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Fresh, Fake or Live: Which Christmas Tree Is the Most Earth Friendly?

It's a debate that comes up nearly every year. Is there a "green" Christmas tree option? The answer is not simple.

By most accounts, the Christmas tree has been a tradition since the 16th century. The lighting of the national Christmas tree at the White House has been an unbroken tradition for 89 years, and that tree is a living Blue Spruce. But the tree inside the White House is not—this year’s 19-foot balsam fir came from Wisconsin.

Seemingly every year since, a debate goes on in communities and households across the nation: Is it more sustainable to have a fresh-cut tree, a live tree or an artificial tree?

In the debate between fresh-cut and artificial, environmentalists say the fresh tree is more sustainable, pointing out that an artificial tree has a larger carbon footprint. Researchers at North Carolina State University found Christmas tree production used less chemicals than other agriculture endeavors, provided habitat for insects and animals and, in some cases, aided in slope stabilization.

In addition, the cost of shipping that tree (most are made outside the U.S.) adds to the artificial tree’s carbon footprint. Also, tree farms are good for the atmosphere as they remove carbon dioxide, a contributor to global warming.

Because of greenhouse gases released during production and distribution, an artificial Christmas tree would have to be used for 20 years to offset its carbon footprint, according to a study by an environmental consulting firm.

The fresh-cut tree also has a positive impact on the workforce, creating jobs at both tree farms and Christmas tree lots. Christmas tree farms are usually family run businesses. There are about 15,000 farms nationwide that grow 400 million trees and employ 100,000 full-time and part-time workers, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. Less than 10 percent of planted trees are cut annually, leaving 90 percent in the fields, improving the air we breathe.

Then there is what most environmentalist feel is the ultimate sustainable tree, the living Christmas tree. It has all the benefits of a cut tree, and you only pay for it once. But the living tree is not without its drawbacks. Keeping an evergreen tree potted means having to periodically transplant it to larger containers, an added cost.

Maybe in the end the only truly “green” aspect of a Christmas tree is its color.

Bill December 15, 2011 at 06:37 PM
1 other advantage of an artificial tree, depending on how much storage space you have, is that it can be stored completely decorated. We use one of the large plastic "tree removal" bags that just covers the entire thing. This saves lots of time both decorating and putting away.
Brian Soergel December 15, 2011 at 07:10 PM
Bill, an excellent advantage. For me, it beats the benefits of a Christmas smell. Ease-of-use, every time!

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