Real or Fake: Which Christmas Tree is More Eco-Friendly?

Christmas trees come in many shapes and sizes, offering consumers an array of choices to make the season bright. But one expert cautions that when it comes to environmental impact, not every holiday tree is created equal.

Clint Springer, Ph.D., a botanist and global warming expert at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, explained that although some people consider farm-raised trees wasteful and potentially harmful to the environment because they are enjoyed for a brief time before a trip to the curb for trash pick-up after the festivities, the opposite actually is true.

“For the environmentally conscious consumer, a live Christmas tree is preferable to artificial,” he said. “An expenditure on a live tree results in a carbon neutral purchase that poses very little environmental threat, while injecting money into the domestic economy.”

Springer added that the most environmentally friendly tree would be raised organically – without the use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides – in nearby environs with its roots intact, so that it can be re-planted after Christmas. He said buying from a local grower cuts down on the use of fossil fuels to transport the tree to the seller’s place of business, which reduces the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.

However, if it isn’t possible to “go organic,” Springer emphasized it still is better to buy farm-raised rather than plastic, even considering the use of pesticides by tree farmers. Research from North Carolina State University has shown that the run-off of chemicals to streams by Christmas tree farms does not cause a significant threat to water quality. The fabrication of synthetic trees, however, is not so benign. Springer notes that making the artificial variety requires an increased use of resources, especially those that are non-renewable – such as petroleum – and also causes the release of harmful greenhouse gases during their production, processing and shipping.

“Another huge drawback to fake trees is that eventually, they will end up in a landfill where they will linger in the environment forever, whereas live trees are recycled and made into mulch,” Springer explained.

In addition, farmers commonly plant saplings to replace trees sold for the holiday season harvest, which culminates in a zero net exchange of greenhouse gases over the life of each purchased tree, Springer said.

Still, budget-conscious consumers will argue that artificial trees are cheaper in the long run since they can be used for multiple years. But Springer said the choice to go live is a boon to the economy, because the industry brings in over $500 million annually, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“For example, Pennsylvania boasts more Christmas tree farms than any other state – while most artificial trees are produced in China,” said Springer.

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