Are Real or Artificial Christmas Trees More Environmentally Friendly?

Are Real or Artificial Christmas Trees More Environmentally Friendly?

Recently, the first-ever ISO-compliant third-party peer reviewed life cycle analysis (LCA) of Christmas trees was completed. The review sought to answer a number of questions, with the areas of most interest being what overall environmental impact Christmas trees have on environment, and if there is a significant different between real and artificial trees. The study was sponsored by the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA) a non-profit organization representing artificial Christmas tree retailers and real Christmas tree retailers, to clear up common misconceptions about the environmental impacts of Christmas trees.

The study found a surprising number of factors come into play in determining the environmental impact of Christmas trees.

The review compared the most common artificial Christmas tree sold in the United States to the most common real Christmas tree sold in the United States, and found that the choice of one tree over the other has a negligible impact on the environment. However, the study’s findings show that length of ownership, disposal method and “tree miles” can make a difference on which tree is environmentally preferable.

The study, conducted by the international research firm PE International and peer reviewed by an independent third party panel, took into consideration five key environmental indicators to determine which tree type is environmentally preferable.

“There is a clear environmental break even point between the two trees,” said William Paddock, Managing Director of WAP Sustainability Consulting, a Nashville, Tennessee-based consulting firm that works with consumer products companies on corporate sustainability issues. “The debate gets a little more interesting when you look at different environmental indicators. Take for example the energy required to produce both trees. The energy required to make one artificial tree is roughly equal to the energy it takes to raise six real cut trees.”

Conscientious consumers need to consider factors such as length of ownership, disposal method and tree miles before choosing a type of tree.

ACTA encourages consumers to consider these five helpful tips when deciding which tree to buy this year:

  1. Purchase locally grown Christmas trees if possible.
  2. Consider “tree miles.” How far did the tree travel to get to your home? How far did you travel to get it?
  3. If you have purchased more than nine cut trees over the last nine years, consider purchasing an artificial tree to minimize your environmental impacts.
  4. If you own an artificial tree, make sure and keep it in use for at least six to nine years. If you plan to replace an artificial tree, donate it before you dispose of it.
  5. If you purchase a real tree, consult with your local waste authority about how to properly dispose of your tree.

“Our members have been urging consumers to choose the Christmas tree that best fits their lifestyle, be it real or artificial,” said Jami Warner, Executive Director of ACTA.

In some cases, purchasing an artificial tree turns out to be a more environmentally friendly option.

The study also highlights an “Eight Christmas Environmental Payback Period” between the two tree products based on the study’s five environmental indicators. The study found that the environmental impacts of one artificial tree used for more than eight Christmases is environmentally friendlier than purchasing eight or more real cut trees over eight years.

“As a general rule of thumb, if you are going to purchase an artificial tree, keep it in use for at least nine years,” Paddock said.

“ACTA encourages responsible consumerism,” said Warner. “Consumers should consider the impact on the environment for every item they purchase, not just Christmas trees.”

A preliminary study released by ACTA in 2008 found that neither type of tree has a major impact on the total annual environmental footprint of an average family. However, it was felt at the time that more a more detailed study was necessary to satisfactorily answer questions about the impact of Christmas trees on the environment.

“We wanted to go deeper and better understand the environmental impacts of both tree types. From a consumer standpoint, certainly there are merits to both kinds of Christmas trees. The decision is based on personal behaviors and is not black or white,” said Warner.