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Environmental Impact of Real vs. Fake Christmas Trees

Sally Painter
Christmas Tree Farm in central Oregon

You may believe the environmental impact of a fake Christmas tree is less than that of a real Christmas tree. According to scientists, that point-of-view is wrong.

Environmental Pros for Buying Live Christmas Trees

Experts at NASA write that buying a real tree is better for the environment than buying an artificial tree. That's because the trees that growers plant are on large land tracts that add to carbon dioxide eating vegetation.

Uses Land Not Suitable for Traditional Agriculture

According to USA Today, Christmas trees are typically grown on what's known as marginal land. This land isn't suitable for growing crops. The trees don't take up crop fields, but make use of land that would otherwise remain vacant.

Tree Growth Time Factor

It requires between eight to twelve years for a seedling to mature into a tree size suitable for a Christmas tree. All that time, the future Christmas trees are converting carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen. The trees are natural air scrubbers and are a big plus on the pro side of supporting Christmas tree growers.

Carbon Stored in Trees

Discover Magazine examined the amount of carbon Christmas trees absorb during their life cycle. This is considered a way that the trees offset to the emissions released from the seedling to harvest time frame. The study measured the tree tissue that was above ground. It was concluded that an estimated 20 pounds of carbon dioxide is the average amount found in the Christmas tree. In other words, everything but the tree roots has absorbed carbon dioxide.

Live Trees Biodegradable and Sustainable

While your artificial tree eventually ends up in the landfill, a live tree can be recycled for the wood or shredded for mulch. Some lake managements collect live Christmas trees to sink in the lakes to provide new habitats for fish and other aquatic life. Christmas trees are a renewable resource. Christmas tree growers plan successive plantings so the trees are a sustainable crop.

Cons for Buying Live Christmas Trees

There are some cons when it comes to choosing a live Christmas tree over artificial ones. These factors have an environmental impact.

Carbon Footprint

Discover Magazine explains the life cycle assessment (cradle to grave) that was conducted on live Christmas trees. Data collected covered all aspects of growing a Christmas tree, from planting, fertilizing, pest and weed control, to irrigation consumption. The report points out that something as simple as gasoline or diesel fuel use offsets the carbon gobbled up by Christmas trees.

Advantage of Purchasing an Artificial Christmas Tree

The advantage for buying an artificial tree is its lifespan of five to eight years. This means the same tree is reusable for those years. You aren't contributing to the pollution created by manufacturing the tree since you only purchase it one time in a span of five or eight years.

Negative Impact of Buying an Artificial Tree

There are several cons, or negative effects, of buying an artificial tree. Artificial trees aren't sustainable, and each tree eventually winds up in a landfill.

Environmental Impact of Manufacturing Christmas Trees

Discover Magazine points out that the majority of artificial trees over the last decades have been produced in China. The article cites the manufacturing process of PVC and metal trees releases large amounts of pollutants into the air along with carbon emissions in a country where factories don't have the same constraints of those in the U.S. The cost of shipping the trees also adds pollutants into the air and oceans.

Artificial Trees End Up in Landfills

NASA points out that while you may be able to use your artificial tree for several Christmases, you will eventually need to replace it. When that time rolls around, you will typically toss your tree in the garbage bin or take it to a city designated station that process artificial Christmas trees.

The Overall Impact of Real vs Artificial Christmas Trees

In the final analysis, it appears that the environmental impacts of both real Christmas tree and artificial trees is relatively even. It doesn't appear that one is better or worse, so you shouldn't have any guilt over the one you choose!

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Environmental Impact of Real vs. Fake Christmas Trees