What is the best choice for the environment—pine or plastic?
In 2016 in the United States, an estimated 27.4 million real trees and 18.6 million artificial trees were purchased for the holiday season for a total retail value of almost $4 billion. More and more people are opting for artificial trees because they are convenient—many are easily collapsible and come pre-strung with lights—or because of their cheaper price tag. But are artificial trees the more environmentally friendly choice?
In the early 1900s, President Theodore Roosevelt banned Christmas trees in the White House because he considered cutting down a tree every year to be at odds with his conservationist efforts. Toppling a tree so that it may sit in your home for one short month before throwing it away cuts short the potential for carbon sequestration, the storage of carbon dioxide that would otherwise end up in the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. Once sent to decompose in a landfill, natural trees emit methane gas, a greenhouse gas as much as 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. There are also water consumption and pesticide use associated with the farming of Christmas trees.
However, artificial trees are typically made out of polyvinyl chloride or PVC, a petroleum-derived plastic, which means they are not easily recycled and they introduce pollution in the form of emissions of carcinogens during their production. Many are imported from China and thus carry a significant carbon footprint in their transportation to the United States or Europe before they are purchased.
On the other hand, while a cut tree can take a decade to regrow, most Christmas trees come from farms dedicated to their growth rather than replacing natural forest. They are thus immediately replaced with a new tree. Natural trees can also provide important habitats for wildlife as they grow.
So what is the greenest choice? Pine or plastic? The answer depends on how you use your tree, how you dispose of it, and, most importantly, how far you travel to get it. Here are four tips for making the best holiday tree choice for your family and for the environment.
1. How Long Will You Use the Tree?
If you opt for an artificial tree, plan to keep it for many years in order to offset the impact of its production on the environment. Just like with reusable vs. disposable cups, a reusable item must be reused in order to be a net win for the environment over its disposable counterparts. Estimates range on what the lifespan for an artificial tree needs to be, with reports from 3.6 to 4 years, to 8-9 years, and even as long as 20 years. The most conservative take puts that estimate at 12 years, using current EPO emission standards and not based on research commissioned by a group associated with artificial tree manufacturers.
2. Keep Your Tree Out of a Landfill.
If you are ready to give up your artificial tree, donate it to someone who wants it. Real trees are a renewable resource but only if not left to rot in a landfill. Once you’re done with your real tree, turn it into mulch, wood chippings, or compost. Depending on where you live, there may be services that will pick up your tree to do this for you. If you plan to incinerate your tree, keep in mind that even chimney sweeps advise against doing this in your own home and it can be dangerous to attempt to burn a tree outdoors in a drought-prone area. Even better, some trees can be purchased with their roots still intact for replanting after the holiday season is over.
3. Consider Driving Distance.
Most importantly, minimize how far you drive to get your tree, whether it be real or artificial. For natural trees, select one that is locally grown. For artificial trees, buy an American-made product as opposed to one from China. If you drive less than 10 miles to purchase your artificial tree, it can gain an environmental edge on real trees, which need to be picked up anew each year.
4. Other Options.
There are, of course, other options! If neither a real nor an artificial tree feels like the right option, there are many clever ideas for alternative holiday trees using scrap wood, ladders, books, and recycled boxes.
On the bright side, the use of a holiday tree, whether it be real or artificial, is only a very tiny fraction of your overall carbon footprint. On the Scrooge-side, your holiday travel has a far worse impact on the environment.
Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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