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    The Great Debate: Real Vs. Artificial Christmas Trees
    By Kimberly Crandell | December 7th 2007 05:46 PM | 47 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Kimberly

    I'm a mother of three, with an aeronautical engineering degree.  Although it's been a while since I've done any aircraft

    ...

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    Christmas trees are appearing in homes throughout the country and families prepare for the holiday season. But in this age when we are all asked to be aware of the impact we are having on the environment, is the right choice to purchase an artificial tree and use it year after year, or go in search of the perfect living tree to be the centerpiece of our holiday decorating?

    The answer may surprise you.

    Christmas Tree



    Artificial trees do offer a long-term solution for your Christmas tree decorating needs. And I have to admit, the latest generation of “fake” trees don’t look that fake. They’ve come a long way from the first artificial trees that were actually manufactured by a toilet brush company. That’s right, the first artificial tree was pretty much a really tall, green, toilet brush. But today, until you get close, you’d be hard pressed to distinguish the artificial trees from the real thing… except of course for the missing fresh pine smell.

    Economically, artificial trees can also be easier on your wallet. For the cost of a single large live tree, you can purchase an artificial tree that looks the same but will last for several holiday seasons. Sticker shock has become part of the annual trek out to find the family Christmas tree at a local tree lot. If you want your real tree to meet your eye level or above, be prepared to pay in the neighborhood of $100 before you can lash the tree to your roof and drive it home.

    So if they look the same, cost less, can be used year after year, and can prevent living trees from being chopped down… should we all be lining up to purchase an artificial tree this year? Well, maybe not.

    While chopping down a living tree may see like the most un-environment friendly thing you can do, in this situation it actually appears to be the “greener” choice. Because it’s not so much about how many uses you can get from your tree… as it is about what the tree is made of, and what it does to the environment when it is created and when you dispose of it.

    Artificial Tree


    Artificial trees are manufactured using a polyvinyl chloride (or PVC), which is a petroleum-derived plastic. The raw material for fake Christmas trees is both non-renewable and polluting. Furthermore, PVC production results in the unhealthy emission of a number of carcinogens, such as dioxin, ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride.

    Additionally, in order to make the PVC needles on artificial trees more malleable, the manufacturers use lead and other additives that have been linked to liver, kidney, neurological, and reproductive system damage in lab studies on animals. The Children’s Health Environmental Coalition warns fake trees "may shed lead-laced dust, which may cover branches or shower gifts and the floor below the tree."

    Some artificial trees actually come with warning labels due to their lead content. And not that we’ve recently had any problems with excess lead content in items imported from China (ahem), but approximately 85% of the artificial trees imported by the United States come from China.

    Richard Maas, the director of the Environmental Studies program at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, offers some tips for people who suspect that their artificial tree may contain lead:

    - Keep children away from the tree. Do not allow them to touch the tree.

    - If you touch the tree, was your hands thoroughly before touching your face or handling food.

    - Do not vacuum dust from under the tree, especially with a vacuum that does not have a HEPA filter. Vacuuming could spread lead dust through the air in tiny particles, creating an inhalation danger.

    Hmmm. Well then… that puts a bit of a damper on the Christmas cheer.

    So what about real Christmas trees? Well, we know what they are made of… an all natural, all renewable source. But there are some components of the Christmas tree industry that aren’t quite as green. Most trees are harvested after 8-12 years, and require maintenance over that period. In addition to watering, some Christmas tree farms use pesticides and chemicals for pest control and to speed growth. Also, when it comes time for delivering those trees to Christmas tree lots, they must be transported by truck to the local communities.

    Christmas Tree Farm


    The good news is, while those trees are growing they help to sequester the carbon dioxide that is produced by modern industries. Each year, an acre of Douglas fir trees can absorb 11,308.7 lbs of carbon dioxide. And frequently, Christmas tree farms are placed in areas that would otherwise be unusable. Due to their hardiness, Christmas trees can be planted on barren slopes where few other plants successfully grow, as well as fill in areas under power lines.

    When the time comes for harvesting the trees, each tree that is cut down must be replaced. So most tree farms plant 1 to 3 new trees for every one that is cut, in order to to maintain a constant supply. So fortunately the tree population is not reduced due to Christmas tree farming; but instead is maintained, protected, and in many instances increased.

    And in terms of the transportation costs and impact, trees must be grown fairly locally in order to make it into homes while still fresh. So some transporting and trucking is part of the supply line… but most likely is a much shorter trip and burns much less fuel than importing artificial trees from China. And there is the added bonus of supporting a local businesses as opposed to buying a foreign import.

    But if you buy ten real trees in ten years as opposed to only one artificial tree in the same period, do the benefits of the real trees still outweigh the negatives of the fake ones? Clearly you can save money by purchasing a single artificial tree. But it is important to look at the environmental difference between the two options.

    An artificial tree may be used for 5, 10, or 15 years… but eventually it will be disposed of it in favor of something new. Unfortunately artificial trees are not biodegradable and cannot be recycled, so their disposal has a significant impact to the environment. If disposed in a landfill, artificial trees will never breakdown but rather permanently remain in landfills. If disposed of by incineration, the PVC in artificial trees will emit into the atmosphere dioxins and other carcinogens into the air.

    On the other hand, when the holidays are over a real tree can be recycled. The branches and trees can be ground into mulch. The mulch provides a protective barrier for the roots of other plants and vegetation while preventing weeds from growing. The mulch then decomposes, providing the nutrients plants need.

    In our area, it isn’t even necessary to transport your tree to a recycling center. The Boy Scouts come by each neighborhood during the two weekends following Christmas, and for a small donation will pick up any trees left by the curbside and deliver them to a nearby recycling center. You’ve got to love those Boy Scouts!

    There are still proponents for both sides of the Christmas tree debate. But short of forgoing a tree altogether, the real trees are the best option when considered from an environmental perspective. So the best advice? Go to a local tree farm or lot, and have a great time picking out the family Christmas tree. Make a big deal of the event, possibly stopping for hot chocolate or cider somewhere on the way home. Once your tree is home, keep it well watered… and respect the “three strand” limit on joining strings of lights together. (Most Christmas tree fires are the result of overloaded electrical circuits, not dry trees.) And when the holiday season is over, make sure your tree is disposed of properly at a recycling center. This way your family Christmas tree can enjoy a second life... as mulch to help nurture and protect the next generation of trees.

    Comments

    darkharmony
    I disagree with this article. First of all farmland and slopes do in fact support its own assemblage of shrubs and plants which in turn support organisms. Creating a mono-culture of balsan fir trees and inhibiting secondary succession isn't environmental friendly at all. It is true that these artifical trees would be detrimental to the environment because it isn't biodegradable but perhaps a better way around this problem would be for compaines to start creating their trees with no PVC and use other more organic ways of making christmas trees.
    Hank
    perhaps a better way around this problem would be for compaines to start creating their trees with no PVC and use other more organic ways of making christmas trees.

    What's more organic than growing a renewable tree in the ground on farms? No PVCs and 100% natural, if you ask me. And they smell nice. :)

    darkharmony
    Perhaps, but with more than a billion people worldwide harvesting trees for one day of the year.....and the fact that the article appears to forget that nutrient cycles don't work like watering a plant i.e. it takes a fair amount of time to occur. Also the monoculture aspect of the whole thing troubles me...at any moment some host specific beetle or virus could destroy the entire thing and hence a whole bunch of money goes down the drain.
    Your primary concern seems not to be with the environmental impact on but is more geared towards economical aspects as stated in your last statement. I thought that this article did an amazing job with outlining both points of the argument and then stating which choice seemed to have the smallest amount of environmental impact. I would agree with it. PVC are cheap to manufacture. So I don't see China which produces 85% of our artificial Christmas trees switching over to a more environmentally friendly product when they can manufacture each tree for about 10 dollars. Don't fix that which is not broken. Also, China doesn't not have very high environmental standards. This is another reason I don't for see a change in that way. As to viruses and beetles wiping out populations, that happens all the time. Price just goes up for that year. No big problem. Also,most Christmas trees are harvested after 8-12 years and carbon sequestering occurs more rapidly in younger trees. The National Christmas Tree Association's website also has some more information on artificial trees as well as real trees.

    Kimberly Crandell
    I disagree with this article.

    This article was meant to compare the two options that most people currently consider around the holidays... an artificial tree or a cut real tree. Of those two options, the cut tree definitely seems to have a much lower environmental impact. But I do agree that there be other options out there. Buying a potted tree that can be planted in your yard after the holidays would be a fantastic alternative, assuming you live in an environment that will support such a tree year-round. Or stringing up lights on a tree already in your front yard as the family "Christmas tree", while piling presents beneath a display of decorated evergreen boughs which could "stand-in" for an indoor tree... would be another way to celebrate with the look and smell of a real tree (without any trees actually being harmed!)

    I do agree it would be great if they would find a way to create the artificial trees without the use of PVC and lead. But I still believe that even with the greatest of technologies, we would have a hard time creating something that is going to be more recycleable and resuable than an actual tree.

    Did you know they still make aluminum Christmas trees? They are 100% recyclable, our is very easy to assemble and last forever! We really enjoy ours - its fun, unique and planet safe. I grew up with cut trees and still miss them some time, but we are lucky enough to have them in our yard and decorate the outdoor trees and keep the inside one aluminum. We got ours at yuletideexpressions.com Definitely more expensive than pvc, but totally worth it.

    Kimberly Crandell
    Are those like the pink ones that they show at the tree lot in "A Charlie Brown Christmas?" I like how they were perfectly shaped triangles, in every color of the rainbow. (not saying that is what yours looks like, I just remember Lucy and her friends asking Charlie Brown to bring back an aluminum tree)

    How can you say that aluminum trees are planet safe? There is always a waste product when it comes to manufacturing something. Aluminum manufacturing gives off 5.5 tons of carbon dioxide and 3,300 tons of perfluorocarbons per year. Not to mention tailings which are marginally economical but mostly just a huge waste product.

    Our family has always used artificial Christmas trees. It has become quite a tradition, and I don't really think we could go back to using a regular one, especially after reading this article. Thank you!

    I don't think you really understood what the article states. In the conclusion the author wrote, "There are still proponents for both sides of the Christmas tree debate. But short of forgoing a tree altogether, the real trees are the best option when considered from an environmental perspective. So the best advice? Go to a local tree farm or lot, and have a great time picking out the family Christmas tree. Make a big deal of the event, possibly stopping for hot chocolate or cider somewhere on the way home."

    rholley
    To the tune of "Ode to Joy" (soon to be imposed as European Union anthem, if the sprouts in Brussels have their way): Plastic trees don't shed their needles, Wie ein echter Tannenbaum: (two lines to follow in any European language most welcome, provided they rhyme.)
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Good article. I actually like both, as when I was a ki9d we had natural some years and artificial ones other years. I didn't realize the latter are made with such materials, or I wouldn't have boughtthe small artificial tree I did a few years ago -- I bought it for then-neighbors' benefit, as they REALLY likie Chrismas and I live alone (aqnd halfway around the world, so ashing to9 releatives' isn't a eavery-year sort of option). Maybe I can get aqn aluminum tree next time.

    Some of the comments above seem to indicate that the writers didn't get the gist of the article. I suspect they were written by people with an ulterior motive... "I always have preferred artificial Christmas trees, but after reading this, I'm extra glad that our family always followed this tradition instead of using real trees. I'll be sharing your article with friends. Thanks!" What?!

    I digress. My question is, what should I do when I live in Southern California? Any tree farms here must be unsustainable, given that the natural climate is dry, dry, dry. Buying a real tree here is clearly not a good choice. And I'd rather not buy an artificial tree after reading the above article. I'd like to buy a potted tree, but I live in an apartment and have no place to plant it after the holidays.

    Does anyone have any suggestions for types of indoor, potted trees that don't outgrow their pot too much, and that I can keep indoors all year?

    Many thanks!

    I work in a store that sells artificial trees and the author of this article does not have his facts straight. Most real tree fires are not from electrical overloads but because the tree didnt get enough water and the heat from the lights cause it to catch fire. Artifical trees do NOT contain lead, this is a myth. Some lightbulbs (not just christmas lights, all lights in general) contain a small amount of lead in the fuse, this is the lead that caused the myth to arise. This small amount of lead is sealed inside the fuse and cannot hurt anyone. Telling your kids not to touch the tree or to wash up after being near it is just absurd.

    Do a simple youtube search for this and you will see that some artificial trees do contain lead. CNN reported on it about two years ago. You can also look on the National Christmas Tree Association's website to find out about information about lead being in artificial trees. It is no myth. It just not in all of them. So people really do have to check for warning labels on the back of packages before they buy. It is not just in the light fuses it is in the hunter green paint that is on the lights. Check the CNN report, it will surprise you. Also, If a fire does start and gets going. the artificial tree will flame up just like the real trees. Even if it is flame retardant. Check the National Christmas Tree Association's website for this too.

    I think a lot of people who read this article have not truly 'read' it.

    It gave both sides of the debate very nicely - it is up to the reader to make a decision from the information.

    Those who have got all uppity should probably go back through and re-read it...

    There were instances of tress containing lead some years ago and whilst these have been phased out, many people still have old trees that may have been connected to this scare. If Alex takes a second look at the article it should be apparent that the tips on washing hands etc are for those who own a tree they SUSPECT contains lead, it was not an all-encompassing piece of advice.

    Becky Jungbauer
    I agree with Jenny and Krissy. The article (which was written by a she, Alex) provides both sides of the debate, but some commenters' responses imply she came down on one side or the other. This is something I struggle with each year because I want to be environmentally friendly but I grew up with real trees and there's something about trekking out to a local tree farm, playing in the snow, picking out a tree to cut down, and having the whole house smell like Christmas. I really like the potted idea, but like Krissy I have no place to put it after the holidays. Can you donate potted trees to local parks? I imagine there are some insect transfer issues, like boats and public access and zebra mussels.
    No one mentioned the fact that those who have allergies cannot have a real tree. Though my family strives to be as environmentally conscious as possible, we purchased an artificial tree a number of years back after several holidays spent with illness and asthma issues. It has made a huge difference in our health! Though we miss the tradition of going to the local farm and cutting down our own tree, we're much healthier and happier with our good ole artificial one! I did invest in an air-tight container to keep dust and mold out, though.

    Hi - I just wanted you to know that I Stumbled this and also mentioned this post on my blog:

    http://www.ecomeg.com/2009/12/real-versus-artificial-christmas-trees.html

    Best regards,

    EcoMeg

    Do you know how much energy it takes to make aluminum?

    Hi there

    i think kim did a great job highlighting the important points for both ideas, big tumb up for the article and for her.

    Go Green get a Natural Holyday tree

    Best regards and Happy Holidays from Mexico City

    I think this article was good about discussing both sides of the debate. I personally have an artificial tree for the purpose of easy decorating, not having to spend money each year on a new tree and having a consistent shape and density with which to work with. I love the smell of real pine so I buy fresh garland for my mantle and a fresh wreath or two to put around my house.
    With that said, after reading this article I have come up with a brainstorm that I will definitely explore: an "Artificial Tree Recycle Drive". As an interior designer, I have been trying to figure out a charity that I can participate in to give back to the community, while using my talents. There are many homeless shelters, soup kitchens, halfway houses, public health centers and less fortunate people who would be blessed by having a Christmas tree each year, lit with LED Christmas lights of course- using 90% less energy and lasting ALOT longer. This will help keep some of these artificial tress out of the landfills and will lift some spirits during a holiday season that can be depressing for some. Though this is a small contribution to our environment, I think every little bit will help- whether you stop buying artificial or donate your existing one to a good cause. I will search for a cause like this in my community and if it does not exist yet, I suppose I will work towards getting one started.
    Thanks for the article!

    Amy

    Kimberly Crandell
    Amy, I think this is a fantastic idea!  Sometimes we forget the other branch of conserving resources - there is recycling, but there is also reusing.  I think that offering a service for people to donate their artificial trees to is a fantastic brainstorm.  I'm sure that there are many that go without a tree that would be happy to have an artificial tree that another household does not need/want anymore.

    And this article was never meant to be the final word on which was the ultimate "best" choice.  I think it's based on the needs and situations of each individual.  If the only way you can have a real tree each year is to buy one that trucked from 1000 miles away, is that better than going to buy an artificial tree that you plan to use over and over for 15 years and then dispose of (or donate) responsibly?  Not necessarily.

    Just like everything, it's just best to have all the information - and then make an informed decision.  We're all in this together after all.

    Happy holidays everyone!
    Interesting...this is far from scientific. A lot of suppositions. Good info about the toxicity of some artificial trees, but this is a definite case for lifecycle assesment (LCA). You really can't tell which is environmentally preferable without a thorough and scientific lifecycle analysis. So anyone thinking this article is conclusive is mistaken.

    I love of course a real Christmas tree. But we have a very nice artificial and we alternate every so often. It's a special treat to have a real tree. Sorry to say in our small town you can't get any really nice trees and they cost a fortune. But there is nothing like a real tree. One of these days I would like go and cut one down and bring it home. That would be my ultimate christmas. In Texas this is a little harder to do.

    I prefer artificial because you don't have to water it or sweep up pine needles.

    The one we have now is three peices and the branchs fold out for display and up for storage - it also has 1000 led lights on it. So, half the decorating is done!

    Great article. I grew up with a real Christmas tree every year and having an artificial one has just never felt right. Unfortunately, because I'm currently living in Uruguay with my family, getting a real tree isn't an option. They aren't farmed here like in the States. So, if we get a tree, it'll have to be an artificial one. But, I'll definitely be checking the label to see if it was made in China since so many products here are.

    Hi ,



    Thanks for writing such an interesting article. It’s really good to know about Artificial Christmas trees
    Life Cycle Assessment on artificial and natural christmas trees at:

    http://www.ellipsos.ca/modules/news/article.php?storyid=9&lang=english

    Results Summary:

    ''Interestingly, to compensate for the impacts of a Christmas tree, be it natural or artificial, one can offset the carbon emissions by carpooling or biking to work only one to three weeks per year, according to ellipsos. “Knowing this, the most ecological choice between the natural and the artificial Christmas tree becomes anecdotal. Regardless of the chosen type of tree, the impacts on the environment are negligible if compared to other activities...''

    Why does anyone have to have a tree in their house? Period. If you want to be environmentally responsible, just don't do it. Go outside and enjoy the trees where they belong. There is no shortage, yet.

    If you choose to use an artificial Christmas Tree from the standpoint of it being more environmentally friendly, I think that you should really investigate where your artificial Tree is coming from, and consider the environmental impact of transporting you artificial tree to your local store. If your tree is coming from half way across the world, there is no way that it is more environmentally friendly as a tree cut down at a local tree farm.

    As for potted trees, there are a couple of young men in Brittish Columbia who baought a tree farm, and will rent you a potted tree for the holidays. What they do is deliver your potted tree, before the holidays, and pick it up after new years, and re=plant them at their farm. This is the only farm like this that I've heard of, but I'm sure in the years to come it will be sure to grow, and maybe you can start this up in your community.

    thank you soo much my grade in enviornmental science just went up!!!

    If your local climate allows, consider a small to medium, potted rosemary tree. We were able to use ours in Vancouver quite nicely. Bring it in for the holidays, keep it watered and then put it back out on the deck after the New Year - and it smelled nice too!

    "Each year, an acre of Douglas fir trees can absorb 11,308.7 lbs of carbon dioxide."
    When I see an estimate expressed with 6 significant figures, I immediately question all measurements in the same work.

    dorigo
    You shouldn't Rik, the measurement is perfectly valid, since it does not carry a error estimate ;-)
    No, actually I agree perfectly with you, and I discussed this in a recent post. Here is what i wrote there:

    What I am trying to explain is that the answer to the question, for an experimental physicist, is not "to see 100 Z decays to dimuon pairs we need to acquire an integrated luminosity of L = 134/nb", but rather "to see 100 Z decays to dimuon pairs we need to acquire an integrated luminosity of about 130 inverse nanobarns". The second answer, thanks to the intrinsic inaccuracy which it contains, is -to me- actually more accurate!!! Remember this, because it is an important lesson: the uncertainty is more important than the measurement. In the sentence "about 130" we make it clear that we are not serious about the last digit, and so we provide MORE important and accurate information than "=134"!

    Let me stress it again (and I will make it a "say of the week" one day): given a chance to either be given the result of a measurement without its uncertainty, or be told the uncertainty of the measurement without the value of the measurement itself, you should choose the second!
    Cheers,
    T.
    Why even have a tree at all? Just a dumb tradition. My husband and I have both worked on Christmas tree farms in southwest va. in the past, and we have friends who grow Christmas trees. They ALWAYS use insecticides, chemical fertilizers, and roundup., whether or not they actually "see" the insect. It's just the norm to spray. My husband once sprayed insecticide for a farm. He had to be covered head to toe with vinyl suit and wear a mask. So, if it is so safe as some of you say, look up some of the chemicals that are used on Christmas tree farms. And of COURSE the Christmas Tree Grower's Associations are gonna make it look all "green". I know a tree farmer less than five miles from my home that logged out a beautiful forest just to plant christmas trees. MONOCULTURE. Not good. Not like nature planned.

    You neglected to factor in two other points albeit minor ones:

    One point for artificial trees: Allergies. My friend is allergic to pine trees so she has a four foot fake tree that she has had for many years.

    One point against: Storage cost. A fake tree is nice price for multiple uses, but you also have to pay to store it. That should also be accounted for in the cost of a fake tree. Storage costs are often neglected when factoring the price of an object. Usually because storage costs are variable, but the cost is there even if we don't think about it.

    Neither for or against: My husband has a 2 foot tree (more like your toilet brush variety) that we include as part of our regular decorating that he has had since age 16. Some years when we just didn't have the means to get a real tree we still had that little tree. We pull it out to decorate before we get our "official" Christmas tree.

    Funny anecdote: I helped my brother make a popcorn string for his first Christmas tree with his wife. On Christmas morning they discovered ants liked popcorn. When he took the tree out to the dumpster he immediately dove into the apartment complex's pool to wash the ants off. Real or fake, I would toss an ant covered tree too.

    love this source!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    i love real tree smell but i have a family member allergic so i see both sides its christmas dont argue enjoy MERRY CHRISTMAS to all and thank god we have the money to buy a tree and presents to put under it and family to share it with real or fake put some ornaments on it and smile

    A just released study, the first ISO-compliant peer reviewed study of its kind comparing the environmental impact of the most common real Christmas tree to the most common artificial tree found that either tree has a negligible impact on the environment. The complete study, conducted by PE International, can be found at www.christmastreeassociation.org.

    blue-green
    For Hank's bemusement, that's my 400 horsepower snowmobile
    (30 minutes directly from my back door) ...
    Seriously, the article doesn't even go into the fake snow, lights 'n tinsel.  
    You can't outperform nature. She's older and wiser. Immerse yourself in the real deal.
    Why compromise or make excuses?

    blue-green
    Here's another. For the 99%, it's pretty much all virtual anyways ... right down to the fireplace.
    Problem solved. Merry Christmas.


    Wow, and I was actually thinking about getting a fake tree. I'm glad I went with a real one except I don't know if I'm allergic or not.

    Hank
    I've actually never heard of anyone being allergic to a Christmas tree.  You went all this time without being around one ever before?
    I think we usually had fake trees but now that I found out about the lead, we went with a real one this year. I tested positive to many grass types in my allergy test as well as cats, dogs, seasonal, etc. Just a lot of allergies. Not sure if I tested for pine.

    This article appears to have been prepared with a research bias, where more research was conducted into the effects of fake trees on the environment without researching the effects of real trees on the environment. For example this article fails to take into account the water consumed in the growth of these 'real' trees, water consumption is massive part of the environmental problems facing the earth today, its not just about gases. Also the article mentions that the 'an acre of Douglas fir trees can absorb 11,308.7 lbs of carbon dioxide' but fails to take into account that this fact is worthless, you need to ask the question what happens after your finished with the tree, the answer is that it breaks down and release the carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. The best tree is a potted tree that is alive but can be used for several years.

    i think the author of this article did a great job highlighting the important points for both. As far as my point is I will always prefer artificial christmas tree !