Live VS Artificial – Which Christmas Tree stands up to the Eco-Friendly Test?

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This artificial garland is a wonderful addition to our holiday decorations, but is it as environmentally friendly as our natural decorations?

Chopping down lots of trees or buying something plastic and manufactured? Having your house smell great, or making one purchase that will last for years to come? There are pros and cons to each tree type, and shockingly enough, each stood up against the eco-friendly test. There are many variables that play a part to the eco-friendly nature of your tree, and if any of those pieces are missing, the green factor can dramatically decline.

So, don’t worry or feel guilty if you or a loved one has allergies to the live tree! Make their season a bit merrier by buying that artificial tree; it’s not as environmentally destructive as many think it is. In fact, there are some pros to it and around 60% of Americans do artificial over live (The Washington Post).

Back in 2012, the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA) requisitioned an outside organization to complete a life-cycle study to look at live vs. artificial impacts from beginning to end of its life. The results shows that the plastic trees have roughly the same carbon footprint as a natural tree, as long as it is used the way it was designed to be used. In order for the plastic tree to be greener than a natural tree, it needs to be used for at least seven years. Many families have chosen the artificial route specifically for this purpose; to keep it in the family. On average, families use their artificial tree for 7-9 years before upgrading or switching to a live tree (Indiana Department of Natural Resources).

Not only will you be greener with a seven year old artificial tree, but so will your wallet! Live trees can run a family $20-50 depending on size and species of the tree. If a family wants to use a live tree, they will have to put out that cost yearly, whereas the point of an artificial tree is to be able to reuse it year after year after year.

If the artificial is not used for at least the seven years, then the live tree becomes a great choice. For starters, the tree used to be alive; a real, growing plant. Evergreens produce Oxygen and absorb Carbon Dioxide while they are photosynthesizing. This process helps reduce greenhouse gases and provides cleaner air. Many tree farmers keep the stumps of old trees in the ground. As the old roots decompose, Carbon is stored in the ground. According to John Platt, an Environmental and Technology writer for takepart.com, news website, and the Scientific American, most Christmas tree farmers could store 6.6 tons of carbon per acre if the farmers planted 70% ground cover between the trees. The amount of Carbon stored in the ground is roughly the same as the amount of Carbon used and turned into pollution during six cross-country flights.

Many farmers also plant these trees on land that is ill suited for other types of beneficial crops. If nothing else is going to grow, why not plant trees that people can buy every year instead? In fact, around 25-35 million live trees are sold each year in America (USDA). This provides countless numbers of locals in every state with jobs as opposed to the artificial tree business, where around 85% of artificial trees are made in China (moneycrashers.com).

Another factor to consider when purchasing a tree is the amount of pollution created. Yes, it’s fairly obvious that artificial trees are made with PVC, or Polyvinyl chloride (ACTA). The artificial tree is also treated with a fire resistant chemical and both the PVC material and the chemical fire retardant has been linked to some health concerns, such as some forms of cancer and neurological damage (moneycrashers.com). These artificial trees also have to travel a long way, increasing the amount of pollution produced in the shipping process from China to America. However, natural trees also have their fair share of concerns. If a tree is not sold at the farm it was grown at, the trees had to have been shipped to the selling location. While the distance is not as far as it is for the artificial trees, there is still a significant impact. Some trees may travel hundreds of miles, especially in the southern states that don’t have the best growing environment for the trees. Buying as local as possible is always the best option when buying natural.

These natural trees are excellent homes for many species of wildlife, and as such, farmers need to use heavy doses of pesticides. These chemicals have been linked to health issues in wildlife like birds and fish, and have also become toxic to humans due to the inert ingredients in the pesticide (rodalesorganiclife.com).

Tree disposal is another huge variable that impacts how environmentally friendly the Christmas tree is. If a natural tree is simply thrown away at the end of the year, it will negatively impact its green factor. Fortunately, there are many ways to prevent your tree from just going to a landfill or just sitting around, decomposing and emitting CO2. There are over 4,000 recycling programs across the country, where the trees are mulched up and used to line the ground at playgrounds (Earth911). In Louisiana, the natural trees are creatively used for erosion control especially in wetlands that have been damaged by hurricanes. In many other states, the trees are used to provide homes for small animals (rodalesorganiclife.com).

If you are still unsure of what to do, know that there is another alternative. Live, potted trees are available to rent. The potted tree will arrive at your house and once the Christmas season is finished and it’s time to take down the last paper snowflake, the tree can be replanted outside. This live tree can be reused, just like the artificial one, provided that it is well cared for and survives the hectic season. Many local parks will accept the tree if you don’t have enough space to replant the tree. While this option may not be feasible for everyone, it is another option to look in to (Earth911).

Overall, artificial and natural trees are both friendly, provided they are used and disposed of properly. It is up to the consumer to make the final call, knowing how they will use and dispose of the tree.  Feel confident in your purchase and know that it is ultimately up to you to make your Christmas as green as it can be!

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Bucks County Audubon Society buys live, local Christmas Trees. As an environmental education organization, we take pride in our eco-friendly actions! Now we know that our natural and artificial evergreens are both serving their purpose and we are still being green!

Citations and Helpful Resources

Tips for a Green Christmas

BCAS Pinterest DIY Board to make natural holiday decorations

Natural Christmas Tree Association

http://www.christmastreeassociation.org/ American Christmas Tree Association

Moneycrashers.com

Rodales Organic Life

Takepart.com

Earth 911

Where in Bucks County are Local Christmas Tree Farms?

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