The Green Christmas Tree Dilemma

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If you are asking yourself which to buy, a real or an artificial Christmas tree, the main thing you want to remember is that everything you buy has a carbon footprint.  A carbon footprint is the amount of emissions and greenhouse gases produced when making a product (or doing an activity).  Since a carbon footprint is not a calculation we can readily do in our mind, let me break down some of the main factors that go into a carbon footprint calculation, that you can go through when making any purchase, and in this case, your Christmas tree:  sourcing/production, transportation, disposal and air quality.  

1) Sourcing/Production

Artificial Trees: Today’s artificial trees are typically made with metal and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a petroleum-based plastic.  PVC, is a plastic made from petroleum, which is a non-renewable resource.  PVC releases dioxin, a carcinogen, into the air during manufacturing and disposal. 

In an effort to look for an eco-friendly, alternative, made from perhaps recycled materials, my search came back empty handed.  I was unable to find any commercially sold artificial trees made from “post-consumer” recycled materials.  This is very important because if we are committed to recycling materials such as plastic, we need to be willing to close the loop and purchase materials made from recycled materials.

Real Trees: Trees are a renewable resource and most growers actually plant more seedlings than they cut down.  However, many tree farms use very powerful pesticides in their farming practices.  Sourcing locally is not an option for everyone, but for many of us, we can buy and cut down a tree locally.  You may be surprised how close the nearest tree farm is from you if you do a quick Google search. 

Another huge benefit of a real tree is when it comes to carbon and oxygen.  Tree farms, like forests, actually sequester rather than emit carbon, which actually mitigates and offsets carbon emissions that lead to climate change.  Additionally, according to Earth911.com, on a tree farm, “each acre of trees produces enough oxygen for the daily needs of 18 people.”  Trees also provide habitats for birds and other wild life.  Finally, Christmas tree farms preserve farmland and green space, particularly near densely populated urban areas where pressure for development is intense.

2) Transportation

Artificial Trees: According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, 80% of the artificial trees bought in the U.S. are manufactured in China.  Trees are packed in containers and shipped overseas via carbo ships burning enormous amounts of fossil fuel and contributing to air and water pollution.  Upon arrival, trees are transported to online store warehouses and retail stores all over the country using diesel-powered delivery trucks.  So, even if you have zero travel emissions, the following years, by not traveling to get buy a new tree, it would take many years to offset those emissions from the initial transportation from China to your home. 

Real Trees:  Depending on where you live, your real tree may also have traveled very far to get to you.  The same diesel-powered semi-trucks bringing your real tree from a tree farm to the big box store or tree lot, which emits tons of carbon pollution, it travels the country.  A better alternative is to buy your tree from a local tree farm, in order to reduce your tree’s carbon footprint.

3) Disposal (Reusable or Recyclable)?

Artificial Trees:  Despite their plastic contents, artificial trees are typically non-recyclable and non-biodegradable, meaning they will sit in a landfill for centuries after disposal. Technically, PVC is recyclable; however recycling it is a difficult and costly process.   Because they can be made from a combination of materials (metals and plastics), this makes it very difficult, if not impossible to separate these materials for recycling, which is why they end up in the landfill (cradle-to-grave).  Additionally, vinyl in PVC outgases toxic fumes and can contaminate the plastic recycling stream.

Real Trees: The carbon footprint of a real tree depends greatly on what you do with it when you are done.  If the tree ends up decomposing in a landfill, its footprint significantly increases, because landfills are one of the largest sources of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.  However, if instead, your tree is recycled and reused for mulch, the carbon footprint is much smaller.  Tree-cycling is an easy way to return a renewable and natural source back to the environment.  Many cities offer Christmas tree recycling and turn the tree into mulch, for use in landscaping, gardening, play-ground material, hiking trails, etc., which makes for a closed-loop system (cradle to cradle).

4) Air Quality

Artificial Trees:  Most artificial trees, made from PVC plastic, will off-gas in your home for many years, creating indoor air pollution. 

Real Trees:  As previously mention, real trees sequester carbon and produce oxygen.  However, one thing to bear in mind, is that live Christmas trees can carry mold and dust (as too can artificial tress that have been stored all year long), which can be a problem for those with sensitive allergies.  

The bottom line and my personal opinion:  

When it comes to Christmas trees, ask yourself the same questions you would of any product you want to buy.  First ask, how is it sourced/produced and transported?  Second ask, where will this product go (downstream) after I’m done with it?

In my opinion, get a real tree from a local tree farm or from a lot that sources locally and ideally organically.  If you can buy or rent a living/planted tree, that you can give back to the farmer or plant afterward, even better!  When you are finished with your tree, whatever kind of tree you get, look for “highest and best use,” which in the case of a real tree, would be to have it recycled into mulch.

If you are set on buying an artificial tree or if you already have one, please keep it for as many years as possible and encourage your tree manufacturer to start making them from post-consumer recycled materials that can in the end, also be easily recycled. 

And if you need some more definitive advice, according to the NY Times, “An environmental consulting firm in Montreal found that an artificial tree would have to be reused for more than 20 years to be greener than buying a fresh-cut tree annually.”

I feel that if I both source locally and return my tree back to the earth when I’m done, I’m doing my best to replicate a closed-loop system, like Mother nature has designed.  Doing this brings me joy and peace during the holidays. 

Kelly Buskirk

About Kelly Green Consultant:  Hi!  I'm Kelly Buskirk.  I currently live in Austin, TX, but I first got involved in sustainability when I was living on the island of Kauai, and a landfill was proposed by neighborhood.   I made the conscious shift to live a zero waste lifestyle and transform the business I was managing from great, to green!  My intention is to tread lightly on the planet, by reducing toxins and waste in my life and help others do the same in their life and business.   Join me on my Zero Waste + Green Living quest!