If you’re in the market for a Christmas tree this holiday season, it turns out in most instances, whether you buy a farm-grown tree or an artificial one doesn’t change how much of an environmental impact you’ll have on the planet. Rather, what matters is how far you drive to get your evergreen, how you dispose of it and how long you use the artificial tree.
“Consumers should not be concerned about the environmental impact of having a Christmas tree,” Thomas Harman told weather.com. “Compared to their other impacts, it is very tiny.”
Harman is the founder of Balsam Hill, which sells artificial Christmas trees. He’s also on the board of the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA), a nonprofit whose self-proclaimed goal is to educate the public about these holiday flora. Two years ago, the ACTA commissioned a life-cycle analysis study (from an outside organization) to look at both real and artificial options from seedling or oil, as the case may be, to tree.
That fake trees, which are typically made of plastic and end up in landfills, have essentially the same carbon footprint as something from nature is a hard concept for many to wrap their heads around, Harman said. “If you purchase a farm-grown Christmas tree and use it for a year and throw it away, and purchase an artificial and use it for a year and throw it away, then the farm-grown is going to be better. But nobody does that.” Rather, they tend to use it for nearly a decade, on average, typically passing it along for a second life.
For some people, this issue isn’t quite so gray, with real trees beating out fake ones every time. Rick Dungey is the public relations manager for the National Tree Growers Association, an organization for tree growers. In his mind and in his organization’s position, there’s no question.
“You should always choose a plant over non-biodegradable plastic. A plant is a renewable resource, 100-percent biodegradable and easily recycled,” Dungey told weather.com. “The plastic tree-shape decorations, those are made of non-recyclable, non-degradable plastics and metals. They never decompose. Every one we buy is going to end up in the landfill.”
Harman has an answer for that: “If you use an artificial tree for 10 years, you need 10 trees, and that is 70 years’ worth of growing trees. You have 70 years of water and pesticide consumption. Those have environmental costs, too.”
The bottom line is, don’t fret. If you have an artificial tree, keep it in the family for at least a decade. If you want a real tree, try to get one nearby to where you live and recycle or compost it. (Check your parks department for information about local programs.)
“For every 30 people being like, ‘I always get a real tree because I think it’s great for the environment,’ I have 30 people who say, ‘I have an artificial tree because I think it’s great for the environment,’” Harman says. “Everyone’s right.”
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