Real Christmas trees are the greener choice
A fake Christmas tree has some
obvious advantages over the real thing. There's no sticky sap. No
needles shedding everywhere. It never needs watering, and at the
end of the season, it can be folded up, or disassembled (depending
on the model) and stowed away in a closet, basement or attic until
next year's Yuletide rolls around.
What's more, machine-made pines are evolving, steadily gaining
ground on their biological forebears. Every year, more realistic
models emerge, with fuller branches, softer needles and subtler,
more life-like colors. One day, it may take the arboreal equivalent
of a Voight-Kampff test to separate the real from the faux.
It's no surprise then that the fake tree business has boomed
into a billion dollar industry, with sales figures fast approaching
those of real Christmas trees.
But what about the environmental impact? Is it possible a
plastic pine might not be that bad for the planet? Could it even do
he fake tree industry wants you to think so. This November, the
American Christmas Tree Association, a trade group funded by
artificial tree manufacturers, released a "life cycle
assessment," commissioned from an environmental consulting
firm, purporting to show that after just five years of use, a
plastic tree reached a "break-even" point, after which its
environmental impact was less than, or equal to, that of a real
In a brief animated video on its website, a chipper female
narrator distills the report's conclusions: "When choosing between
a real and artificial Christmas tree, consider that if you buy an
artificial Christmas tree, and keep it for more than five years,
you're making the environmentally responsible decision."
Could it really be that simple? Alas, no.
Diving into the 94-page report, I was struck by some curious
gaps in the research. Most notably, there was little discussion of
the primary raw material used to make most artificial Christmas
trees: the plastic known as PVC, or polyvinyl chloride. Curious
indeed, as PVC has long been targeted by environmental campaigners
as a source of dangerous pollution during its manufacturing, which
involves hazardous chemicals such as liquid chlorine, huge energy
inputs, and vast outputs of toxic waste.
Looking for some more insight, I reached out to Brad McAllister,
managing director of WAP Sustainability Consulting of Chattanooga,
Tenn., who oversaw the study. By phone, McAllister told me, in a
mild Southern twang, that the study was designed to evaluate the
"cradle-to-grave" impact of real and fake Christmas trees. To
determine the environmental impact of a plastic tree, he used data
provided directly by the largest Chinese manufacturer of artificial
Christmas trees, regarding factory emissions, raw materials, energy
and water use, packing materials, and transportation. "The whole
host of environmental data points," he said.
The PVC that went into the fake trees, McAllister told me, was
all made in China. "They were all Chinese raw materials," he
That was an interesting fact, and seemingly nowhere in the
report. And problematic, because roughly 80% of PVC manufactured in
China is made not from oil or gas, as in most countries, but from
coal, using an obsolete process that requires vast quantities of
catalytic mercury. According to a 2015 EU-funded
study, the amount of mercury released annually into the Chinese
environment from PVC manufacturing is unknown, but "potentially
There are, of course, few substances more harmful to human
health than mercury, a heavy metal that is indestructible,
vaporizes easily, persists in nature, and accumulates readily in
human and animal tissue. High concentrations have long been known
to cause devastating and permanent neurological damage to humans,
particularly young children or babies still in the womb.
So, were the fake Christmas trees in McAllister's study made
from coal? "I really don't know," he said, a bit testily. "It does
seem like a gotcha question." After a bit of back and forth,
however, he conceded it was a good possibility. "Is coal used as a
feedstock in the production of the tree? Likely," he said.
Jami Warner, executive director of the American Christmas Tree
Association, told me she would try and hunt down the truth about
the coal in her members' plastic Christmas trees. "No one's asked
me that before," she said. I never heard back.
To be fair, growing, harvesting and moving tens of millions of
actual trees to market, often across hundreds of miles, has plenty
of impacts too, including pesticide and fertilizer runoff, and
carbon emissions, primarily from transportation. But unlike their
plastic counterparts, real Christmas trees are a product of nature,
and easily recycled, with no toxic afterlife.
A plastic tree, on the other hand, is virtually impossible to
recycle, and almost inevitably destined for the landfill, where it
will likely persist for thousands of years, slowly leaching toxins
into the soil and water.
If that prospect doesn't fill you with Christmas cheer, then
perhaps you're better off choosing a real tree this year.
By: John Collins Rudolf, The Guardian
Read the artcicle here
Friday, September 20, 2019