Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas tree debate: Is fake or real more sustainable?

Readers, a woman who works for the Nature Conservancy asked me to post this article debating fake vs. real Christmas trees, by the Conservancy's Frank Lowenstein. It's also posted on the Nature Conservancy website. The debate is worth thinking about this time of year, although the solution is murky, for me.  Following is Frank's article (in black) followed by my own assessment (in purple).

Frank Lowenstein of the Nature Conservancy

"My home sits in the Berkshire Hills, with a distant view of the second highest peak in Massachusetts– Mt. Everett. Surrounding my house is a swath of farmland, which includes a Christmas tree farm owned by the Chapin family, who arrived in my town in about 1830.

Photo credit: liljulier/flickr via a Creative Commons license

In its heyday in the 1990s, the Chapin Christmas Tree Farm was packed with people from the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas eve. Families would arrive on our small dirt road from a 2-hour radius (south to Manhattan, west to Albany, east to Hartford). Children and parents would pile out of cars to prowl the several acres of trees in search of The One that was just right. Eventually each family would find the tree that best fit their image of Christmas (and their living room), and my neighbor or his grandson would pull out a saw and the transaction was completed.

This scene—one of family togetherness, people asserting their own unique taste, and support of local agriculture– is today rarer than it should be. More than twice as many families in the United States use fake trees as real ones. Beyond the losses to family interactions and local economies, this situation is bad for our climate.

Fake trees are usually made from a kind of plastic called polyvinyl chloride (PVC) which is derived from petroleum. Electricity is used to melt the plastic, and approximately 85% of the fake trees sold in the US are shipped here from China. Most of China’s electricity comes from burning coal—the dirtiest source of electricity. Once the fake trees are made, they still have to be shipped across the ocean—usually in a diesel-fuel powered ship. More emissions still. (Fake trees also sometimes release lead when they get old, which isn’t a climate impact, but still is not a great thing to have happening in your living room.)

Real trees of course do sometimes require shipping. Today on US Route 7, I saw a truck with Quebec license plates headed south—loaded with about 250 bound-up real trees.

But real trees also grow in the ground for several years before they are cut, absorbing carbon out of the atmosphere every year. The vast majority of real trees today come from Christmas tree farms—about 12,000 of which exist in the United States. On these farms each tree cut is typically replaced by a new tree or two or three, which continue removing carbon from the air.

And once Christmas is over you can use your real tree in many ways—the boughs can be cut and used as a protective covering over delicate shrubs, the tree can be chipped and composted, and there’s the ever popular New Year’s Eve bonfire (if you live in an appropriate place for bonfires). Real trees can also be used to help trap sand on beaches, preventing erosion, or sunk in ponds to provide habitat for fish and other wildlife.

For best climate impact, find a local tree farm to buy from. The National Christmas Tree Association allows you to search by zip code. Or this site offers a listing by state and county. And perhaps an organic Christmas tree is best of all. Twenty-two states now have organic Christmas tree farms."
Frank Lowenstein


Are any Christmas trees a good idea??

I agree that fake trees aren't "green"

I'm glad to see Frank point out the downside of fake trees - that 85% are made in China and that most of those factories are fueled by coal, a major source of greenhouse gases. In addition, the trees are shipped with diesel fuel. They're not recyclable - but they are reusable, and can be given away when you're tired of them.  We had a fake tree for several years (the same one). When we no longer wanted it, we gave it away easily by posting it on We had several callers who wanted it and got rid of it the first day, to a grateful family.

But real ones aren't sustainable either

I'm not sure I agree with Frank's recommendation for live trees over fake. It's true that immature trees remove more carbon from the air (for photosynthesis) than they emit (via respiration). And yes, they can be shredded and used as mulch. If you buy locally, you're avoiding the fossil fuels used in transport.

But any tree plantation is a biodiversity desert, whether it's loblolly pines for the pulp and timber industry of the southeastern U.S., or palm trees for the palm-oil industry in Southeast Asia. Pulitzer Prize winning ecologist E.O. Wilson compared the biodiversity of a tree plantation to a that of a Walmart parking lot.

Palm-oil plantations from the air, Borneo. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Tree plantations displace wildlife habitat

Most tree plantations are chemically managed with herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides - so there is no semblance of a natural food chain in a tree plantation. As such, they're no more useful to wildlife than pavement is. And at a time when almost all wildlife populations are shrinking due to habitat loss, AND we're facing mass extinctions.....eliminating wildlife habitat for a tree plantation is not a beneficial venture.  The Appalachian mountains near my home are dotted with Christmas tree farms, and it makes me sick to look at them. Not to mention the ruined habitat I saw on Borneo and Sumatra this past summer. Flying over Indonesia or floating down its rivers, I saw palm plantation after palm plantation - where tropical rain forest used to be. One of the most frustrating sights I've ever seen.

I don't have any easy answers about Christmas trees. The best choice is to acquire a potted plant you can use year after year.  Or just skip the Christmas tree.  I wish, as a culture, we could do that en masse. Then children wouldn't feel deprived.  Given the massive habitat loss affecting our planet today, Christmas trees are not a habit we can afford to continue.
Sally Kneidel, PhD

Some of my previous posts about tree plantations:
Orangutans dwindle as Borneo, Sumatra converted to palm-oil plantations. Aug 3, 2010

My search for a wild orangutan on Borneo and Sumatra. Aug 16, 2010

Why use toilet paper?  No need to flush our forests. Oct 11, 2010

Plush toilet paper flushes old forests. Sept 26, 2009

A trampled state fights back. May 18, 2007.

One African family struggles to survive. March 17, 2007.

The wildlife trade, forestry, and the value of activism. May 27. 2006

Key words: fake Christmas trees real Christmas trees fake vs real Nature Conservancy biodiversity desert carbon sink fossil fuel climate change


Jefferson's Guardian said...

I no longer set-up a tree during the holiday season. When my daughter was young, I used to buy a live tree and then plant it after the new year somewhere in the yard. There are several different types of conifers surrounding the perimeter of my property; all from a specific Christmas, each with a specific story behind it.

Each tree has turned into habitat for different species of songbirds -- particularly Cardinals, Finches and Nuthatches -- so the added benefit is having these wonderful birds to enjoy all year round.

Jefferson's Guardian said...

The controversy and diversity of opinion continues, as per yesterday's New York Times. Interestingly, the idea of a live tree, suitable for planting afterwards, isn't even considered an option. Why is that?