Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

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.



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