Christmas Tree Debate: Real or Fake?

My home sits in the Berkshire Hills, with a distant view of the second highest peak in Massachusetts– Mt. Everett. Surrounding my house is a swath of farmland, which includes a Christmas tree farm owned by the Chapin family, who arrived in my town in about 1830.

In its heyday in the 1990s, the Chapin Christmas Tree Farm was packed with people from the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas eve. Families would arrive on our small dirt road from a 2-hour radius (south to Manhattan, west to Albany, east to Hartford). Children and parents would pile out of cars to prowl the several acres of trees in search of The One that was just right. Eventually each family would find the tree that best fit their image of Christmas (and their living room), and my neighbor or his grandson would pull out a saw and the transaction was completed.

This scene—one of family togetherness, people asserting their own unique taste, and support of local agriculture– is today rarer than it should be. More than twice as many families in the United States use fake trees as real ones. Beyond the losses to family interactions and local economies, this situation is bad for our climate.

Fake trees are usually made from a kind of plastic called polyvinyl chloride (PVC) which is derived from petroleum. Electricity is used to melt the plastic, and approximately 85% of the fake trees sold in the US are shipped here from China. Most of China’s electricity comes from burning coal—the dirtiest source of electricity. Once the fake trees are made, they still have to be shipped across the ocean—usually in a diesel-fuel powered ship. More emissions still. (Fake trees also sometimes release lead when they get old, which isn’t a climate impact, but still is not a great thing to have happening in your living room.)

Real trees of course do sometimes require shipping. Today on US Route 7, I saw a truck with Quebec license plates headed south—loaded with about 250 bound-up real trees.

But real trees also grow in the ground for several years before they are cut, absorbing carbon out of the atmosphere every year. The vast majority of real trees today come from Christmas tree farms—about 12,000 of which exist in the United States. On these farms each tree cut is typically replaced by a new tree or two or three, which continue removing carbon from the air.

And once Christmas is over you can use your real tree in many ways—the boughs can be cut and used as a protective covering over delicate shrubs, the tree can be chipped and composted, and there’s the ever popular New Year’s Eve bonfire (if you live in an appropriate place for bonfires). Real trees can also be used to help trap sand on beaches, preventing erosion, or sunk in ponds to provide habitat for fish and other wildlife.

For best climate impact, find a local tree farm to buy from. The National Christmas Tree Association allows you to search by zip code. Or this site offers a listing by state and county. And perhaps an organic Christmas tree is best of all. Twenty-two states now have organic Christmas tree farms.

(Photo: Christmas tree farm. Photo credit: liljulier/flickr via a Creative Commons license.)

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Comments

  1. We always get a real tree. We also dry out fruit and string popcorn with cranberries. After Christmas we sit the tree and dried fruit out for the birds. Later we chop the tree up in the chipper and use it as mulch in our garden. I couldn’t imagine a Christmas with a fake tree. Glad to hear we’re making the right choice!

  2. Longing for more? Tune in Sunday, 11/28, to watch Frank Lowenstein talk about real vs. fake Christmas trees at 9:30 a.m. ET on MSNBC and 5:30 p.m. ET on FOX.

  3. I like the article, but disagree with the suggestion to burn the tree in a bonfire. This would release all that carbon that was sucked up by the tree when it was growing.

    1. Hi, I’m Brad Parker and I work at The Nature Conservancy.

      Alan and wild4nature raised valid concerns in their comments. I shared them with Frank Lowenstein, his response is below.

      Thanks,
      Brad

      Alan and wild4nature make some great points, and the kind of critical thinking they are demonstrating will be more and more needed by consumers moving forward. My bonfire suggestion would, as wild4nature points out, release most of the carbon accumulated by that particular Christmas tree. But it’s important to recognize that most of the benefit from Christmas tree farms comes from the trees not cut. There are more than 400 million Christmas trees on tree farms in the US, and only about 10% of these are cut each year. The others keep growing, keep sequestering carbon, and may even grow faster (thereby storing more carbon) as the stand is thinned. Thus the fate of the tree you cut is less important than the stream of revenue you create that sustains a Christmas tree farm in business.

      As Alan points out, chipping and composting a tree does cause a release some of the carbon bound up in the tree, but slowly. And by digging the compost into your soil you may slow that release a bit and help your garden too (thereby soaking up a little more carbon). Again, the larger benefit is the trees left in the ground and the tree farms kept in business by buying real trees. Trees cut each year are typically replaced with up to three new trees—so the carbon released as the old tree decomposes will be taken up by the new trees.

      As to calculating the relative carbon footprint of plastic versus real trees, it is more complicated than one might think, involving calculating an average value for transport of raw material, emissions during production, and transport of the finished product. The trade association for the plastic tree industry—not a great source for those seeking objective information—found that a plastic tree was better if you kept it 10 years. Unfortunately, the average life for a plastic tree is typically estimated at six years, and the study seems to have ignored the ongoing carbon storage in the real trees on farms but not cut.

      Finally, the carbon footprint of actually going out and buying a real tree or a plastic one will depend on your personal situation. For me, buying a real tree directly from a tree farm would require virtually no driving, while buying a real tree from a vendor would require an 8 mile drive, and for plastic trees I’d have to go at least 12 miles, or 30 miles if I want a decent selection. For some readers that pattern might be reversed.

      The important thing to recognize and remember is that the consumer has tremendous power in the equation. If we put our money toward local, sustainably produced products, the dynamo of capitalism should respond by providing more of those over time—whether we’re talking Christmas trees or the food on our tables. A good holiday to one and all, regardless of the provenance of the tree in your living room.

  4. Wow! This is my first trip to the site; I don’t want to start a war, and I probably agree with the author’s conclusion from an emotional standpoint, but the analysis leaves a lot on the table. First, the “science” seems to be devoid of any real analysis – it wouldn’t be that difficult to determine how much energy on average is consumed from start to finish for both products. Second, it ignores that artificial trees last for 20 years or more, as opposed to a single use tree. Third, while coal energy may be dirtier than other forms, its more efficient than every single person who buys a tree to travel via car to a tree farm yearly. Fourth, trees don’t grow into perfect cones by themselves – tree farms require regular pruning by a special cutting machine, which is powered by – you guessed it – oil. Fifth, while growing trees do absorb carbon, which is good, the authors suggestions for disposing of the trees – such as composting – releases a high percentage of that carbon back into the atmosphere. Again, I’m not trying to start a war, but this analysis is high on romance and short on real data.

  5. We have always bought real, but fake actually may make more sense for us… There are no Christmas tree farms in Hawaii. The closest would be WA. That means not just expending gas to pick up the tree from a seller, but also the cost of both shipping and keeping the trees fresh. In HI, most sellers put trees in refrigerated containers which they run all hours because of the temperature.

    Finally, going green needs to be more cost available. Very little difference is made when only a small segment is able to afford the “Green Revolution.” A real tree while put you out $49 – $90 in the state of Hawaii, whereas a good fake cost $129. Divide that 129 by 10 or even as little as six years and you got a bargin.

    Conclusion, too many factors to consider in choice of Christmas tree.

  6. Hi, We would go the the nursery and buy a live tree (in a 5 gallon container) and then go plant it after New Years!!

  7. The article should mention our favorite thing to do with a tree – get a live tree and plant it after Christmas (like Phil).

    We got one in ball and burlap last year and put it into a large plastic tub while it was in the house (hey, i know it’s plastic but we re-use the plastic tub for many things). We covered the tub with a christmas blanket and tree skirt. Then after christmas we planted the tree in our yard. Every time we see that tree we are reminded of our wonderful family christmas. It will provide a story to tell years from now. If we run out of space with a new tree every year, we’ll find friends to plant trees for.

    You can call around to nurseries and find out who has live trees – we’ve found they are no more expensive than cut trees.

  8. I support local agriculture whenever possible and would go the “real tree” route except for the fact I inherited a fake tree about 10 years ago. I’ve used it every year since, and my parents used it for 10 years before that. The impact of its manufacture is a done-deal, and it’s useful life continues. But when it’s spent, I won’t replace it with another fake tree. As for the carbon a real tree has sequestered, and its release when burned or composted: at least it’s carbon neutral after accounting for transportation and other ancillary measures. In the longer term, I probably won’t buy a real tree either. Instead I’ll plant a tree…

  9. The blog does not take into account that while Christmas tree farms can function somewhat as a carbon sink, they perform that function at the expense of large tracts of forest and habitat which would be able to suck up a lot more carbon than a Christmas tree farm.

    Also, what about pesticides, fertilizers, irrigation, etc?

  10. Ben’s comment brings up an interesting point.

    Keep in mind that a full “real” forest does not generate income for the property owner, and a Christmas tree farm does. If the owner can make money on a tree farm, perhaps that will keep him or her from selling the land for commercial or residential development, which will remove most or all living matter from the property (the exception possibly being grass, with all of its pesticides)

  11. I agree with what Peter said about Ben’s comment. I used to feel bad about cutting down a real tree — only to throw it out after a few weeks. But then I realized that if the family growing the trees couldn’t maintain their business, they would sell the land to developers. This actually happened to our very favorite tree farm in Massachusetts.

    If we support these businesses, they can maintain some semblance of an “ecosystem” — something other than big houses, pavement and perfect lawns. I don’t think grass sucks up a whole lot of carbon (not to mention the other environmental issues that perfect lawn brings up).

  12. This article is nonsense.

    First, and foremost, the author creates a false dichotomy. If you actually care about the environment, don’t buy either. By buying a real or fake tree you are causing completely unnecessary environmental damage. With the average American footprint five times what the planet can sustain, if you care about the environment, you should identify ways to reduce your impact. This is a very simple way to do so.

    Second, if you wish to compare the environmental impact of two products, then you actually have to objectively evaluate the impacts of BOTH products! The most straightforward assessment of the environmental impact of two products is to look at the ecological footprint (land and water area appropriated for the product and its waste) over its lifetime. Every year, that real tree cut down for your house requires land to grow it over several years as well as infrastructure and access roads for production and harvesting. It may require water and fertilizer (likely petroleum derived) to grow it, not to mention vehicles and petroleum to transport it, adding an additional environmental toll. A fake tree requires land for its manufacture and sale (the latter in facilities which exist primarily for the distribution of other products). Like the real tree, it will also need to be transported using vehicles and petroleum (the latter also potentially being used as a raw material for its manufacture). However, unlike the real tree, a fake tree can last for decades, meaning the total amount of land used for its production and distribution must be divided by the number of years it is in use. Since the author did not actually calculate the total land required, it is not clear which is worse. However, a real tree is almost certainly worse when you consider that, at any given time, at least three trees must be grown to yield one fully grown tree each year for a household, whereas the land needed to produce a fake tree must be divided by the number of years it is used. Added bonus, if that petroleum-derived fake tree ends up in a landfill (like most fake and real trees), you’ve now sequestered its carbon.

    My advice, don’t buy a tree. If you chose to be yet another mindless American consumer and insist on buying a tree, completely ignore the original author’s post and buy a fake tree.

  13. I would like to offer that you can often use what’s available rather than a traditional Christmas tree.

    In Texas, we have cedar trees that are not great for the land in that they soak up a tremendous amount of water and resources and grow like weeds and deplete the soil. That said, we generally cut one for our Christmas tree every year. They smell wonderful and are great to remove. Actually, I believe that the pioneers used cedar decorations in the South because traditional Christmas trees just aren’t native here.

    One year, we had just pruned a large oak tree so rather than cut a tree, we took the lovely large branches and put them into the stand and put some lights on them and it was magnificent.

    Of course, after each use they were then put in low areas to help with land erosion.

    Merry Conservation Christmas to All!

  14. Great Article frank. I know the town of which you speak and I know the Chapin’s I have bought many a tree from them.

  15. I think that this is a good article. I also used to feel guilty, but now realize that it is better to use a real christmas tree. And beside, from China isn’t always the greatest idea…

  16. My family has bought a real tree from a local farm, and we have had many good times there. And I don’t really want chemicals in my living room.

  17. I really do like this article, and I am here on a school project. I used to know nothing about fake Christmas trees, but now I will defintly buy a real tree from now on. Although I don’t like the suggustion of burning the tree, I do compost and use it for my garden. Great article!

  18. no tree should be cut for xmas and you don’t need a stupid fake tree its better to go out and see a live tree in the woods with birds. bah humbug

  19. I am a member of a service club which has sold live Christmas trees since our club charted in 1964. We use the profits from their sale to support our many youth-oriented projects in the community. Includes scholarships, oratorical and essay contests and spelling bees; a large sports program including soccer, basketball, tennis and softball. All at no cost to the participants! We have a very loyal customer base and draw buyers from 30 miles around. I doubt if folks like Walmart would ever channel their profits from plastic trees to the local community.

  20. Additional information is missing to make a decision on what kind of tree to buy/use. Nobody pointed out the amount of water used to grow an average Christmas Tree is around 6,900 gallons. Is this wasted water recources? Granted trees are good for our environment and help clean our air. But, because they are grown for harvest, what is the calculated loss of water to how much carbon is filtered by these trees. So many factors. I love a fresh tree, but a fake tree can last a lifetime and have less impact, I feel. Perhaps it’s time ot hit the invention table with a new fake tree concept…that does not use plastics. How about somehow recycling the old cut trees to make fake trees???

  21. trees!

  22. The comment from Alan on Nov. 27 is right!

  23. problem 1: most artificial tress made in china: http://www.uschristmastree.com/
    argument 1: “Christmas tree farms only cut down a third or so of their planted trees.” As opposed to forested land that’s left alone that retains all the trees with no additional work?
    argument 2: “Christmas tree farms employ thousands of US workers.” Papers please? (Sad, but true, and not really that funny for both sides). Also see solution to problem 1 above.
    argument 3: “Creation of artificial tress use electricity and petroleum.” Who doesn’t?

    Unfortunately I see this article as heavily influenced by the Christmas Tree Growing industry. Is this really who the Nature Conservancy should support?

  24. I agree with the couple of people who suggested not buying either a real or fake tree. The only option close to being “green” is buying a live tree that you can plant later. But considerations for planting and maintaining native plants in your location might make this not such a sustainable option after all. In my opinion, we should always recheck our “traditions” on an ongoing basis to ensure that we’re making appropriate behavior improvements over time. It’s about time that we let trees and turkeys, for example, live out their lives without facing our axes.

  25. You can use a fake tree for years, yes. However, over time it can release lead and other petrochemical related gases into your living room. Finding a grower that uses natural fertilizer is best. However, chemically fertilized trees usually involve ground fertilizer.
    So at least you don’t have that to deal with. Not that I can advocate for chemical fertilizers. Merely pointing out that the factories that make the trees do far, far
    worse things to the environment. Keeping your tree for 10 years doesn’t make
    that go away. Buying a fake tree keeps them in business.

  26. Nice Blog ! I really found so many useful information on your site. Thank you for the information. Keep up the good work!

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