Is it better to buy a real Christmas tree or an artificial one?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Dec. 24 2008 10:01 AM

Should I Buy a Fake Fir?

Or is it better for the environment to cut down a real Christmas tree?

Last December, the Green Lantern tackled the age-old question: Is a fake Christmas tree better for the environment than a real one?  The piece is reprinted below.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Please help settle an argument that's threatening to tear my family apart this holiday season: What's worse for the environment, a real Christmas tree that lasts just a few weeks, or an artificial one that we can haul out every December for the next 15 years?

Crunching the numbers on this quandary is tough, if only because so much of the public information is skewed in favor of natural trees. America's Christmas tree growers have a fearsome lobby, one that's spent the past few years demonizing the artificial competition; check out this hilariously alarmist FAQ by the National Christmas Tree Association, which lambastes fake firs and pines as beetle-infested fire hazards descended from toilet brushes. (According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the NCTA started going on the attack in 2004 in response to declining sales.)

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Despite its hyperbolic rhetoric, the real-trees industry makes at least one excellent point when denigrating the fakes: The needles on artificial trees are usually made from polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, which is anathema to Greenpeacers and their ilk. As the Lantern discussed two weeks back, PVC is widely reviled as a major source of dioxins. To make matters worse, cheap PVC is sometimes stabilized with lead, which can break free as harmful dust as a fake tree ages.

Growing concern over PVC has led fake-tree manufacturers to develop polyethylene needles; according to one prominent treemaker, 20 percent of artificial Christmas trees are now PE rather than PVC. But watch out for sleight of hand when it comes to "eco-friendly" fake trees; most of those 20 percent still contain PVC interior needles in order to create a fuller look.

As you note, the chief environmental selling point with fake trees is the fact they can be reused, which means that energy doesn't have to be expended year after year getting the product to market. But how much transportation fuel does an artificial tree really save? Let's make an estimate based on shipping each type of tree to a decidedly average American burg: Lebanon, Kan., claimant to the title of Geographic Center of the Lower 48.

The vast majority—at least 85 percent—of fake trees come from Asia, so we'll base our estimate on a Shanghai-to-Long-Beach, Calif., voyage aboard a container ship. A large ship capable of holding 2,125 40-foot containers will consume about 1,000 metric tons of fuel during its two-week journey across the Pacific Ocean. Let's say that there's only one container of fake trees on that ship, which means the trees' share of that fuel is roughly 1,037 pounds. On the last stretch of the journey, from Long Beach to Lebanon, the Yuletide cargo travels on a truck that gets six miles per gallon. On that 1,160-mile road trip, the truck will consume about 193 gallons of gas, which weighs around 1,158 pounds. Total for the trip from Shanghai to north-central Kansas: 2,195 pounds of fuel.

Now let's compare that fuel usage to 15 years' worth of real trees. (The Lantern is actually skeptical that most artificial trees last that long—especially the cheapest ones—but let's go with it.) In order to consume 2,195 pounds of fuel, your real trees would have to average a farm-to-retailer journey of 146.3 miles, assuming they are transported on the same six-mpg trucks mentioned above. * And even though the NCTA likes to point out that tree farms operate in all 50 states—yes, even in Florida—odds are the trees at your local lot traveled farther than that.

Yet the Lantern is still going to cast his vote for real trees: PVCs are just too worrisome, and so is the disposal issue. It's easy to track down a local program that will turn your real tree into mulch, but even the hardiest plastic tree is doomed to wind up in a landfill, where it will remain intact for ages. As for the fakes' advantage in terms of transportation energy, you can minimize this by being an informed consumer and trying to buy as locally as possible. (Also, don't worry about deforestation—98 percent of American trees are farm-raised, and they are usually replaced on a 3-to-1 basis after each harvest.)

The Lantern realizes, though, that raising Christmas trees may not be the most efficient use of land, and that pesticides are an integral part of the farming process. You may also blanch at the idea of killing a living thing solely so you and yours can enjoy a few weeks of pine-scented joy. In that case, lessen your guilt by buying a tree that you plan on planting after the holidays, complete with roots; just make sure you don't keep it indoors for more than a week, or it might become so acclimated to your living room that it won't survive outdoors.

There are also a few cities, like San Francisco, that offer rent-a-tree programs; they'll bring you a potted tree, then take it back after the holidays and plant it somewhere that needs a dash of green. A smart idea, but traditionalists beware: The trees on offer don't look like the ones you grew up with, but are rather very young Southern magnolias and small-leaf tristanias. They certainly don't appear capable of supporting that massive Three Wise Men ornament you inherited from Grandma.