Natural or artificial Christmas trees – which is ‘greener’?
At this time of year many of us buy a fresh Christmas tree to help celebrate the season – or bring one down from the attic. There are a number of reasons why you might prefer a ‘real’ tree over a ‘fake’ one: the nice odor, the fun of venturing out to cut a tree, or the lower price. But what about the impact on the environment?
Many of us are aware that Christmas trees are a dedicated crop grown on special farms. Natural forests are not the source for these trees, so deforestation is not a consideration. However, it does take resources to grow and transport these trees and they are only used once. Artificial trees can be reused indefinitely but they are made from plastic and metal (non-renewable resources). So how can we decide which is better?
Life cycle assessment (LCA) is an objective, standardized method for determining the total environmental impact of products over their lifespan. LCA is often used to determine which parts of a product’s life cycle have the most environmental impact but it can also be used to compare two similar products. LCA has been applied to many wood products and the results indicate that ‘wood is good’ – wood products generally have lower environmental impact than alternatives made from plastics, metal and concrete.
LCA has also been applied to Christmas trees. This study (like most LCA) looks at many potential impacts, eg. land, materials and energy used, and pollution of various sorts. Natural trees require more land use, as you would expect, but for the most part the artificial trees have greater environmental impacts.
LCA can help but assessing environmental impact is never simple. Conclusions can vary depending on which impact is most important to you (e.g. land use or energy use). Assumptions about the products are also very influential. In the case of Christmas trees, natural trees use a lot less energy; however, if you reuse an artificial tree more than 20 times, the total energy used starts to be less for artificial trees.
LCA also assumes that the two products are comparable in usefulness (functional unit equivalency in the jargon of the science). This may not be true for natural and artificial trees. Both may hold lights and ornaments, and provide a place to put the presents, but for many of us only a real tree provides the real holiday experience.
If you enjoy having a natural tree at Christmas time, rest assured that it is also a ‘green’ product choice.
For more information, contact Adam Taylor at 865-946-1125 or AdamTaylor@utk.edu .