As part of the festive season this year, many of us will either buy a fresh Christmas tree, or we will bring an artificial one down from the attic. Either way, a Christmas Tree often forms an important part of the festivities. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, in 2012, US consumers purchased 24.5 million “real” trees compared to 10.9 million artificial trees. However, of those that displayed Christmas trees in 2012, 83% had an artificial tree. While many people believe a traditional live tree contributes to fighting climate change through carbon sequestration, others claim that an artificial tree can be used year after year without the need for fertilizers or pesticides. But which of these options is better for the environment?
There have been a number of studies that have examined the issue in detail, with the consensus being that natural Christmas trees are better for the environment, although by how much remains a source of debate. Swedish researchers from the Institute for Air and Environment in Gothenburg have found that a tree grown in natural surroundings is five times more environmentally friendly than an artificial tree. The study investigated the full life-cycle energy comparison of a 20kg plastic tree that had been shipped from a factory in Hong Kong compared with that of a 10 year old, 2m high tree weighing 10kg that had been transported by truck from a farm to a shop in Stockholm. The findings showed that a real tree used about a fifth of the energy, based upon the assumption that the plastic tree would be used for 10 years.
According to a 2009 study by Ellipsos, an artificial tree has three times more impact on climate change and resource depletion, based on the assumption that it would last for six years. The findings were based on a Lifecycle Assessment following the principals of ISO 14040:2006. However, it also suggests that if the consumer has to drive over 16km from house to store to purchase a natural tree, then it may be more environmentally friendly to purchase an artificial tree in this instance.
A further study in 2010 by PE Americas explored the “cradle‐to‐grave” environmental impacts of artificial and natural Christmas trees, reporting an “eight Christmas environmental payback period” of the artificial tree, based upon a set of indicators that included global warming potential (carbon footprint), primary energy demand, acidification potential, eutrophication potential, and smog potential. The study found that the most significant environmental impact of both types of tree included the manufacturing life cycle stage associated with the artificial tree, and end of life treatment re-releasing carbon dioxide initially taken up during tree growth, for the natural tree.
Many artificial trees are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), manufactured from non-renewable sources such as crude oil, and are mass-produced in countries such as China where environmental regulations are weak (Li & Zusman, 2006). In the USA, The Center for Health, Environment and Justice has compiled an e-booklet on the dangers of PVC such as an increased risk of cancer, pollution of air and groundwater, as well as mercury usage and bio-contamination in the environment.
When it comes to eventually disposing of the artificial tree, they cannot be recycled. Because of the materials these trees are made from, it will never break down in a landfill and can take up the increasingly limited space that is fast becoming a global issue.
The production and sale of natural trees is not without its flaws. The problem with live trees is that, like other monocrops, they are often raised with pesticides and heavy chemicals. Natural Christmas trees can help to offset carbon dioxide emissions and can be grown in poor soils on land that might otherwise not be used; however, there are concerns about the impact of monoculture on biodiversity as well as farmers health. This is because many of these trees are sprayed with pesticides over the eight years it takes for them to reach market size. Consumers in the UK purchase around seven million trees per year, requiring approximately 3,500 acres of land. Many farmers use herbicides such as glyphosate, one of the most widely used and is the most frequent cause for complaints and poisoning incidents in recent years by the UK’s Health & Safety Executive’s pesticides incidents appraisal panel, according to the Pesticide Action Network.
However, there does appear to be a drive towards ensuring the sustainability of products in recent years, with an increase in consumer awareness of the benefits of purchasing “greener products”. The industry has taken steps to address this demand. In the UK, the Soil Association has a directory of Christmas tree producers that carry its organic certification or boasts Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) accreditation – ensuring products come from well-managed sources. The UK Woodlands Assurance Standard (UKWAS) is a certification for organic trees. In the USA, the Green Promise has details of retailers selling organic Christmas trees.
Many councils in the UK now shred waste trees into garden mulch, but the majority demand that trees be brought to their recycling depots, which can lead to an increase in car journeys, or people simply putting the tree in their waste bin to be disposed of in landfill.
The British Tree Growers Association sells between six to eight million trees per year in the UK. It has developed a Code of Practice to promote trees that have been grown in an environmental and sustainable manner that includes:
- All seed used for the cultivation of British Christmas Trees will be selected from seed sources which are sustainable and do not present any threat to endangered species.
- Land used for the cultivation of Christmas Trees will have been subjected to a survey on environmental; ecological or archaeological impact with action taken to alleviate or minimise damage.
- The growing of trees will be done in accordance with the best practice indicated by research in this country and overseas.
- Commissioning and encouraging research into methods of dealing with pests and disease which reduce or eliminate the need to use chemical herbicides or pesticides.
A search on the CAB Direct for the term "Christmas Tree" AND Environment yields 36 results (available to subscribers).
Li, W., & Zusman, E. (2006). Translating regulatory promise into environmental promise: Institutional capacity and environmental regulation in China. Environmental Law Reporter, 36(8), 10616-10623.