This year, we’ve been having a big debate about what Christmas tree option is most sustainable. (I’ve tried to answer this question before.) Most of the discussion is driven by my near-endless complaining about the size of our tree, quite similar to the size of the tree we bought for our studio last year (though then the size more adequately reflected the space in which we lived).
The tree we’re using is still very dear to me. I decorated this tree with cardinals for all four years of college & still have several hanging around to remind Joe & me of our time at Ball State. But in our larger, more family-sized apartment, I was hoping for… a more family-sized tree. Before we buy, we’re trying to answer the question: What’s really better?
Today, I’m trying to provide a more well-defined answer. It’s not easy.
Most sources say this: In many ways. it depends on the individual consumer. Will they keep using the same artificial tree? Will they buy a real tree responsibly, from a sustainable source?
One source says that it takes 20 years of using an artificial tree to offset the difference in that tree’s eco-footprint (based on chemicals used in the production process). What the article doesn’t make clear is: Is that for the one real tree that could be bought the same year? Or could you buy 20 real trees for the same environmental damage as one artificial tree?
I’ve noticed that friends seem to find whatever tree they grew up with as the more sustainable choice. Growing up, my family was a model for artificial tree use. In my 24 years, my family has upgraded their tree once–& I don’t see it going anywhere. I thought this was the practice of most families. One big purchase, then you use it til the branches fall off. Wrong. The average usage seems to be six years.*
To steal a paragraph from MercerIsland.Patch.com, which summarizes several sources I’ve read quite nicely,
In the debate between fresh cut and artificial, environmentalists say the fresh tree is more sustainable, pointing out that an artificial tree has a larger carbon footprint. Researchers at the North Carolina State University found Christmas tree production used less chemical than other agriculture endeavors, provided habitat for insects and animals and in some cases aided in slope stabilization. In addition, the cost of shipping that tree (most are made outside the United States) adds to the artificial tree’s carbon footprint. Also, tree farms are good for the atmosphere, by removing carbon dioxide, one of the contributors to global warming.
To second that, Bill Ulfelder of the Nature Conservancy (an organization I deeply trust & appreciate, says “that natural Christmas trees provide major environmental benefits, including capturing global-warming emissions and preventing erosion. On the other hand, he says most ‘fake’ trees are manufactured abroad using polyvinyl chlorides (PVCs).”*
How can real trees get even more sustainable? Check out stump culture, a practice of Pieropan. This eliminates the one-cut-and-done life cycle, allowing a new tree to spring from the same stump & eliminating much of the less environmental bits of real tree usage–tilling, seeding, stump removal.
So for now, it looks like Joe & I were both wrong: Christmas trees don’t kill everything (a joking comment that came from reading this article), & artificial trees aren’t as sustainable as I thought… Now, with our small budget, what do we do? The quest for our perfect tree continues.