater environmental impact?
On a one-to-one basis, a real tree requires considerably fewer
resources to create and get to the customer than an artificial
tree, said William Paddock, the managing director of WAP
Sustainability Consulting in Chattanooga, Tenn., who oversaw the
peer-reviewed study. But if you plan to reuse your artificial tree,
which most people do, the environmental impact eventually tips in
favor of the artificial tree.
"Over the course of time, there is a break-even point," Paddock
said. "The question becomes, how many years does it take?"
The most conservative estimates suggest it takes nine years of
use for an artificial tree to be a better choice than buying a real
tree every year. Paddock said six years is probably a more
There isn't data on how long the average person keeps an
artificial tree before disposing of it, but "not a lot of people
use it once and never again," he said. "My parents have the one
we've had since I was 10 years old."
The trade group's 2017 Christmas tree survey, conducted by
Nielsen, found that 81% of Americans have artificial trees, and 19%
go for the real thing.
Either way, the environmental impact is not particularly
significant in the grand scheme of things.
"We believe there is no bad choice when it comes to a Christmas
tree," said Jami Warner, the trade group's executive director.
"Choose either tree, relax, enjoy the holidays."
Read the article on
Written by: Jessica Roy
Friday, December 15, 2017