This season Americans celebrating Christmas will buy around 30 million trees - 20 million live cut trees and a little over 10 million artificial trees.
Every year articles (like this one) come out about which is more environmentally friendly – this is bs.
According to a life cycle analysis of real and fake Christmas trees in the United States sponsored by the American Christmas Tree Association last year, artificial trees are environmentally friendlier than live-cut trees only after they’ve been in use for around eight holidays.
A study by Ellipsos, however, found that it could take as many as 20 years for an artificial tree to break even with yearly live cut trees in terms of its impact on climate change and natural resources. Estimated impact on human health: 6 years, impacts on ecosystem quality: 2 years til artificial tree breaks even. If you’re curious how people define effects on these terms check out the image below.
Add the ecosystem quality image and climate image.
Ecosystem quality and human health, fake tree, climate change and resource use, real tree. – Impacts are negligible compared to other activities such as car use.
Therefore, carpooling or biking to work only one to three weeks per year would offset the carbon emissions from both types of Christmas trees.
A life-cycle assessment of a product (also called cradle-to-grave assessment or life cycle analysis) is an assessment of the environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product’s life, from raw material extraction, manufacture, distribution, use, and disposal or recycling. Tree choice of course doesn’t make or break a household’s effect on the environment (so long as you’re not filling your house with them), but the analysis is a pretty cool example of how we can evaluate the effects of products on our environment. And if you’re curious about how the two options do impact the environment, there are some interesting data out there about it.
From a NYTimes article:
“When you really consider it, if you exchange a couple of days of commuting by car with carpooling or riding a bicycle, you’ll completely overcompensate for whatever the impact of the tree is,” he said. “It’s not such a big deal. Enjoy your tree, whichever one you prefer.”
A life cycle analysis uses available data on transportation and fuel costs, energy considerations for running machinery, and other industrial requirements for creation of a given product/widget/whatever. These data are then used to estimate effects of the product on the environment (like contributions to climate change and smog, or the overdosing water bodies with nutrients), and the amount of energy used throughout the life of the product.
One consulting company behind the study, PE Americas of Five Winds and PE International, compared the most common artificial Christmas tree sold in the United States to the most common real Christmas tree sold in the US. Length of ownership, disposal method and “tree miles” (how far it travels to get to you) shift the balance of which one is environmentally preferable. The method of disposal of live cut trees makes a difference in how many years it takes to break even using an artificial tree, and in how to tree most impacts the environment. For example, the left-most bar below shows that based on this life-cycle analysis, using the same artificial tree for three years requires about as much energy as using three live cut trees and disposing of them in a landfill, but it takes nearly seven years for the same artificial tree to break even in terms of acidification (acid rain) potential. The study (available here) is ISO-compliant. “As a general rule of thumb, if you are going to purchase an artificial tree, keep it in use for at least nine years” William Paddock says on the American Christmas Tree Association site.
Another study by Ellipsos found that the break-even point is more like 20 years for an artificial tree…
Buying a used artificial tree probably decreases its impact over its lifetime.
The site writers note that either choice doesn’t make or break the footprint of a household, so if you’re looking to have a more environmentally friendly Christmas this year think about other high-impact activities and products before you stress about your tree.