How Green is Your Christmas Tree? The Real vs. Plastic Debate

Andreas Rentz / Getty Images

Shoppers select a Christmas tree in December 2010.

It’s a debate you’ve probably had at holiday parties over eggnog and tea cookies. Which type of Christmas tree is better for the environment, real or plastic?

The question is as old as the advent of fake plastic trees themselves. And as with any argument, there are pros and cons. But there is a clear environmental advantage to one type of tree. First, let’s look at the debate between real vs. plastic:

  • Real trees have no PVC. This was one of the biggest arguments for real trees that Slate found when looking at this question a few years back. ”The needles on artificial trees are usually made from polyvinyl chloride, or PVC,” wrote the site’s Green Lantern, a column that specializes in addressing “Is X Green?” conundrums.  PVCs are a “widely reviled as a major source of dioxins,” the Lantern wrote. ”To make matters worse, cheap PVC is sometimes stabilized with lead, which can break free as harmful dust as a fake tree ages.”
  • But fake trees probably come from China. With about 85 percent of artificial trees coming from factories across the sea, that’s a serious carbon footprint. Slate looked at how much fuel would be required to get artificial trees from Shanghai to Kansas: 2,195 pounds of fuel.
  • Yes, but fake trees get re-used, they only have to make the trip once. It’s a good point, and one that works in favor of artifical trees. Those 2,195 pounds of fuel would account for fifteen years of real trees that came from 146 miles or closer, according to Slate. So one way of answering the question of real vs. plastic is this: How far did my tree travel to get to me, and what kind of mileage did the truck get that brought it here? It’s another question to ask when shopping after they’ve already answered “Do the needles stay on?”
  • But real trees decompose and can be recycled. Plastic trees don’t biodegrade and some of them can’t be recycled, “meaning they will sit in a landfill for centuries after disposal,” according to the environmental website Earth 911. And 93 percent of real trees end up being recycled, they say. That means that instead of slowly decomposing in a landfill, your real tree is chipped up by a recycler into mulch that ends up in lawns and gardens, and it also used “for playground material, hiking trails, paths and walkways,” they say. Your recycled Christmas tree can also be used to help prevent erosion, build up shorelines and wildlife habitats.

Fortunately, there is some consensus on the issue: real trees are better. As the New York Times reported, real trees have an environmental advantage over artificial ones. An independent study by a consulting group in Montreal found that you’d have to use your artificial tree for twenty years in order for it to be a greener choice than buying a real one every year.

But the lifespan of a typical artificial tree is actually much shorter, and not likely to last for twenty years. Shorten that time period for an artificial tree to six years, and what do you find? “The annual carbon emissions associated with using a real tree every year were just one-third of those created by an artificial tree over a typical six-year lifespan,” according to the New York Times. “Over all, the study found that the environmental impact of real Christmas trees was quite small, and significantly less than that of artificial trees — a conclusion shared by environmental groups and some scientists.”

Like many product choices, the question also depends on who you buy your tree from. With real trees, you have the option of purchasing from a local, family farm, while an artifical tree is manufactured by a large corporation overseas. (A U.S. Christmas tree trade lobby — yes, that exists — estimates some 100,000 jobs are from the real tree industry.)

And most tree farms plant more trees than they harvest, adding to the real tree advantage. Whole Foods, headquartered in Austin, sources it’s trees from a family farm in North Carolina, which plants two trees for every tree it cuts down. Then again, that farm uses pesticides on its trees, another issue to consider.

While real trees may have an environmental advantage, the market may be moving in another direction. There are over 50 million fake trees estimated in use versus 30 million real trees, according to the New York Times.

In Texas, it’s become more difficult to find a locally grown tree, as they have become scarce during the drought. “Some tree farms have had to shut down, while others are open, — but struggling,” KXAN Austin reported recently. “And the dry weather doesn’t just impact this year’s crop; farms will be dealing with problems for years to come.” Some Texas tree farmers are actually shipping in pines from other states so they have enough inventory, and one farm lost two-thirds of its trees to the drought.

Topics

Comments

  • Guest

    Just to nitpick, according to the Slate article, 2,195 lbs of fuel will transport an entire container of plastic trees from Shanghai to Kansas, not a single tree.

    • SusanLauretta

      Just to nitpick, the article did not say a single tree.  It said “a shipment of Christmas trees”.  True, it could have been clearer, but the general reader infers it meant alot of them.  But it would have been helpful for some readers to be more specific.

    • http://twitter.com/StateImpactTX StateImpact Texas

      Thanks for catching that — we fixed it to clarify. 

  • Trenalg

    The question I’ ve been asking myself for years and years is, WHY DO WE ALL THINK WE HAVE TO HAVE A TREE IN OUR HOUSE at Christmas time in order to celebrate Christmas?  Where does the tradition come from and what does it actually mean?  Couldn’t we just have a few colorful branches from evergreens (real or fake), ornaments, ribbons, etc., lights, etc., w/o the whole tree, and still make the house just as festive and pretty for the Christmas celebration?  For the environment, what if the tree farms would still go ahead and plant all those trees, but we would just LET THEM GROW UP INTO BIG OLD FORESTS, instead of cutting them down every year?  We’d have more oxygen in the air, and all the critters would be happier. 

    • Georgewake

      Yea, the Apostles never decorated a tree. It’s pagan, Just the way I like it.

    • SusanLauretta

      Look it up on the internet. 

  • Guest

    Pesticides are used on ALL real trees, not just the ones from Whole Foods… And probably loads of them! 

  • Shamita
  • Guest

    I dunno. We used to have live trees when I was little, and after Christmas we would plant them in our backyard. Nowadays we have a cute little Norforlk pine that lives in a pot outdoors most of the year and comes indoors in the winter to be our Christmas tree.

  • Pelee98

    But they compared the fuel for the container of fake trees to the fuel for the truckload of real ones.  Apples to apples? I’m guessing the boatload of fakes is bigger than the truckload of real, but it would be interesting for someone to run the numbers.

    Oh, and trenalg, I’m not exactly Mr. pro-business, but your plan does not exactly motivate the guy with the farm. “Hi, we’d like you to spend a lot of money to plant all these trees and then never recieve any money back or get to use your land again. OK?  Great. Thanks.”

    Also, ironically, the tradition of Christmas trees is a pagan tradition as I understand it. Bring a living thing into the house to celebrate the cycle back from the winter solstice… Either way (Christian or pagan) it’s a celebration of rebirth.

  • Sdj242

    I think it is funny that the article talks about shipping miles as number one fuel cost.  Real Christmas trees require mowing around the trees multiple times a year, which will use far more fuel than shipping.  But I still like real Christmas trees anyway, mostly for the fact they biodegrade.

About StateImpact

StateImpact seeks to inform and engage local communities with broadcast and online news focused on how state government decisions affect your lives.
Learn More »

Economy
Education