Environmental effects of Christmas trees

The environmental impacts of real vs. artificial Christmas trees are pretty much even. Like many such analyses, much depends on variable estimates, including personal behavior.

Which is more environmentally-friendly: a real or artificial Christmas tree? This is certainly a question that has plagued humankind since the murky origins of winter solstice traditions in northern Europe.

There is a set of “life-cycle assessment” protocols that can be applied to almost any consumer product or activity which can illustrate and compare environmental impacts. Inputs and outputs are measured or estimated beginning with extraction, through manufacturing, and then disposal. Some call this “cradle to grave”.

These protocols undergo regular review and modification to provide increasingly-better answers and exploit ever-changing technology. Although for wood products, according to some experts, the protocols need serious tweaking.

So what is the bottom line? Real vs. artificial is a close wash, with some caveats.

The calculations involve a number of variables that are assigned values. Some values are pretty good averages, while others require looser estimation. And then, there are also many assumptions.

Researchers have studied this topic. Carbon and energy were the currencies evaluated. Other impacts were evaluated, too, depending upon the study.

The American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA) commissioned a study that was published in 2010. The ACTA is a manufacturer of artificial trees. The 109-page report is loaded with technical jargon; just the table of contents is over two pages. Another study (91 pages) was published in 2009 by a consulting firm out of Montreal.

The ACTA provided a few tips based on their study:

  1. If you go natural, try to select locally-grown.
  2. Minimize the number of miles driven to acquire the tree. The reports show that driving to get the tree has more impacts than the tree itself.
  3. You will need to use an artificial tree for 8-9 years before certain benefits exceed those of an annual natural tree.
  4. When an artificial tree is replaced, consider donating the old tree.
  5. Where possible, dispose of natural trees in re-purposeful ways, such as mulch.

Of course, in the annual carbon and energy footprint of an average American family, a Christmas tree of either breed is pretty much inconsequential. The choice of real vs. artificial goes beyond just environmental impacts, and those impacts can be highly variable depending on family behavior.

Buying a real tree from a local tree farm helps area growers stay in business and might slow a bit of urban sprawl. Most artificial trees are made in China but the transportation efficiencies are actually quite high. The studies did not recognize the difference between “fossil” carbon and “biological” carbon, which is an important distinction. Avoiding fossil carbon by using biological carbon has atmospheric advantages that aren’t yet often recognized in life-cycle analyses. Real trees win in this regard, as do forest products.

How do Americans fall-out in the real vs. artificial debate? The ACTA says that 83 percent of homes that participate in Christmas tree traditions will use an artificial tree. Last year, Americans bought nearly 22 million real Christmas trees and 12 million artificial trees. Some households displayed both. According to the ACTA survey, the average cost for a real tree was $45, and $80 for an artificial tree.

The most popular real tree choices are true firs, such as balsam and Fraser, followed by Scots pine. However, there is a range of species to suit the desires of most tastes.

Michigan’s Christmas tree industry is valued at about $50-60 million and is one of the nation’s top producers through selling around three million trees each year. Most of the production is exported.

The bottom line? Michigan State University Extension recommends that you use whatever suits your family’s needs best and however your family likes to engage the Christmas tree tradition. If the environment is important to you, there are much bigger fish to fry than deliberating between a real and artificial Christmas tree. 

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