By Frank Scotti, Sustainable Energy Advocate – When you think of Christmas, you probably don’t think of how much impact a simple Christmas tree can have on the environment. Your Christmas tree, whether live or artificial, has a significant environmental impact considering Americans purchase over 48 million trees each year.
Let’s first look at artificial trees. It may seem obvious that a real tree is better than a fake Christmas tree from a sustainability point of view. But the reality is a little more complex. A Life Cycle Assessment study looked at factors like raw materials, processing, manufacturing, waste, water use, carbon emissions, chemical use, transportation, lifetime of product, and end of life disposal.
More than 23 million artificial trees are purchased each season in the U.S. alone. They are typically made of a combination of PVC and steel and are not recyclable at end of life. Artificial trees are also non-biodegradable so they never break down.
Artificial trees contain potentially harmful material. Part of what makes artificial trees so sturdy are the components used in their construction. PVC plastics are made from petroleum by-products, heavy metals are used to stabilize the plastics and the metal branches are mined from the earth. Flame retardants that cause cancer and other health issues are also added to artificial trees. In California, warning labels are even required on artificial trees to alert users of the potential risk of hazardous materials…including lead.
Most artificial trees are made in China and have to be shipped thousands of miles, in plastic sleeves and cardboard boxes.
The A.C.T.A, a group representing manufacturers, says the environmental impact of an artificial tree is less than real trees if you reuse the artificial tree five or more times.
However, a 2009 study by Ellipsos, an environmental consulting firm in Montreal, found an artificial tree used over six years still had three times greater impact on emissions and resource depletion than six real trees over six years. The study said an artificial tree had to be kept for 20 years before it would have a lesser impact than 20 real trees.
Artificial trees are not recyclable nor biodegradable and will eventually end up in landfill even after years of use. It takes centuries for materials like polyvinyl chloride plastic to decompose. Green America advises that consumers with artificial trees donate them rather than throw them away.
Now let’s look at real trees.
Again, a Life Cycle Assessment study looked at factors like land use, CO2 emissions from growing and harvesting equipment, chemical use, transportation, and end of life disposal.
25 million live trees are cut down for Christmas trees each year in the U.S. Real Christmas trees are primarily grown on Christmas tree farms, and aren’t cut down from large, wild forests, as some may think. Most Christmas trees are planted and grown on farms for the express purpose of harvesting them.
As Christmas trees grow, they clean the air, help the soil, absorb carbon emissions and provide a habitat for wildlife, all while being grown on land not suitable for other crops.
Once a tree is cut down for sale, another one to three trees are planted in its place, making for a sustainable, well-managed way to source an environmentally friendly Christmas tree.
According to Green America, an environmental advocacy organization, a real tree is even better for the environment when it is mulched and returned to the earth as ground cover.
In the same study, Green America also determined that thousands of tons of real trees wind up in landfill, where they produce methane — a pollutant 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Decomposition of real trees in a dump takes decades and produces a higher carbon footprint than incineration.
There are a lot of considerations, but I am able to come to a conclusion regarding which type of tree is least harmful to the environment.
Real trees have less of an environmental impact than artificial trees. Real trees have an even greater environmental advantage over artificial trees if they are organically grown, locally sourced, and recycled.
If you already have an artificial tree, don’t go throwing it out though. Keep using it for as long as possible so you can keep it out of the landfill. Then donate it to extend its lifecycle even further.