NEW YORK CITY — It’s that time of year when most Americans finish Thanksgiving leftovers and venture out in search of the best holiday sales. Most importantly, they plan their house centerpiece of the season: the Christmas tree.
While some revel in the smell of a real tree and the joy of choosing one from a local farm, others prefer the simplicity of artificial trees that they can reuse for Christmas to come.
But consumers are increasingly climate-conscious, and determining which tree has the least impact on our rapidly warming planet has become a critical part of the vacation decision. Plus, choosing an earth-friendly tree will likely land you on Santa’s good list.
So which type of tree has the lowest carbon footprint – a natural tree or a store-bought plastic tree? It’s complicated, say the experts.
“It’s definitely a lot more nuanced and complex than you might think,” Andy Finton, director of landscape conservation and forest ecologist for the Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts, told CNN.
Here is a list of things to know before choosing between real and artificial.
The case of artificial trees
It’s easy to imagine that reusing an artificial tree year after year is the most sustainable option. But Finton says if an artificial tree is used for six years – the average length of time people tend to keep it – “the carbon cost is significantly higher” than for a natural tree.
“If the artificial trees are used for a longer lifespan, that balance changes,” Finton told CNN. “And I read that it would take 20 years for the carbon footprint to be roughly equivalent.”
This is because artificial trees are usually made of polyvinyl chloride plastic, or PVC. The plastic is petroleum-based and created in polluting petrochemical facilities. Studies have also linked PVC plastic to cancer and other public health and environmental risks.
Then there is the transportation aspect. According to the US Department of Commerce, most artificial Christmas trees are imported from China to the United States, which means the products are transported by fossil fuel-powered ships across the Pacific Ocean and then moved by heavy-duty cargo trucks before finally landing on distributor shelves. or at the consumer’s doorstep.
The American Christmas Tree Association, a non-profit organization that represents manufacturers of artificial trees, commissioned WAP Sustainability Consulting to conduct a study in 2018 which found that the environmental impact of an artificial tree is better than a real tree if you use the fake tree for at least five years.
“The artificial trees were examined (in the study) for factors such as manufacturing and overseas transportation,” ACTA executive director Jami Warner told CNN. “Planting, fertilizing, and watering were taken into account for the real trees, which have an approximate field cultivation period of seven to eight years.”
What are the benefits of real trees?
According to the National Christmas Tree Association, it takes an average of seven years to grow a Christmas tree. And as it grows, it absorbs carbon dioxide from the air. Protecting forests and planting trees can help avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis by removing the gas that warms the planet from the atmosphere.
If trees are cut down or burned, they can release the carbon they have stored into the atmosphere. But Doug Hundley, spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association, which advocates for real trees, says cutting down a farm’s Christmas trees is balanced when farmers immediately plant more seedlings to replace them.
“When we harvest the trees or cut them down, we replant very quickly,” Hundley said.
If the idea of scouring a forest for the perfect tree intrigues you, you can purchase a permit from the US Forest Service, which encourages people to cut down their own tree rather than buying an artificial one. According to Recreation.gov, cutting down thin trees in dense areas can improve forest health.
But Finton doesn’t recommend pulling a Clark Griswold and chopping down a massive tree to bring him home – especially if it’s in an area where you’re not allowed. Instead, he recommends getting a tree from a local farm.
“For me, the advantage of going to a Christmas tree farm, which is different from cutting down a tree in the forest, is that it concentrates the impact of the tree cutting in one place. “, did he declare. “And that gives farmers the responsibility to regenerate those trees.”
There’s also an economic benefit to going natural, since most of the trees people end up getting are grown on nearby farms. About 15,000 farms grow Christmas trees in the United States alone, employing more than 100,000 full-time or part-time people in the industry, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.
“What we do by purchasing a natural Christmas tree supports local economies, local communities, local farmers and for me, that’s a key part of the conservation equation,” Finton said. “When a tree farmer can derive economic benefit from his land, he is less likely to sell it for development and less likely to convert it to other uses.”
Trees pile up on sidewalks after the holidays are over, and the final destination in many places is landfills, where they contribute to emissions of methane – a potent greenhouse gas about 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. carbon.
“Real Christmas trees that end up in landfills are very discouraged,” Hundley said, adding that there must be “separate areas for yard waste where the Christmas trees can go.”
But some towns and cities are reusing trees to benefit the climate and the environment. In New York, trees left on sidewalks for a certain period of time are picked up for recycling or composting. The city’s sanitation department also hosts an initiative called MulchFest, where residents can bring in their trees to be shredded to make mulch and used to feed other trees throughout the city.
“When the tree is finished being used by the owner, it’s very easy and common in America to mulch the tree – and the stored carbon is put back into the soil,” Hundley added.
Finton also says old Christmas trees can be repurposed for habitat restoration; they can help control erosion if placed along streams and banks, and can even help underwater habitats thrive if placed in rivers and lakes.
The end of life of an artificial tree is very different. They end up in landfills – where they could take hundreds of years to decompose – or in incinerators, where they release dangerous chemicals.
The bottom line
Weighing the pros and cons of the complicated climate, real Christmas trees have the advantage. But if you choose to artificially decorate your hallways, get a tree you’ll love and reuse for years to come.
Either way, Finton said, people should feel good about their decision and find other ways to tackle the climate crisis.
“It’s a debate, but once you’ve made a decision, you should feel good about your decision, because there are so many other things we can do in our lives that have an even bigger climate impact. — like driving less or advocating for policies that expand renewable energy,” Finton said. “Enjoy the holidays and focus on other aspects of your life to reduce the impacts of climate change.”
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