A real tree or an artificial tree? Every December, people who want to decorate their homes with the usual accouterments of the upcoming holidays, but also want to be environment friendly, face this dilemma. It would seem that an artificial Christmas tree prevents a natural fir tree from being removed from the place where it belongs. In fact, deforestation caused by Christmas pageantry prompted the creation, in the late nineteenth century, of the first artificial trees, made in Germany, with goose feathers that were dyed green and wired to branches arranged around a wooden post.
It is clear that cutting down a fir tree carries an environmental cost, as living trees take in carbon dioxide (CO2) and release oxygen, but there is also undeniable impact in the case of artificial trees, now mostly manufactured in China with polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Although this is a recyclable plastic, the traditional use of lead as a stabilizer makes this material a source of pollution, especially as the PVC ages and particularly nine years after its manufacture, according to a study in 2004. The PVC industry is replacing lead with other more environmentally friendly stabilizers.
Artificial trees have their main champions in the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA), a grouping of Christmas tree producers. In 2010, this entity commissioned PE International, a consultancy specializing in sustainability, to carry out a study on the Christmas tree. They reached the conclusion that the environmental impact is minimal for both types of trees, and that the factors that increase the ecological footprint are related with its life cycle such as its transport, duration and disposal at the end of its useful life. ACTA advises minimizing transportation, prolonging the use of artificial trees for at least six years, and following the guidelines of local authorities when discarding. The Association argues that the use of an artificial tree for more than eight years is more environmentally friendly than cutting down eight natural specimens. The CEO of ACTA, Jami Warner, concludes that “both types of trees have virtues and the decision is based on personal choices. It’s not black or white.”
However, not all opinions coincide with that of ACTA, nor all studies with PE International. Another investigation carried out by the Canadian consulting firm Ellipsos (now Ellio) in 2009 proclaimed the natural tree the victor. According to this study, the impact of an artificial tree on climate change and natural resources triples the impact of a fir tree over an average use of six years, and the terms are only reversed if the plastic one is reused for more than two decades. The same verdict is reached by the global consultancy Carbon Trust. “An artificial tree should be reused for at least 10 Christmases to keep its environmental impact under that of a natural tree”, concludes this entity, which attributes two-thirds of the carbon footprint of an artificial tree to the PVC used and a fourth to emissions from manufacturing. The Carbon Trust estimates the carbon footprint of a two-metre artificial tree at 40 kilos of CO2.
According to the carbon trust, the fate of a tree at the end of its useful life is more relevant with respect to its environmental impact than both its origin and transport. A natural tree in a landfill decomposes and produces methane, “25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2”, and equivalent to a carbon footprint of 16 kilos of CO2. However, if the same tree is burnt, replanted or crushed, the impact is reduced to 3.5 kilos of CO2, 80% less. For the Carbon Trust there is a clear recommendation: “Definitely the best option is a potted tree that, with care, can be replanted after the festive season and reused year after year,” says the director of the certification of the Carbon Trust, Darran Messem.
However, the ecological footprint of Christmas is not limited to the tree. Consumption, heavy meals, extra lights and our journeys all increase our environmental impact this holiday season. To minimize the effect of our celebrations, the Carbon Trust has published a series of recommendations that for the most part are obvious: replace the traditional lighting with LED lights, recycle, consume only what is necessary and don’t prepare kilos of food that end up in the rubbish. But some of the clues provided are less immediate. For example, buying gifts online avoids emissions associated with the trip to the mall and helps to focus the consumer. As well, a heated oven and a large family reunion permit the moderate use of heating. Nor do all the foods that can be prepared at this time of year involve the same environmental cost: those of plant origin are the most ecological, and turkey produces a smaller footprint than red meats. Every little bit helps to ensure that we can continue celebrating these holidays for many years to come.