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Where We Live: Fake or Real, Which is Greener?

Will you get an artificial or natural tree?

‘Tis the season, right? Santa and reindeer and holly and candies and presents and all those things are all over the place. Oh, and trees. They’re the ‘green’ in the whole green/red/white color scheme. Symbolically, they are a powerful proof in a frigid northern land that not everything dies in winter- that there’s hope, no matter how hungry you and yours may be right now. The Yule tree and its conceptual relatives have been around for thousands of years, perhaps since the Ice Age, and came into wide use in Germany starting in the 16th century.

Charlie Brown’s feeble little tree took the symbol further, an implicit argument that love and hope and a little effort are what transforms seeming failure into triumph. His tree is himself. In “A Charlie Brown Christmas” the artificial Christmas tree is one a metaphor for superficial, soulless existence. I have to admit the show has always touched me and affected my thoughts on the subject, but emotion is not the only, or even the dominant factor.  Aside from aesthetics and symbology does either kind hold a carbon footprint advantage?

On the face of it a natural tree is the obvious winner. How could it not be? It’s a natural tree! Even so, it’s not that easy. The original “Christmas” tree was never cut down. It’s symbolic value was in its living through the winter, so that would have spoiled its magic. A village would find a perfect tree out in the forest and decorate it in place all together. We’ve taken the ancient traditions and moved them inside, out of the ice and snow and cold rain.

Natural tree growers and artificial tree makers and sellers regularly flame each other’s products, claims, and tactics and the debate may never be wholly resolved, but here are some factors to consider:

Artificial trees are made of steel, which is energy intensive- especially for ‘virgin’ metal- though it’s easy enough to recycle, and PVC plastic, which is very hard to recycle and can contain phthalates, lead, and other substances.

Natural trees are… trees- fully recyclable and compostable, though most come wrapped in polypropylene twine.

Artificial trees are made in China and are shipped over 7000 miles to stores, putting up a great deal of toxic and greenhouse emissions on the way.

Natural trees ship no more than a hundred miles around here, though local trees end up shipped as far way as Houston, TX, and almost all go by Diesel truck.

Artificial trees can build up an unhealthy layer of dust and mold spores while stored in the attic or basement 90 percent of the year.

Natural trees will have little dust, but if not organic can be loaded with pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and ‘flocking’ (fake snow or colorants). Even its natural scent is implicated in some allergic reactions.

Artificial trees can be reused indefinitely, barring damage.

Natural cut trees need watering, dry out, and will likely drop flurries of needles all over.

There are at last serious studies of all this: “Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of Artificial vs Natural Christmas Tree” from Ellipsos, a Montreal Canada environmental consulting group, and “Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of an Artificial Christmas Tree and a Natural Christmas Tree” from PE Americas and funded by the American Christmas Tree Association, a primarily artificial tree trade group. Each analysis is exhaustive and exhausting.

The PE Americas study compared the artificial tree: “The most commonly purchased artificial tree is manufactured at a large facility in China. Primary plant data for the manufacturing of this tree were collected in 2009. After manufacturing, the tree is shipped to the US and is distributed by a major big box retailer. The artificial tree including the tree stand is made of metal and plastic parts, is 6.5 ft tall, and weighs 5.1 kg (11.2 lb) out of the box.

With a natural tree: “The most commonly purchased natural tree is a Fraser fir (NIX 2010). This tree is modeled using literature and industry data for a 6.5 ft Christmas tree cultivated on wholesale natural tree farms, and distributed to the consumer through large retailers. The natural tree has a dry mass of 6 kg, and a total mass of 15 kg with a water content of 60 percent. The accompanying tree stand is 10 percent metal and 90 percent plastic.” Each is the most common of its type.

Most of an artificial tree’s footprint comes from manufacturing it. What you do with it from there on adds little, so if you go that route keep it as long as you can to amortize the up-front ‘costs’. If you get a new one every year and throw it away after Christmas it will always be far less ‘green’ than a natural tree. Ellipsos concludes “The hot topic these days is climate change. When looking at these impacts, the natural tree contributes to significantly less carbon dioxide emission (39 percent) than the artificial tree.

Nevertheless, because the impacts of the artificial tree occur at the production stage, and since it can be reused multiple times, if the artificial tree were kept longer, it would become a better solution than the natural tree (Figure E). It would take, however, approximately 20 years before the artificial tree would become a better solution regarding climate change.” (My bold) PE Americas says the ‘break even’ point is more like 8 years. 

A true comparison depends on the natural tree, and could mean a number of things. Most people go down to a seasonal tree lot and pick out a precut, bundled tree to drive home. Many of these are sheared to an even shape, so count that as a carbon cost as well. Exactly which species you should get is covered in this Patch article by Dennis Tompkins from November 30, 2012. Others go out and cut their own. There are many tree farms around the Seattle area to choose from, though that inevitably consumes more fuel.

You could also do it the, shall we say, ‘neo-ancient’ way- a live tree in a pot. I’ve done this before. After Christmas you could take it outside and plant it to enjoy forever. Of course, unless you have a truly huge, bare yard you can’t do that more than a few times before you run out of room. A potted tree can be a great solution for apartment and condo dwellers, but might be useable only up to, say, three or four years before it becomes too unwieldy to bring in for the season, and what do you do with it then?

The Original Living Christmas Tree Company of Portland, Ore. has some useful suggestions, and says “Each year, you can bring a potted Christmas tree into your home and have it planted after the holidays by your local parks department.” If you do so, make sure it is a local-appropriate species, not some exotic they can’t use and which might not survive here.

Alternately, for years I had a Ficus tree and decorated it. It’s legitimately evergreen and was never going to outgrow my apartment. I just had to deal with sparse, thin branches which would only take the lightest ornaments. Other people have used rosemary bushes or other plants with enough strength to do the job. Some companies will rent you a tree, deliver it, and pick it up again after you’re done! I’ve found evidence of such a service in other states and over in the UK, but not here.

Once the season is done don’t just chuck it. The City of Shoreline has it’s now-traditional Holiday Tree Recycling Event at the Meridian Park Elementary School January 5-6, 2013. Clean Scapes and the Shoreline Transfer station, 2300 N. 165th St. Please call (206) 296-4466, can also take trees.

All told, the tree issue is pretty small potatoes- maybe 1/10 of 1 percent of your yearly footprint. Mind you, I’m not dismissing the choice. When it comes down to it every choice matters, but how and how much you drive or shower or wash clothes makes a much bigger immediate and long term difference, so get your tree and have a happy, safe, green holiday!

Larry Lewis December 12, 2012 at 05:44 PM
Here's a related story I found. http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/how-green-is-that-christmas-tree/2012/12/10/3b75242c-3d6a-11e2-a2d9-822f58ac9fd5_story.html?wprss=rss_national Y'know, just to muddy it all up a bit more!

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