O Tannenbaum, o tannenbaum. The melody of the song played endlessly on loop during my flight home. With my head now filled with tree names after a semester of dendrology, I was curious to determine what exactly the famed tannenbaum tree was and found the direct German translation to be o fir tree. Once home, one of the many traditions of the holiday season entails family and friends heading over to Silveyville, our local Christmas Tree farm, and chopping down a Monterey Pine (Pinus Radiata) or Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). Long has been the tradition of logging out our freshly cut tree and filling the home with the overwhelming scent of pine, mixed with the delicious aromas of hot apple cider and Christmas cookies.
Yet this year, while roaming around the Christmas tree farm in search of the perfect specimen, keeping in mind height, fullness, and of course quality of the crown for the angel, I couldn’t help but to question if my transition from tree-hugger to tree-feller was the most sustainable holiday tradition. Thus sparked the debate of whether a real tree versus an artificial tree was more aligned with environmentally conscious practices. Although much of the debate is influenced by the concept of natural and phrasing surrounding “real” vs. “fake” trees, I was curious to determine whether perhaps artificial trees were truly the green alternative.
So setting out to my local cafe, I sat window-side, surrounded by hanging ornaments and twinkling lights, with O Tannenbaum playing through my headphones, and delved into the logistics of the Christmas tree market. In 2016, the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) released that 27.4 million real trees were sold in contrast to the 18.6 million fake trees. In regards to the debate of artificial vs. natural, key issues of transport energy usage, PVC production, biodegradability, carbon offsets, and urban sprawl were raised. Let’s tackle these one by one.
Depending on the researcher, I encountered a variety of years required to offset the greenhouse gas emissions, use of resources, and human health impact of artificial trees. Ranging anywhere from 3 years to 20 years, estimates varied depending on the industry each researcher represented. This being said, Michigan State University released a study concluding that one would need to keep an artificial tree for 8-9 years to outweigh the initial costs in comparison to that of an annual natural tree.
One of the components of this suggested timeline lies in the energy usage involved in the tree creation process. With the annual carbon emissions of chopping down a natural tree only one third of keeping an artificial tree for over a six years, research certainly leans towards opting for a real tree. Transport costs and materials factor greatly into this estimate. With artificial trees typically cut from compressed polyvinyl chloride (PVC) sheets, paired with the petroleum consumed and pollution emitted in transporting the artificial trees from overseas, artificial trees lose the first point. China was found to be the leading foreign manufacturer of artificial Christmas trees, shipping $137.5 million worth of fake trees to the United States annually. Natural trees – 1. Artificial trees – 0. And let’s not overlook the materials behind artificial trees. Although non PVC trees are becoming more and more available due to concerns of toxicity, the main issue lies in a lack of biodegradability. With natural tree disposal most often resulting in green waste, the majority of christmas trees found curb-side come January end up as mulch or chipping. And at the very least, real trees will decompose. Natural trees – 2. Artificial trees – 0.
“Artificial trees are a giant green toilet bowl brush. A real Christmas tree starts as a seed. It comes from nature. Fake ones end in landfill, and they won’t decompose like a plant will.”
– Rick Dungey, spokesman for National Christmas Tree Association.
Approaching the issues from a biological mindset, living natural trees further help generate oxygen, fix carbon, and provide habitat for birds and small mammals during the growing season. Nevertheless, it is crucial to choose a local natural tree source. Supporting a tree farm shipping trees from the Pacific Northwest to the suburbs of Florida is not saving any emissions. However, in the context of urban environments, many Christmas tree farms work to conserve farmland and natural green spaces. With an overwhelming trend towards development, the Christmas tree farming industry does it part to prevent urban sprawl. Natural trees – 3. Artificial trees -0.
As I walked through the rows of Monterey pines to my right and left, the mental scoreboard in my head certainly leaned towards artificial trees. With saw in hand, I felt as though I had justified my decision and was acting with the earth in mind even during the holidays. Yet as a California native, I couldn’t help but question the validity of a knockout battle between artificial trees and natural trees as the state had recently come out of multi-year long drought. Did natural trees only add to the consumption of a scarce resource during a parching drought that plagued California for years? Natural trees – 3. Artificial trees – 1? However, with a natural tree requiring approximately a gallon of water per day, the water intensity involved in Christmas tree survival remains statistically insignificant (American Christmas Tree Association). Rather, the drought signifies a lack of variety, with many California natives switching to firs and spruces, as pines require more water and tend to brown quickly.
So in the end, it looks like the natural tannenbaum has won out. Grab the saw and boots, but keep in mind this holiday season the ACTA’s tree tips –
1. If you go natural, try to select locally-grown.
2. Minimize the number of miles driven to acquire the tree. Reports show that driving to get the tree has more impacts than the tree itself.
3. You will need to use an artificial tree for 8-9 years before certain benefits exceed those of an annual natural tree.
4. When an artificial tree is replaced, consider donating the old tree.
5. Where possible, dispose of natural trees in re-purposeful ways, such as mulch.
And if you truly are a fan of artificial trees, remember to buy locally-made non-PVC trees. Keep them for an extended period of time and perhaps pick up a pine scented candle just for effect!
After a loud victorious shout of “TIMBER!”, a natural tannenbaum now calls my front room home, illuminated by sparkling Christmas lights, clad in glittered ornaments and fake snow. What can I say, although I always support a green Christmas, I can’t help myself of dreaming of a white Christmas.