A weekly blog for all things conservation
By Dan Rhodes, Education Coordinator
At first glance, coming up with the correct answer to this question might seem easier than Babe Ruth hitting a home run in the Little League World Series. Like many environmental questions though, this question is more complicated than it appears. For many Americans this Christmas, choosing to buy an artificial tree instead of a real tree, is in their minds, just one more way they can do their part in helping to use natural resources wisely. But is that decision better for the environment? The answer might surprise you.
First off, when attempting to make an ‘apples to apples’ comparison on the environmental impacts of a certain product, one must look at the impacts across the ENTIRE production process, not just the impacts at the end of line. If a product is made of metal, plastic, or contains electrical components or batteries, it is important to ask where the components were mined, processed, and assembled. Generally speaking, mining and processing metals and/or other minerals such as iron, copper, lithium, cobalt, aluminum, nickel, etc….takes a LOT of energy! Energy that is almost always not renewable and a cause of pollution. Nearly all plastics also, are made from petroleum products mined and extracted from deep within the Earth.
Manufacturing products from raw materials in distant countries without environmental or labor laws in place, also increases the ‘built in’ pollution of a product dramatically; especially when one counts the energy consumption involved with shipping a product around the world to sell it in a store near you. To put this impact in perspective, roughly 85% of every artificial Christmas tree sold in the US today is manufactured in China (roughly 7,000 miles from the eastern United States). To really estimate the long-term impact a product has on the environment, one must also look at the product’s impact once it is used up, breaks down and is thrown away. Can it be recycled, or does it need to go to a landfill? Will the product decompose in a relatively short period of time or will it sit for centuries, and possibly leak toxic substances into the soil and water?
Unlike the artificial variety, real Christmas trees require virtually no energy to grow, since the mining, transportation, and manufacturing of many different raw materials associated with the artificial trees is eliminated. Artificial trees also contribute to a variety of soil, water, air, and human health problems while live Christmas trees are directly responsible for massive positive environmental and health benefits. Energy used to transport the live trees to market is minimal because the trees don’t usually have to come from very far away. Out of the estimated 350,000 acres of Christmas tree farm plantings in the US today, huge benefits to water quality, air quality, soil stabilization, reduced flooding risks, and wildlife habitat are realized. For every live Christmas tree that is harvested, at least two more are planted. This ensures a never-ending supply of future crop trees that keep wild forests from being cut. Once a live Christmas tree’s job is done for the season, it can also be recycled into a variety of healthy, beneficial, and biodegradable products, including everything from underwater fish habitat structures to tree and garden mulch. In comparison, once thrown out, artificial trees sit in landfills leaking toxic substances into the environment for indefinite periods of time.
For all these reasons and many more, please consider purchasing a live Christmas tree to support the estimated 100,000 US workers that rely on live Christmas tree sales for their annual income, and for the substantial environmental benefits a live Christmas tree can provide!
From everyone here at the Bradford County Conservation District, we hope you have a very Merry Christmas!
Various staff at the Bradford County Conservation District